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Green light ahead

More local drivers are turning to vehicles that run on alternative fuels

Westwood’s Claire Sullivan and her Toyota Prius, which gets 50 miles a gallon. “I love it,’’ she says. “I only go to the gas station every couple of weeks.’’ Westwood’s Claire Sullivan and her Toyota Prius, which gets 50 miles a gallon. “I love it,’’ she says. “I only go to the gas station every couple of weeks.’’ (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Matt Carroll
Globe Staff / May 29, 2011

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It’s a simple equation: Take gas prices tickling $4 a gallon, add in increased concern about the environment, and what do you get?

Explosive growth in alternative-fuel vehicles.

Drivers like Claire Sullivan made the change to get better gas mileage, and she has not been disappointed in her Toyota Prius, a hybrid, which she got in February.

“I love it,’’ said the Westwood resident, who is getting around 50 miles to the gallon. “I only go to the gas station every couple of weeks.’’ The executive director of the South Shore Recycling Center says she has also noticed how many more Priuses are on the road these days.

“You see them everywhere. I see a lot in our church parking lot. But it’s a Unitarian church, so what do you expect?’’ she joked.

Indeed, the number of alternative-fuel vehicles statewide has exploded between 2007 and this year, more than quintupling from 14,000 vehicles to over 70,000, according to data from the Registry of Motor Vehicles. However, such vehicles still represent only a fraction of the vehicles on the road — 1.7 percent. Of the state’s 4.2 million vehicles, including cars, trucks, and buses, the vast majority, 4.1 million, are still powered by gas alone.

The alternative-fuel vehicles run on a variety of systems, including hybrids that use gas and electricity and those that use natural gas, electricity, propane, or flexible fuel. (Flexible-fuel cars can run on a blend of fuels, such as gasoline and ethanol.) By far the most common are the hybrids, such as the Prius, with more than 40,000 on the road, according to the RMV.

But if the number of alternative-fuel vehicles is still small, it is increasing rapidly. Today, at least 2 percent of all vehicles in Sharon, Duxbury, Cohasset, Marion, Hingham, Norwell, and Milton use alternative fuels. Those towns have the highest percentages of alternative-fuel vehicles in communities south of Boston.

But the green vehicles are everywhere.

Blaire Schaefer-Flynn of Holbrook says she drives 65 miles each way in her commute to Marlborough. Sick of filling up the tank of her Hyundai twice a week — even though it got decent mileage, in the high 20s — she went shopping for a hyrid and got a four-door Honda Insight from Silko Honda in Raynham, which gets 40 miles to the gallon.

“It has given me exactly what I wanted,’’ said the mother of three. “It runs awesome. It’s a great little car.’’ She figured she’s saving about $80 a month on gas. “That’s significant, at least in my book,’’ she said.

Adam Silverleib, a vice president with Silko Honda, said interest in hybrids can be compared to the interest in pellet stoves that soared six or seven years ago when heating fuel prices shot up.

The dealership sells three hybrids — the Insight, CRZ, and Civic. A recent problem for Silko, and for other dealers that sell Japanese automobiles, has been in getting the cars, because the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan have disrupted the supply chain. There are Insight and CRZ models available, but the popular Civic is a three- to six-month wait, he said.

Some buyers are switching to other gas-miser cars, such as the regular Civic, which is built in North America. The regular gas-powered Civic averages 39 miles on the highway, while the hybrid averages 44, according to the manufacturer.

Gas mileage is the question on most buyers’ minds along the Auto Mile in Norwood, a bustling center for a wide variety of dealerships along Route 1.

“If we have 120 people in over the weekend, a good 40 are looking at Priuses,’’ said Scott Baker, a sales manager for Boch Toyota. Discounts are small, though, on such popular cars. The Priuses, depending on options, cost from $20,000-plus to about $30,000, he said.

The hybrid offers excellent mileage — 50 miles-plus to the gallon for the careful driver — dependability, and two years of free maintenance, he said.

Other alternative-fuel cars, like the Highlander, an SUV, are in short supply both because they are popular and because of the disaster in Japan, which wreaked havoc with factories, and the wait for buyers can be several months.

Brian Sceviour, a salesman at Clay Chevrolet further south along Route 1, said the buzz these days is about the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid that can be charged up when it’s not on the road. It should be available in a few months locally, he said.

Gas prices determine what kinds of cars sell, and it’s not exactly brain surgery, said Sceviour. Low gas prices mean big cars sell; higher gas prices mean the cars that get great mileage go fastest.

Greg Tufankjian, the general manager of TufankjianToyota in Braintree, said Prius buyers tend to be more middle-aged, maybe in their 40s.

The Massachusetts community with the highest percentage of alternative-fuel vehicles — 6.4 percent — is Chelsea, but that is something of a fluke. Rental car companies, such as Enterprise Rent-A-Car, keep fleets of flexible-fuel cars there, skewing the numbers. After Chelsea, the top community was Concord, with 4.4 percent.

Matt Carroll can be reached at mcarroll@globe.com.

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