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An electric car that's a gas

This is a car that:

•Gets 66 miles to the gallon.

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•Cuts greenhouse-gas emissions in half.

•Goes, even when the engine doesn't start.

•Al Gore would probably love.

But more important, it's not a car that figures into some think tank's vision of the automotive future.

It's called the Prius, and it's made by a real car company, Toyota, and is currently on sale in Japan. Soon it will drive into garages across the United States.

The Prius looks like an ordinary four-door economy car -mostly.

But it's really the world's first mass-produced hybrid electric car.

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Hybrids use both a gasoline engine and an electric motor to benefit from the advantages of each. (See story, below.)

Toyota plans to sell 6,000 to 12,000 Priuses a year in the US for between $16,000 and $20,000, starting late next year, says spokesman Wade Hoyt.

That's an impressive feat for a hybrid, even one this small. Installing batteries, an electric motor, a sophisticated computer-controlled transmission, and a conventional engine add cost.

So far the company's losing money on every one it sells. But with greater volume, costs should go down, especially for batteries, says Mr. Hoyt, and the Prius should become profitable.

Toyota has taken a conservative design approach with Prius. Its 4-cylinder, 1500-cc gas engine is large for a hybrid. And it's lazy - only 58 horsepower -to reduce emissions. A small battery bank saves on both cost and weight.

Climb in and twist the key. If the batteries are charged, the engine may not start. But that's OK. A central display screen shows the car is ready to go.

Step on the brake, pull the big lever in the center of the dash down to "D," and release the brake. The Prius starts rolling silently under electric power.

At about 10 miles an hour, the engine automatically starts and powers the car. An on-board computer switches between power sources without any input from the driver.

While driving, the engine turns slowly and seems to run a lot.

Depending on the battery charge, the engine may also run while the car sits still. This generally happens when you first start driving and soon after you finish a highway drive.

After a few minutes around town or in stop-and-go traffic, however, the batteries recover and the engine shuts down at stoplights.

On the freeway, both gasoline and electric power systems work double time. The Prius isn't fast, but manages to keep up with traffic. The car feels taxed at 70 miles per hour. But drivers can push it up to 90 m.p.h.

Prius will run all day at highway speeds without a hitch, though a trip over the Rocky Mountains may tax the batteries.

Handling feels typical for a small sedan around town, though the height makes it a little tippy in sudden turns.

Unlike most cars, there are no gauges behind the steering wheel, just two readout screens in the center of the dash:One shows kilometers per hour and fuel level; the other shows what's happening under the hood -whether electric power or gasoline is driving the car, and whether the batteries are charging or discharging.

The Prius's regenerative brakes are impressive. As you slow down, they use the car's excess momentum to charge the batteries. It's more effective than it sounds. Tap the brakes and if you're not careful you may lurch forward against the seat belt.

Toyota sees the car as an environmental necessity and a public-relations coup.

What sets Prius apart from pure electric vehicles is its 850 mile range between fill-ups. Electric cars go 60 to 100 miles between chargings that take several hours.

Most significant though, is the great gas mileage and reduced emissions, setting it apart from conventional cars.

Modern pollution controls in today's automobiles have greatly reduced smog-causing hydrocarbon and nitrous oxide emissions. But the only way to cut the CO2 that causes global warming is to burn less gas.

If Prius appeals to environmentally conscious Americans as Hoyt hopes, look for Prius-like hybrids to spread eventually to other, bigger Toyota models.

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