Gas prices driving many to the Prius

DALLAS -- Toyota's Prius hybrid owns the so-called nerd niche, the legions of greenies, techies and trendies smitten with the little gas-electric sedan.

But with gas prices hovering around $4 a gallon nationwide, scores of regular people are joining them, snatching up every Prius they can find and driving up prices at some Toyota dealerships by as much as $5,000 over window sticker.

A year-old Prius with average mileage is worth more than it was new, or more than $28,000, according to many dealers' Web sites.

"They're so expensive, it's not worth it. It's hard for us to buy them and make a profit," said Fernando Torres, finance manager at Turlock Auto Sales, a used-car dealer that looks for Priuses at auctions.

Sales for most small cars are up as drivers continue their dramatic shift from trucks and sport utility vehicles, Torres said.

Through May, for example, U.S. sales of the compact Honda Fit were up 64 percent, and the previously slow-selling Toyota Yaris rose 50.4 percent. But with a dazzling fuel rating of 48 miles per gallon in the city, the Prius -- for many buyers -- stands atop the heap of small cars in prestige and image.

"I'd drive one if we had one, but we sell them too fast," said Kevin Stinson, vice president of Modesto Toyota on McHenry Avenue. "People want the fuel efficiency and environmental benefits, but they're just great cars with a lot of power. I'd classify them as sporty."

Stinson has a waiting list of customers pining for Priuses. Customers have to wait three to four weeks to get the car in Modesto.

Dealers are feeling the heat of the hot little car, which is powered by an electric motor in concert with a 1.5-liter, 110-horsepower 4-cylinder engine.

Last year at this time, "we had 30 or 40 of them on the lot," said Dane Minor, general manager of Freeman Toyota in Hurst, Texas. Now the dealership has none and a list of 50 prospective buyers clamoring to buy one.

Part of the problem is that Toyota says it can only build 150,000 Priuses for the U.S. market this year, the same as last year, because its suppliers can provide only so many batteries and electric motors.

Although Freeman Toyota and several others continue to sell Priuses at window-sticker prices, the cars start at $21,500, many dealers are asking $3,000 to $5,000 over the manufacturer's suggested retail price.

'Nothing else comes even close'

Demand for the Prius is so high and the supply so tight that many Toyota dealers set the price of the cars based on demand, said Sonny Morgan, managing partner of Sport City Toyota in Dallas, meaning above window sticker. Dealers buy their vehicles from the factory, and, as businesses, are free to sell above or below MSRP.

"Nothing else comes even close to the Prius in mileage," Morgan said. "I believe in selling to the market on these particular cars."

That market is "$3,000 to $5,000 over window," he said.

When Amy Meaux and her husband decided in May that they wanted a Prius, she checked the inventory at Sport City and found 10 or more cars. Two days later, there were none.

"That's when I knew we'd have to pay over window-sticker price for the car," said Meaux, 33, an Episcopal priest in Dallas.

She said she didn't mind because the car offered a unique combination of features, ecology and economy.

"I feel like I'm getting all the amenities I want, and I'm doing something kind of good for the environment," Meaux said.

Most dealers said they have never seen a market in which demand has swung so rapidly from large vehicles to much smaller ones.

And while most buyers are moving from SUVs, a touch of hybrid fever is present even there.

"We've seen a big surge of interest in the Tahoe Hybrid" SUV, said Ken Thompson, head of the Thompson sales group at Classic Chevrolet in Grapevine, Texas.

At Pat Lobb Toyota in McKinney, Texas, which has a waiting list with about a dozen people on it, the staff created a spreadsheet to help buyers determine if a Prius is the right vehicle for them, said managing partner John Mathews. That approach is used with other vehicles as well.

Because of the higher cost of the Prius compared with a Toyota Corolla, which starts at about $15,000 and gets 27 miles per gallon in town, a buyer would need to keep the Prius for at least 5½ years to justify the additional expense, he said. The dealership is selling its Priuses for their window-sticker prices, he said.

"When we walk them through the survey, probably 50 percent of our Prius prospects leave in a Corolla or Camry," Mathews said. "With all the anger on this (fuel) issue, we just want to make sure people buy the car they really need."

Bee staff writer Eve Hightower contributed to this report.