Americans are buying record numbers of hybrid and electric cars as gas prices climb and new models arrive in showrooms, giving the vehicles their greatest share yet of the U.S. auto market.
Consumers bought a record 52,000 gas-electric hybrids and all-electric cars in March, up from 34,000 during the same month last year.
The two categories combined made up 3.64 percent of total U.S. sales, their highest monthly market share ever, according to Ward's AutoInfoBank. The previous high was 3.56 percent in July 2009, when the Cash for Clunkers program encouraged people to trade in old gas guzzlers for more fuel-efficient cars.
And while their share of the market remains small, it's a big leap from the start of the year, when hybrids and electrics made up 2.38 percent of new car sales.
Buyers were drawn by new models like the Toyota Prius C subcompact, the Prius V wagon and Camry hybrid. Gas prices near or above $4 per gallon added to the cars' attraction.
David Martin, a Denver software engineer, estimates he'll save at least $150 per month on gas with his new Chevrolet Volt compared with the 2010 Acura TSX he replaced. Martin expects gas prices to stay high, a factor that heavily influenced his purchase.
Stronger sales of the Volt and the Nissan Leaf were a positive sign for electric car makers. The two vehicles have struggled to gain acceptance from buyers worried about how far they can drive on a battery charge.
Another concern: Volt maker General Motors Co. had to change the car's charging system because its batteries caught fire after government crash tests.
GM sold just 7,671 Volts last year, below its goal of 10,000. But in March, it set a new monthly record of 2,289 for the Volt, an electric car with a small backup gas engine. Sales of the all-electric Leaf nearly doubled to 579.
The Volt got a boost from California's decision to make it eligible for high-occupancy vehicle lanes. Starting March 1, buyers with a low-emissions Volt could use the HOV lane and get a $1,500 state tax credit on top of a $7,500 federal tax credit. GM said a quarter of the Volts it sold last month were sold in California.
Gas prices helped sales. The nationwide average for a gallon of gas jumped 19 cents in March, from $3.73 to $3.92. It has crossed the $4 mark in the Buffalo Niagara region, where it was $4.10 a gallon as of Friday. The $4 mark was a significant psychological milestone for some buyers, said Paul Lacy, who forecasts sales trends for consulting firm IHS Automotive.
Lacy expects hybrids and electrics to make up about 4 percent of U.S. sales this year, although sales could drop if gas prices fall or if buyers get more accustomed to higher prices. Hybrid and electric sales also rose with high pump prices last spring, but fell after prices moderated and the Japanese earthquake disrupted Prius supplies.
The proliferation of models will also bring down costs. Hybrids cost around $2,000 to $4,000 more than their gas counterparts, which can make them less attractive to buyers.