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Your first hybrid: Are you ready to move from the SUV to the HOV?

Every so often, when I buy gas for my Toyota Prius, I'll see a receipt that another car owner has tossed at the trashcan. Lately, the totals on those slips have been downright scary: $80. $95. I even spied one for $108.

I'm assuming those big numbers are from the owners of S.U.V.s. And while I'm spending $40 and up for a fill up nowadays, I've got to admit that I feel a little triumphant that I made the switch nearly three years ago.

From 2001 through 2008, I drove the Lexus RX, a crossover sport utility that some people call "the ladies' S.U.V." because a majority of its owners are women. I loved my RXs, but I never got better than 28 mpg in them.

The desire to save on gasoline, and reduce my CO2 emissions, convinced me to make the switch. And, the difference has been significant.

I've never gotten less than 39 mpg in the Prius (in a snowstorm, with snow tires) and at times my mileage has topped 50 mpg. That alone would be enough to convince some people to abandon their S.U.V.s and join me in what I've called "the fellowship of the Prius." I wrote about my ownership experience in The Prius Diary for The New York Times.

But there are moments I have missed my S.U.V., and there are things to think about if you're considering your own switch to a car the size of mine.

1) Can you think small? It's a mental and emotional adjustment. Let's admit it: that higher seat and bigger body gives S.U.V. owners a feeling of power. You no longer have that behind the wheel of a hybrid, like my Prius, or the Honda Insight or the Ford Focus. If you do a lot of freeway driving, as I do between Chicago, Ann Arbor and Cleveland, the anchor cities for our Changing Gears public media project, you might prefer a lot of sheet metal around you as trucks whiz by. There's a flip side, though. Driving a small car brings back the feeling of the road that so many of us gave up. And, if you park on city streets or in tight garages, you'll smile to yourself every time you maneuver into a space that wouldn't hold your S.U.V.

2) Can you get along with less stuff? I've often had people tell me, "I'd love to own a Prius, only I have three kids" and everything that kids come with, like hockey gear, and camping equipment and backpacks. I understand that reasoning. My car holds quite a bit, and the hatchback is functional, especially with the seats folded down. But I don't have the unlimited volume that an S.U.V. provides, and it means strategizing about what I can transport, as I had to do when I moved to Chicago over the New Years holiday.

3) What is your driving pattern? We've all grown up with the expectation that we'll get the best gas mileage at a steady highway speed. But hybrids do their best in city traffic. If you have an hour commute straight in from the suburbs at speeds above 70 mph, you aren't going to get the most benefit. Conversely, if you endure a stop and go commute, or you primarily drive from the Upper West Side to Soho, a hybrid might be a perfect option.

4) How much can you spend? With gas prices where they are now, you are not going to have much dickering room. At the New York Auto Show earlier this month, Toyota executives said there was a 9-day supply of Prius cars in the country, due to demand and production issues caused by the earthquake in Japan, versus the 60-day supply that carmakers like to have on hand at dealerships. There will not be many bargains on the most popular hybrids, and there won't be lease deals, either. That sticker shock is going to hit S.U.V. owners hard, and some people may decide the savings on gasoline simply won't make the higher monthly payments worth it.

5) What changes does your family face over the next few years? If you're single, or a newly married couple, the purchase of a small car or a hybrid might make sense now. Likewise, these are very good options for the mobility challenged. My mom, who would kill me if I printed her age, is crazy about my Prius, which is much easier for her to enter and exit than my RX was. But, are you planning to have kids? Are your kids growing like weeds? Do you regularly transport members of your choir, or take part in a car pool? You need to weigh not only your current situation, but also what lies ahead.

Finally, be honest with yourself. If you can't part with your S.U.V. just yet, there are plenty of tips for driving more responsibly. And if you're ready to make the switch, welcome to the club.

Micheline Maynard is the senior editor of Changing Gears, a public media project looking at the reinvention of the Midwest economy. She is a former New York Times Detroit bureau chief and a regular guest on Marketplace.

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Everyone wants a Prius for the cachet of the "green car," but there are lots of other cars out there which combine good fuel economy and reasonable price and carrying capacity. When I bought my last car in December 2007, shortly before gas topped $4 per gallon the last time, I wanted a Prius. Unfortunately it did not fit in my garage, so I bought a Honda Fit. It is not quite as light on gas as the Prius, but it was about $5K less expensive. I don't know if I will keep it long enough to hit the break even point where a Prius would have been cheaper, but it did replace a 1992 Corolla. I might keep this one for a while too.

I drive a carpool to school several days a week in the Fit, and the boys are just as fine in my little car as they are in the Suburban and Mountaineer they ride on the other days of the week.

We have taken family trips in the Fit with a bike (or two) on the back and lots of luggage inside. Four of us have traveled to California twice and Wyoming once from Washington, so these were not exactly short trips. One of my children is now an adult, and her teenage brother will soon be taller than she is. We find ways to make it work, and it does.

There is nothing wrong with deciding we can have fun with less stuff because we are driving a small car. Sometimes I think we have more fun, because we have less stuff to weigh us down.

The problem is that it will never pay for itself. If you like donating to the environment then you can pat yourself on the back. however, even with 50 MPG you will never get a return on your investment equal to a comprable automobile.

the Prius is comprable to a $10-12,000 economy vehicle and cannot be compared to your Lexus in any manner. In fact it can't be compared to a SUV. It can only be compared to the tiny vehicles like the Hyundai Accent. Now you compare your investment to that vehicle, not the SUV.

My vehicle is larger and not as economical. however, I will probably go through two of my vehicles by the time you break out on yours. In addition, I can carry items and people in my vehicle more comfortably and safer.

I am still a hog to the environmental community but then, I actually have a job and contribute to my community. I have better things to do than wear love beads, complain about everything in life and drive my 1968 VW Bus and sing songs about the environment.

Enjoy your investment in the Prius

One cant compare a Prius to an economy car.

Arthur i assume you have never owned a "$12,000 economy car". They dont come with touch screen navigation systems, leather upholstery, rear camera, air conditioning.... etc. Yes economic cars dump air conditioners to lower the price, hence "economy". Compare this car to a mid priced nice sedan. Which should be easy for you because that is what it is.

As far as safety the Prius is pretty highly rated from just about any reputable magazine or agency. they have six airbags! most accidents constitute fender benders which i think you pull through even in a prius. unlesss your being crushed in between two trucks on the highway SUV safety isnt an issue. Trying not to drive like an idiot will serve you better than any type of vehicle or any new fancy safety device.

As far as cabin space, the 2010 Prius has over 20 cubic feet. Which is comparable to just about any other sedan. A lot of Americans think they need an SUV, most dont. The average family can fit nicely in a sedan (Prius) and go on vacation with all of their stuff. Statistically Prius owners are twice as likely to go hiking/skiing. These guys like dragging around equipment too. if they need extra space they may even chip in a few extra buck for a cool invention called a roof rack.

As far as trying save money through gas conservaton, the median income of a Prius owner is over $100,000. Which means while part of the reason they buy it is to pay less on fuel (which will only skyrocket), the rest is image and knowing one is "doing" something to change the status quo.

I also think it should be mentioned here that America is struggling with energy issues. The price of oil is in control of people who dont have your best interests in mind. This car has done more for our drive towards energy independance/stability than anything else we have here in America. This car proved that there is a market for green vehicles. Now every automaker is putting out a product that relies less and less on oil/gas consumtion. Its a race that will leave America safer, more energy independant, better for the environment, cheaper costs of transportation and it makes people happy that they are accomplishing a little something to the overall health of the planet.

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