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Honda hybrid sales boom as gas prices soar

Amid soaring gas prices that topped $2 per gallon in some areas...

Amid soaring gas prices that topped $2 per gallon in some areas, nationwide sales of Honda's electric-gasoline hybrid car reached record-breaking levels in May, company officials said Wednesday.

Sales of the Insight two-door coupe last month were up 138 percent compared to May 2000. The sale of 903 Insights last month also broke the previous single-month record of 573, set in April.

Pat Bennett, a 63-year-old retiree in Baton Rouge, La., was intrigued by the car's compact shape and handling, along with its $12 monthly fuel bill.

''I don't fill up but maybe once a month,'' she said. ''To be honest, I don't know what (the price of fuel) is right now because I haven't been to the service station.''

Honda executives and auto industry experts said buyers are interested in the Insight's fuel efficiency -- pitched by Honda as reaching as much as 68 miles per gallon on the highway -- and sporty look and feel.

''With all the attention rising gas prices have received there has almost been as much attention on the Insight,'' said Art Garner, a Honda spokesman.

The average retail price of gasoline in a national survey Friday was $1.73 per gallon, down 3.48 cents from its May 18 price. San Francisco had an average price of $2.02 per gallon Friday.

The Insight hit the market in December 1999, and it has taken awhile for both consumers and dealers to become familiar with it, Virag said. Drivers also had to learn about the vehicle's hybrid technology, which doesn't require it be plugged in to a charging station like the General Motors electric vehicle.

Hybrids combine an electric motor with a gasoline engine to produce better mileage and less pollution.

The Insight is one of two such vehicles currently available. Toyota sells a four-seat hybrid called the Prius that boasts 45 mpg on the highway. The Prius, which started selling overseas in 1997, went on sale in the United States in July 2000. Toyota sold 872 models in April 2001 and 1,126 in May.