Clearwater police quietly introduce hybrid sedans

Several city departments will be trading in their gas guzzlers for environmentally, and financially, friendly vehicles.

Published November 7, 2005

CLEARWATER - When the police chief rolled onto a burglary scene in a car resembling a white cocoon, no one recognized him. Not the crooks.

Not even the cops.

As governments search for ways to appear "green friendly" while potentially saving money for taxpayers, many are turning to hybrid vehicles that consume less fuel.

Police Chief Sid Klein caught everyone off guard by driving his white Toyota Prius to the scene of a break-in last year.

"I thought I could sneak up on them with my specialized electric vehicle," Klein said then.

Now Clearwater will add six more hybrid sedans to the three it already owns, at a cost of $20,700 each. The new cars, all Toyota Priuses, will be split between the city departments, though the majority are earmarked for the police.

The hybrid cars, which run using both a standard combustion engine and battery power, will not replace the standard police cruisers, said Deputy Chief Bill Baird. They'll be used by detectives and for administrative duties.

During the yearlong tests in which Klein participated, Clearwater's hybrid Toyotas averaged between 40 and 58 miles per gallon. A standard Ford Taurus gets about 15 miles per gallon, according to the city.

That means over 75,000 miles, according to the city's estimates, a hybrid could save $8,000 in gasoline costs - enough to offset the extra $6,000 to buy the car.

Be it in government or garages, hybrids are becoming cool.

Nationally, sales have nearly quadrupled in two years, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association. Toyota has sold 90,981 Priuses so far in 2005, more than all hybrid sales in 2004 (83,153).

The Prius, which can get up to 60 miles per gallon, has become the flagship for the eco-friendly. It stays on a dealer lot for an average of three hours, and there's an "obscene waiting list" to get one, said Chris Wilson, the government fleet sales manager at the Alan Jay Automotive Network in Sebring.

"It screams out, "I am for the environment,"' Wilson said. "People drive what they want to be."

You can imagine then, that the politically correct segment of Hollywood has embraced its pod-shaped design. Orlando Bloom, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robin Williams, and Cameron Diaz are among its happy owners. Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart drove a Prius to the Oscars.

"When I see people driving around in big SUVs or Hummers in L.A., I just think it's ridiculous," actor Michael Keaton, a Prius owner, recently told the Times of London. "I mean, how heavy can your kids be?"

Hybrid is the new "it" thing.

There are seven in Philadelphia's 6,000-vehicle fleet, but council members are itching for more, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported Wednesday.

Yosemite National Park has run a fleet of General Motors hybrid buses since April.

Inspectors for Hillsborough County's Environmental Protection Division make their rounds in county-owned hybrids.

St. Petersburg already has two hybrid SUVs it's testing.

"We want to care. We want to do the right thing," said Bob Turner, St. Petersburg director of fleet management.

Three Tampa HARTline buses run on a mix of gasoline and electric power.

Ed Crawford, the agency's government affairs officer, said the buses accelerate faster, provide a quieter ride, and get better gas mileage. The hybrid buses cost about $490,000 each, 50 percent more than a regular 40-foot bus, Crawford said. In HARTline's case, the cost difference was offset by federal grants.

Clearwater officials believe they can save $2,000 for each sedan replaced with a hybrid. The city hopes to replace its entire 200-car sedan fleet, excluding police and fire cruisers, within 10 years, said Rick Carnley, General Services Department assistant director. The new cars are expected to arrive in January.

Carnley is also exploring new model hybrid pickups.

"I would love nothing better than to be able to switch them all to hybrids," Carnley said.

--Aaron Sharockman can be reached at 727 445-4160 or asharockman@sptimes.com