Hollywood’s hybrid

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Hybrid cars are hip. At a recent movie premiere, five Toyota Priuses pulled up next to each other. Larry David, co-creator of Seinfeld and star of HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, is just one of many Hollywood celebrities who drives one. "I liked the idea of getting the benefits of a hybrid vehicle without having to plug in a battery," he said in an interview. "And after I test-drove the car, I liked everything about it. So now I’m a big

fan." Leonardo DiCaprio is vocal about his hybrid. "I own a Toyota Prius — it’s a step in the right direction," he says. "It’s a gasoline-electric midsize car that gets about 50 miles per gallon. There is no extra inconvenience. I fill it up at the gas pump and it performs like any other car. But I fill it up about once every three weeks. We have the technology to make every car produced in America today just as clean, cheap and efficient."

Can you buy publicity like this? Actress Cameron Diaz goes on the Jay Leno show and all she wants to talk about is her Prius. "It gets 52 miles per gallon," she told Leno, who generally likes cars with more horsepower. "In the city. Isn’t that exciting? The craziest thing is, because all of a sudden you just, like, you’re sitting at the stop sign? And you can’t hear anything? And you’re like, ‘Omigod! My car has died!’ And then all of a sudden you step on the gas and you’re going again. But you know what? It’s just like a golf cart, Jay. You know how guys love their golf carts."

Leno saw his opening. "Oh, man, yeah, you want to impress a guy with a car, you say, ‘It’s just like a golf cart! Man, this thing goes like a golf cart!’ Whoa!" OK, Leno doesn’t get it, but an increasing number of Americans do. I’m no huge fan of celebrity endorsements, but if Hollywood’s greens help to educate the public about something so important, I’m all for it. (And I haven’t even mentioned actor Ed Begley Jr., who’s so committed he won’t even ride in a gas-powered car.)

As of March 31, Toyota had sold 100,000 hybrid cars worldwide, 27,000 of which were U.S. Prius cars. Honda’s sales of its Insight two-seater have been much lower, but the introduction of the all-new Civic Hybrid should change that. Honda is projecting sales of 2,000 to 2,500 a month, based on surveys like that done recently by the prestigious J.D. Power and Associates, which found that 60 percent of 5,200 new car buyers would consider buying a hybrid. There’s also the undeniable fact that the Clean Car Campaign has collected 100,000 signatures from people who say they’ll take the plunge, too.

I spent a week with the Civic Hybrid last week, and was so impressed that I’m trying to convince my wife that we should buy one. It’s not so I’ll have something in common with DiCaprio. The Civic Hybrid impresses with its sheer ordinariness. It’s not special or weird, or for purists only. It’s just like any other Civic, except it’s a Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle, gets 48 miles per gallon and has a range of 600 miles. If there’s a sacrifice, it’s in the $20,000 purchase price. But even that can be offset with a $2,000 federal income tax credit and state incentives, if they apply.

To get 93 horsepower out of a 1.3-liter engine requires some wizardry, and under the hood is the Integrated Motor Assist system from the Insight, plus a continuously variable transmission (CVT). As Ms. Diaz noted so memorably, it does indeed shut down at stoplights. My prediction is that the Civic Hybrid will outsell the Prius and set the stage for a blizzard of new hybrid vehicles, starting with the Ford Escape hybrid next year. Is the hybrid the new SUV?