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Can hybrids save US from foreign oil?

Red-hot demand for Priuses causes doubters to take second look.

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Actress Cameron Diaz and Roy Jefferson, a retired government accountant from Fargo, N.D., have something in common: They both love their hybrid gas-electric cars that get 50-plus miles per gallon.

"I laugh when I go by the gas stations" without filling up, says Mr. Jefferson, an octogenarian.

The growing enthusiasm for hybrids is rattling the faith of America's automakers, who have long believed that consumers don't care about fuel efficiency. And it has opened the door to a new theory that hybrid cars - long predicted to be a niche market and a way station to future hydrogen autos - are themselves the answer to revolutionize the fleet and trim the nation's surging dependence on foreign oil.

For proponents of energy independence in the United States, the current level of dependency is worrisome. Last year, 56 percent of the nation's oil - some 11 million barrels a day - came from abroad. That's far more than the one-third share imported during the first oil crisis of the 1970s. And it's halfway to the two-thirds share projected for 2025, if nothing changes.

To reduce that dependence will require a massive modernization of America's transportation fleet, especially more efficient passenger cars and light trucks. So are hybrids up to the task?

Most auto analysts still say no, since an enormous number of hybrids would have to be sold over more than a decade to have a real impact. Still, demand for hybrids, the Prius in particular, is so strong that customers are waiting weeks to get one. Some used 2004 Priuses are selling for thousands of dollars more than the cost of a new one. On Tuesday, Toyota announced it would begin building its first North American hybrid car in 2006 at its Georgetown, Ky., plant.

The numbers are turning some heads.

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