Car of tomorrow?

Polk County drivers turn to hybrid vehicles


Bob and Jane Roach of Indepence own a hybrid car that runs on gas and electricity. It lets them drive to San Francisco on one tank of gas.

-Gallons by which daily U.S. oil consumption would drop if SUVs' average fuel efficiency increased by 3 mpg: 49 million

-Gallons per day that the proposed drilling of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is projected to yield: 42 million

--Harper's Index, April 2001

INDEPENDENCE -- Bob Roach's Honda Insight helps reduce the nation's dependence of foreign oil. But that's not why he drives it.

He likes the handling, the sports car feeling and the hybrid car technology. Getting to San Francisco on a single tank of gas doesn't hurt, either.

Hybrid cars, which combine elements of gasoline and electric engines, also have become environmentalist darlings. Efforts like the Detroit Project have sprung up to convince drivers to go hybrid.

The cars put out fewer pollutants and climate-warming carbon dioxide. Using less gasoline means less need to import oil.

Those reasons make drivers buy hybrids. But most stay with the cars for the same reason Roach does -- they're fun to drive.

"I have an MG," Roach said, "and this is more fun to drive."

A recent Oregon Environmental Council study surveyed around 600 hybrid car owners in the state. When asked what they liked best about their cars, 68 percent mentioned technology, style or handling.

Only 36 percent mentioned the environmental benefits.

Jane Roach leaves the technical discussions to her husband, Bob. She likes that their Insight pollutes less.

For her, it's political. She keeps a cartoon in the glove compartment linking patriotism and burning less gas.

She wants to form an organization for local hybrid car owners. Portland and Eugene already have hybrid clubs.

"When I meet another hybrid car on the road, I beep the horn," Jane said. "There goes another smart person."

There are more than 1,300 hybrid cars in Oregon. Toyota Prius models make up the bulk of that number, followed by Insight and newer Honda Civic Hybrid models.

All hybrids use both a gasoline engine and a battery-powered electric motor. The battery charges during driving and braking.

The Hondas use the electric motor as a boost when the gas engine needs more power. The Toyota works the opposite way -- the gas kicks in when the electric motor needs help.

The Prius and Civic Hybrid average around 50 miles per gallon. The Insight gets around 65.

An onboard display lets drivers check their mileage. Jane and Bob Roach averaged 71.4 miles per gallon on a trip to Seaside.

Their current tank averages 69.5 mpg. On a 10-gallon fill-up, that would get them 695 miles from their home in Independence.

For their growing popularity in Oregon -- metro Portland has the nation's greatest concentration -- relatively few Polk County drivers have bought hybrids. The survey turned up no Dallas owners and just four in the county outside Salem.

Eldred Rathkey of southern Polk County bought his Prius last February. He liked the tax rebates for hybrids -- $2,000 federal and $1,500 state. The cars cost around $20,000.

Rathkey would like cars to stop using gas altogether but doesn't expect to see that in his lifetime. At age 81, Rathkey isn't holding his breath for hydrogen fuel cell cars, touted by many as the next big thing.

"I thought `I can do my part,'" Rathkey said. "I was concerned about all the pollution the big cars put into the air."

Rathkey doesn't consider going hybrid as sacrificing quality. He traded in a midsize Mercury for his Prius.

"It's a nice solid little car. It's roomier than you'd think and a lot snappier than you'd think."

As hybrids become more common -- Ford and General Motors have hybrid sports utility vehicles and trucks coming out -- arguments against them have lost steam.

Bob Roach still sees one obstacle -- machismo. Car owners can let brand image get in the way of common sense.

Roach, however, felt only a slight pang as he sold his Mercedes to buy an Insight. "I've got enough strength of ego to give up the Mercedes."


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