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Gizmos that go
By ROSALIND HELDERMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 24, 2000
ST. PETERSBURG -- Borys Buczynsky can go weeks without buying gas.
The 67-year-old former race-car driver has traded his AlfaRomeros and Audis for one of the first of the new Honda Insights, a hybrid gas-electric car that Honda estimates can get up to 70 miles to the gallon.
The cars are arriving in the Tampa Bay area -- although not in large numbers. Honda so far has sold only 1,500 Insights nationally and only aims to sell 6,500 this year.
"Until we have more of a mentality on the part of the consumer that fuel mileage is important and that emissions are important, we're only going to see a few of these on the road," says Vernon Roan, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Florida who has worked with fuel-efficient cars since the early 1970s.
Unlike prototype cars that are fully electric, the Insight does not need to be plugged in or charged. It runs on ordinary gasoline.
Buczynsky loves cars of all kinds. His Insight sits in his fully air-conditioned, carpeted garage, where he spends hours tinkering with old cars and motorcycles. For this lifelong car enthusiast, one article in AutoWeek last December convinced him to become one of the first in the Tampa Bay area to own the fuel-efficient car.
"As soon as I read the article, I jumped in the shower and ran over to the Honda dealer," says the St. Petersburg resident.
The car is designed to be the first ultra-fuel efficient car ever mass produced. It's not a prototype -- interested drivers like Buczynsky can walk into their local Honda dealership and order their own Insight.
Area dealerships receive the cars one at a time, in special, covered trucks. Several dealerships say they are sold out of the car and aren't sure when they'll be getting more.
"This is like when you have a special baby. That's what this is for Honda," says Fernando Gusmao, a sales representative for Crown Honda, where Buczynsky bought his Insight.
The dealers still are waiting to see whether other car drivers will embrace Honda's baby.
The car may be the first automobile ever to win the Sierra Club's Excellence in Environmental Engineering Award, but it also seats only two. It is offered only in five-speed manual transmission. It vaguely resembles an aerodynamic box.
"That car is not for everybody," Buczynsky said.
Boxy or not, environmentalists are hailing the new hybrid car as a first step in an automobile revolution, a way to slowly wean Americans from their gasoline addiction. Interest in the car has heightened recently as gas prices have soared.
The car and other hybrids like it have some powerful backers. Vice President Al Gore -- who is also running for president -- last month proposed that all Americans who buy hybrid cars be given a $5,000 tax credit. With a starting sticker price of $18,880 -- Buczynsky paid about $22,000 for a model equipped with goodies such as air conditioning -- the tax credit would knock down the car's price significantly.
The car uses an extra-small engine that barely sips gas. The electric motor kicks in when the car needs a boost to pass or accelerate.
At stop lights and signs, the car has the disconcerting habit of turning itself off to save gas. One tap on the accelerator and the engine comes humming back to life.
"In an ordinary car, driving to the beach, if you hit 20 or 25 stop lights, you just sit there. You've got this 200 horsepower, V-8 engine, and it's just gulping gas," he said.
Buczynsky says the car wouldn't have satisfied his need for speed when he was still a race-car driver, but it's peppy enough for average driving. He admits taking it up to 95 mph on the Gandy Bridge.
But experts say this might not be enough to convince people to buy the car.
"People, as a group, like the idea of green things," Roan says. "But when it comes to their own car, they're really concerned with style and performance, and they really don't care too much about gas mileage."
Roan says only rising gas prices, like the recent climb, will hit consumers' pocketbooks hard enough to boost Insight sales.
"If the cost of gasoline goes up and the economy cools off, then people might look to this," he says.
In the meantime, Honda has been advertising the car in the Tampa Bay area to drum up support. But with such limited production, one dealer says the ads can put local vendors in a tough spot.
"They have advertising, but they don't have the cars," Gusmao says. Crown Honda has sold six of the cars since February. The next two cars slated for delivery in the next month have already been sold.
But Honda's headquarters says ads for the car aren't actually about putting more Insights on the road.
"It's not by any means a hard-core sales ad," says Art Garner, a Honda spokesman. "It's basically a brand builder. It's more about selling our environmental advances."
For now, Honda's got the hybrid car market cornered. But that won't last long. Toyota is set to release the Prius, its version of the hybrid car, this summer. Like Honda, Toyota will release the cars to local dealerships slowly.
Tampa Bay dealers estimate they could get the car as early as this month or as late as the fall. While Toyota's Prius will get an estimated 52 miles to the gallon as opposed to the Insight's 70, it will be available with normal car features like four doors and automatic transmission.
But Buczynsky says even with its limitations, the Insight looks and drives like a normal car. He says what he likes best about the car is that it doesn't take an expert like himself to drive it.
"They have developed this to a point where everyone can drive it. It's just a fool-proof car," he says.
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