We expect our movie stars to drive sleek, high-end automobiles. So why have Cameron Diaz's Porsche and Mercedes been gathering dust in her garage for the past four months? Because these days the stylish actress tools around Tinseltown in a $20,000 Toyota Prius--a hybrid car that swings both ways, alternately guzzling climate-heating gasoline and sipping environmentally friendly electricity. What the car lacks in class it makes up in fuel savings and reduced emissions. "I love my Prius," says Diaz, 29, who reports that the batteries on her luxury cars have both died from neglect. "The Prius is all I drive."
Bill Maher, host of Politically Incorrect, also drives a hybrid car. So does Seinfeld creator Larry David. Leonardo DiCaprio likes his hybrid so much that he bought three more, for his mom, dad and stepmom--and took time out from a Steven Spielberg set to boast to TIME about his high-tech wheels. "People are always impressed," he notes, "with the way it drives, the gas mileage and how quiet it is."
If celebrity endorsements sold cars, hybrids would be flying off dealers' lots. But with their oddball designs--critics dubbed them "clown cars"--the first generation of hybrids barely dented the consciousness of car-buying Americans. According to one survey, most Americans still think the batteries in hybrids have to be plugged in to get recharged. (Wrong. They are rejuiced automatically as you drive.) No wonder only 20,000 of the 17 million automobiles sold in the U.S. last year were hybrids.
But now the auto industry wants to take another crack at it. A hybrid version of the Honda Civic, the best-selling compact car in America, started rolling into dealerships nationwide last week. Next year Ford, which has produced a string of electric cars, is expected to be the first U.S. manufacturer to introduce a hybrid vehicle. I took the politically correct version of the six-cylinder Escape for an exclusive spin earlier this month. Meanwhile, Toyota, General Motors and Chrysler have all promised a new crop of hybrid vehicles by 2004. J.D. Power & Associates, which tracks consumer tastes for the auto industry, expects that by 2006, American consumers will be buying half a million hybrids a year.
Why all the excitement? "Hybrids are the first viable alternative to the gasoline engine," says Prabhakar Patil, the chief engineer for Ford's hybrid program, who notes that cars that run on fuel cells--widely expected to be the next technological advance in automotive power--are at least 10 years off. Hybrids still have a major hurdle to overcome: sticker shock (more on that later). But for car buyers who want to do their part for the environment and are willing pay a few grand extra to do it, hybrids are the only game in Motown.