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10/15/2005

Hybrids as status symbols

I suppose this is good, but it's kind of annoying at the same time.
Luxury car buyers take a new route

Ben Uchitelle used to drive a Lexus 400, but he ditched it for a car half its price.

He and his wife aren't having money problems. They still have the place in Claverach Park, where homes average more than half a million dollars. Uchitelle is still a lawyer and the mayor of Clayton, an area where image matters.

The Uchitelles are part of a growing group of automobile buyers who are opting instead for the hybrids. More and more of these fuel efficiency vehicles, which usually cost less than $25,000, are popping up in country club parking lots and in valet lines at high-end restaurants.

The growth, observers say, is fueled partly by conscience, partly by fashion. Since the introduction of the vehicles in 2000, the market has grown by more than 960 percent.

The Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation says the hybrid buyer now makes about $100,000 a year, compared with $85,000 for the non-hybrid car buyer.

"They're not buying it for fuel economy," said the research group's director, Walter McManus. "They're very concerned about the environment, but there is an image thing that goes with it."

Some consumer industry experts say it's a relatively new social phenomenon - and a good one. More and more consumers, experts say, are deciding that just because they can afford all the gas they want, they don't necessarily have to burn through it all.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that going green - the industry phrase for buying something that's environmentally friendly - is en vogue, said Steve Stiegman, general manager for Newbold Toyota BMW Scion in O'Fallon.

"You're seeing that phenomenon in Hollywood now where many of the stars are showing up at red carpet events in the (Toyota) Prius, whether it's Leonardo DiCaprio or Cameron Diaz," he said. "That's part of the glory of having that car."
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Luxury car buyers take a new route

Ben Uchitelle used to drive a Lexus 400, but he ditched it for a car half its price.

He and his wife aren't having money problems. They still have the place in Claverach Park, where homes average more than half a million dollars. Uchitelle is still a lawyer and the mayor of Clayton, an area where image matters.

The Uchitelles are part of a growing group of automobile buyers who are opting instead for the hybrids. More and more of these fuel efficiency vehicles, which usually cost less than $25,000, are popping up in country club parking lots and in valet lines at high-end restaurants.

The growth, observers say, is fueled partly by conscience, partly by fashion. Since the introduction of the vehicles in 2000, the market has grown by more than 960 percent.

The Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation says the hybrid buyer now makes about $100,000 a year, compared with $85,000 for the non-hybrid car buyer.

"They're not buying it for fuel economy," said the research group's director, Walter McManus. "They're very concerned about the environment, but there is an image thing that goes with it."

Some consumer industry experts say it's a relatively new social phenomenon - and a good one. More and more consumers, experts say, are deciding that just because they can afford all the gas they want, they don't necessarily have to burn through it all.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that going green - the industry phrase for buying something that's environmentally friendly - is en vogue, said Steve Stiegman, general manager for Newbold Toyota BMW Scion in O'Fallon.

"You're seeing that phenomenon in Hollywood now where many of the stars are showing up at red carpet events in the (Toyota) Prius, whether it's Leonardo DiCaprio or Cameron Diaz," he said. "That's part of the glory of having that car."

Celebrity owners also include Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Sting, Larry David, Tim Robbins and Will Ferrell.

Madge Treeger has noticed that Hollywood connection. A 70-year-old psychotherapist, she and her husband, a financial planner, live in a condominium in Clayton. The couple's parking lot is filled with Cadillacs and Mercedes-Benzes.

"With a few Lexuses and Jaguars thrown in," she said.

The Treegers could afford luxury cars, but such cars don't interest them, Madge Treeger said.

"It definitely was a social decision to buy the Prius, and a gas-saving decision," she said. "And I'm sure we're making a statement.

"I drive around and think, 'Oh, I'm a good person.'"

Several of Stiegman's customers who have bought Priuses previously purchased more expensive BMWs. In fact, prestigious sports car owners are almost twice as likely as other vehicle owners to switch to a hybrid vehicle, a survey from the Polk Center for Automotive Studies showed.

"The consumer doesn't like to be outdone by their neighbor," Stiegman said. "If a guy down the street is saving substantial money in fuel costs, they feel like they need to try and do that, too."

"Some definite benefits"

Dr. Issac Boniuk, a retina specialist living in the Ladue and Frontenac area who owned a Mercedes, said his motives for buying a hybrid had nothing to do with its fashionability.

"The most important thing is getting to and from work," he said. "I've never been interested in anything fancy or that it's a luxury-status type of thing. That has no appeal to me whatsoever. I'm interested in getting to where I'm going in something that's reliable."

He bought his Prius for about $21,000, he said. He even got a tax credit of about $2,500 for buying a hybrid.

"So there were some definite benefits in using it," Boniuk, 67, said.

Small contributions, he said, add up.

"It's not that I'm an environmentalist and I don't think that we should use oil," he said. "I think we should. But I think anything we can do to cut down on our use of energy or reliance on foreign sources for energy, we should do."

The Uchitelles now have two Priuses. They bought their first nearly four years ago.

"I liked the fact that it was both environmentally clean and it got excellent gas mileage," Uchitelle said. "But it has been evident to me that we have to conserve on the use of gasoline. Quietly, I want to do what I can do to help in that regard."

Now, several of his neighborhood friends own Priuses.

On Thursday, Toyota announced a voluntary recall of about 160,000 Prius cars sold mainly in the United States and Japan because of a potential software glitch that may cause the car to stall. No reported accidents or injuries have been linked to the problem.

Hybrids still make up less than 1 percent of the entire vehicle market. The Prius occupies about 64 percent of the hybrid market, a study by April L. Polk & Company showed. The Honda Civic holds 31 percent of the market share.

But hybrids are expected to make up 5 percent of all new car purchases by 2012, McManus said. At least 15 new hybrid models will be released in the next three years. So more hybrids probably will join Treeger's Prius.

But the social - and environmental - statement will stay the same, she said.

"There's no doubt about the fact that driving a Prius is sort of like putting a bumper sticker on your car," she said. "There's a part of you advertising your social consciousness."

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