San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Toyota Prius Driving Solo in Hybrid Market

Saving a country from excessive fuel consumption is a lot of weight for two green technology-inspired axles to handle. But such is the job of the Toyota Prius, the sole hybrid vehicle currently sold in Costa Rica since 2004.

Right now we are the only company that offers a hybrid vehicle in Latin America, which makes us proud, because it s a way of contributing to (the protection of) the planet, said Luis Mastroeni, marketing director for Purdy Motors.

The government unveiled a package of measures last week designed to cut fuel consumption nationwide. One of the tactics proposed by the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) was to reduce taxes on hybrid and electric cars to encourage more imports of fuel-efficient vehicles.

A 34 percent Selective Consumption Tax is levied against the Toyota Prius, while other vehicles receive a 52 percent tax, Mastroeni said. Environment Minister Roberto Dobles did not specify by how much that tax would be cut in the future.

It varies from one vehicle to the next, Dobles said.

And it remains unclear how many Ticos, even with the tax breaks, would be able to buy the Prius, given the $36,700 price tag. A mere 100 hybrid cars cruise about the country right now, according to Mastroeni.

Purdy Motors has little local competition. A representative at Honda dealership Franz Amrhein & Co. S.A. said the company is considering whether to bring the Civic Hybrid to Costa Rica, but no date has been set.

Electric cars have yet to arrive in Costa Rica. Dobles said he was interested in seeing plug-in hybrids, which are similar to the ones piloted in California, on Tico soil.

The minister said he believes the national electric grid could progressively handle increased demand, should electric cars become popular among Costa Rican consumers.

At the Terramall in Tres Ríos, east of San José, a shiny black Prius perched along the sidewalk outside the Purdy Motors dealership.

A plastic bag was still wrapped around the driver s side headrest. Opening the door, that new-car smell wafted from the interior.

The Prius uses technology called

Synergy Drive

, running off electric and gas motors. The electric motor which is emission-free runs the vehicle at low speeds, while the gas motor kicks in once the car reaches a higher velocity.

Plugging in the sedan s electric motor is unnecessary, because it recharges while the gas component is in gear and energy transferred during braking.

Promotional materials pitch the Prius as getting 90 kilometers (about 60 miles) per gallon, a big selling point for consumers squeezed by ever-increasing gas prices.

Toyota salesman Rodrigo Pereira said that definitely plays into customers concerns when looking at the Prius.

The No. 1 factor is fuel consumption, Pereira said, standing beside the sleek vehicle.

Drivers are also concerned about reducing emissions, he added.

More people have been looking at the model in the last three months, Pereira said. That s not a surprise, considering gas prices have steadily increased over the past year.

On June 10, fuel prices across the board rose from 35 colones to ¢40 per liter, an increase of about 1 U.S. cent. Super now costs ¢656 (about $1.27), regular ¢644 ($1.25), and diesel ¢622 ($1.21) a liter.

Fuel will soon be more expensive, should a request by the National Oil Refinery be accepted. The refinery is asking the Public Services Regulatory Authority (ARESEP) to allow a 9 percent hike in the price of super and regular gas, effective about mid-July.

Super would then climb to ¢714 ($1.38) and regular to ¢702 ($1.36) per liter. Diesel was to jump by ¢85 per liter as well, but the national government announced last week it would subsidize the fuel by sending RECOPE ¢10 billion ($19 million) in supplementary funding.

The manufacturing and public transportation sectors depend on diesel. The government s move was meant to protect the pocketbooks of commuters and local businesses.

Gilberto Campos, vice president of the advocacy group Consumers of Costa Rica, criticized the government s consumption reduction plan as a partial solution.

What (government officials) are doing is putting out the fire, Campos said.

Putting the Skids on Consumption

Besides offering tax breaks on hybrid cars, the government is proposing or implementing the following gas-saving measures:

Interline bus route: The Public Works and Transport Ministry is appealing a decision by the Transport Administrative Tribunal that ruled the interline bus route contract was awarded “irrationally.” The seven new bus routes, run by bus consortium MPT S.A., would travel the perimeter of downtown San José. No date has been set for its revised launch.

San José-Heredia train: The Costa Rican Railroad Institute (Incofer) estimated it would take six months to rehabilitate the railroad running between San José and Heredia as a new tool for commuters, according to La Nación. Incofer is waiting for the Legislative Assembly to approve ¢2 billion ($3.9 million) in a supplementary budget for rail and bridge work along the route.

Peak hour restrictions: President Oscar Arias’ administration signed a decree on peak hour restrictions this week for the Circunvalación – the route that runs the southern perimeter of San José, according to the daily La Nación. Drivers will be prohibited from traveling through the area according to hour, day of the week and the last number of their car’s license plate. Violators will be fined ¢5,000 each time. Vehicles with a 1 or 2 are forbidden on Monday, those with a 3 or 4 on Tuesday, 5 and 6 on Wednesday, 7 and 8 on Thursday, and 9 and 0 on Friday. The schedule is from 6-9 a.m. and from 4-7 p.m.

The decree will also prohibit drivers of oversized vehicles from entering San José during peak hours.

When gas reached the now-tame heights of $60 per barrel in 2005, the administration of former President Abel Pacheco passed similar traffic restrictions in central San José, threatening fines of ¢5,000 (at the time, $10.50) for violating the restrictions.

Gas consumption fell in August and September that year, which the National Oil Refinery credited to the government’s peak hour restriction plan. But police eventually stopped enforcing the restrictions.

–Leslie Friday


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