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A Hybrid Solution to Bay Area Gas Woes

Bay Area gasoline prices continue to surge past $2.20 per gallon. In the last week, prices across the nation have increased by 7.1 cents and the U.S. Energy Information Administration is predicting historical highs this summer. With no end in sight, it's time to consider some alternatives that free our empty wallets from oil industry greed.

The IRS and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger are fueling the sale of hybrids by offering a $2000 tax deduction (depending on your tax bracket) and opening up California's commuter lanes for hybrid drivers (even if you're a single occupant). In 2004 alone 79,000 hybrid automobiles were sold in the United States. Becoming a quick alternative to gas guzzling SUVs, hybrids reduce our dependence on foreign oil and decrease fuel emissions. But are hybrids affordable for the average Joe? What makes and models are available for a test drive? Let's kick the tires and give the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic a jumpstart.

Toyota and Honda have taken different approaches to the development of hybrid cars. The main difference is the construction of the engine. Toyota's "Hybrid Synergy Drive" relies on electricity as the primary power for normal driving conditions. If additional power is needed, i.e. driving up California Street, a gasoline engine will kick in and provide extra "umph". Honda's "Integrated Motor Assist System" is similar to a normal car's engine by using a gasoline engine as its primary power source. For heavy acceleration, an electric motor will provide the juice.

Toyota Prius was named Motor Trend's 2004 Car of the Year award. This was a bold and controversial move by a magazine heavily influenced by the automotive industry, but nonetheless warranted by the car's merits. With a MSRP of $20,875, it's one of the most economical hybrids available. The Prius represents Toyota's paradigm shift away from oil addiction by having an 11.5-gallon tank that boasts an outstanding gas mileage of 60-mpg city, and 51-mpg highway. Unfortunately, the aerodynamics of the hood and hatchback provide a futuristic design that's reminiscent of the Pontiac Aztec. But the sci-fi look isn't in vain. The car's aerodynamics yield one of the most drag efficient cars, competing closely with a Porsche 911. The output power for the Prius is only 110 hp (comparable to a four cylinder Camry), but one of the highest among hybrid cars.

The Civic Hybrid stems from a long Honda heritage of economical, fuel efficient cars. It moves away from Prius' space age design and looks more like its mainstream brethren. Depending on the model and transmission, the MSRP has a price range of $19,900 - $21,050. The Honda Civic drives more like a standard car, even offering a 5-speed manual transmission option. With an 11.9-gallon gas tank, the Honda Civic (MT model) is less efficient than the Toyota Prius with 45-mpg city and 51 mpg highway. The four-cylinder engine has a low output power of 85 hp, but provides enough torque to get up the toughest of Sierra hills.

Both cars provide a similar driving experience. As you sit behind the wheel and turn on the engine, you notice something very strange. When starting-up a hybrid, there's little or no engine noise. Both engines rely on an electric motor for start-up and have a silent idle. Devoid of the engine's buzz, you might do a double take to see if the engine is indeed running. Both cars also have a mediocre acceleration and drive like a mid-sized four cylinder car. This is expected, as you're not buying a hybrid for its 0 to 60 time trials. Expect to go slow and steady while you enjoy your 650-mile tank. Lastly, billows of smoke are missing from your rear view mirror as you step on the gas. Both cars deliver "near zero fuel emissions" that help our depleting ozone layer.

As you ponder the Bay Area's astronomical gas prices, consider a short-term solution to the looming fuel shortage. Expect to see more hybrids across America's highways and byways as the bite of fuel prices take their toll. Both Toyota and Honda hybrids are providing comfort and convenience to win over a new audience interested in cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars.