When the first hybrid cars hit the market more than a decade ago, customers didn't exactly break down showroom doors to buy. Fewer than 75,000 Toyota Priuses and Honda Insights were sold nationwide in their first three years.
Now with more than 50 models from nearly every major automaker available, hybrid sales are headed for the half-million mark this year alone. Hybrids have more than arrived.
And their success after a long slog toward mainstream acceptance is encouraging some pioneers in the car-repair business.
They're betting that hybrids are becoming enough of a market to create a niche for those who specialize in extending the vehicles' lives.
Among them is Mark Anderton, owner of First Landing Auto Care in Virginia Beach. His Shore Drive repair business recently became a franchisee of The Hybrid Shop, a Northern Virginia-based chain.
The chain's big hope is technology developed by a former General Motors engineer that it claims will extend the life of a hybrid battery and pump up a vehicle's gas mileage in the process.
"This is a game changer for the industry," Anderton said.
He and his family have been intrigued by hybrids as a business opportunity for some time. The many hybrids they observed on Interstate 66 during a recent trip to Northern Virginia only convinced them more that they were on the right track in their new venture.
"We don't play 'punch buggy.' We play Prius," said Carole Anderton, who works with her father.
The Hybrid Shop's service doesn't come cheap. "Battery reconditioning" costs $1,400. But compared with the $3,000 or more it costs to replace a hybrid vehicle's battery, it's a bargain, the company says.
So far, six people have paid the Beach shop for the service.
That's not many, but it's a start, says Mark Anderton, whose vision of capitalizing on the expanding fleet of hybrids in service also includes buying and selling the vehicles. He recently edged into a sideline called We Buy Ugly Hybrids.
More than 2 million hybrids are on the road today in the United States, and roughly half of them are Priuses.
That's the vehicle The Hybrid Shop's founders, who run a Northern Virginia chain of repair shops known as Curry's Auto Service, have homed in on.
In Fairfax County, the state's most populous municipality, 3 percent of all registered vehicles are hybrids, the majority of them Priuses, according to records from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. The hybrid ownership rate there is three times that of South Hampton Roads. And it's largely motivated by a law that allows hybrid drivers to travel in HOV lanes even if the driver is the only occupant.
In traffic-clogged Northern Virginia, that incentive has proved too good for many motorists to pass up.
With nine repair shops in the Washington area, Matt and Judy Curry were getting their share of workhorse Priuses in for routine repairs, and they began taking note of a common complaint: that the vehicles weren't getting the gas mileage they once had.
Since a Prius' heart is its battery, they knew that's where the problem lay. But what could be done?
Toyota's approach with problematic batteries still under warranty -- which in Virginia is eight years or 100,000 miles -- is simply to replace the entire unit.
That left the Currys to focus on older Priuses, but even among those vehicles, battery problems are generally more at the nuisance level, not acute. Some Priuses are approaching 200,000 miles with their original battery.
So the Currys became intrigued by the possibility of improving the performance of those older Priuses, in the hopes that as other hybrid models aged and needed tweaking, too, they'd have established a lead in the hybrid life-extension business.
That led them to Mark Quarto, a hybrid technology guru who once worked as a GM engineer and now helps run a Port Angeles, Wash.-based company, Automotive Research and Design. Quarto had developed a system for reinvigorating hybrid batteries. He and the Currys signed a deal that made The Hybrid Shop the exclusive U.S. distributor for the technology.
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