My 14-year-old car is on its last legs. I desperately need a replacement, and as an environmentalist, I want the cleanest and (especially with escalating gasoline prices) the most fuel-efficient vehicle available.

Have you seen this car?

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Toyota has a new product that I regard as fitting the bill, a four-door, five-passenger, part electric, part gasoline-powered automobile called the Prius. But I am having a difficult time getting my hands on one. If I’m lucky, my order will be filled in three months or so (a lag time with which every would-be Prius purchaser has to contend).

Is the reason for the protracted delay because Toyota can’t keep up with a flood of orders?

Well, Toyota has clearly fallen behind schedule, but I also have my doubts about Toyota’s current effectiveness in tapping the potential market for the car.

Double Trouble

A Toyota spokesperson says orders for the hybrid Prius (which has only been marketed in the U.S. since July) have been more than double the 2,000 cars that have so far been delivered to this country. He adds that because Toyota “doesn’t want to deplete pent-up demand,” it is proceeding at a cautious pace.

I would submit that the pent-up demand is far greater than Toyota presently envisions, at least in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area where I live.

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Like everywhere else in the nation, people in this region are worried about soaring gasoline prices, and in some instances they are experiencing severe economic hardship due to expenditures at the pump. Also, the Prius’s excellent pollution abatement system would be a godsend in this region, where the primary cause of deteriorating air quality is automobile exhaust.

But there’s more. The Washington metropolitan area has become a runner-up to Los Angeles for the dubious distinction of harboring the worst traffic congestion in the land. The frustrating stop-and-go driving here plays right into one of Prius’s main advantages: The car gets 55 miles to the gallon navigating through congested urban corridors. Its gasoline engine shuts off and its electric battery takes over when the vehicle is idling or crawling at a snail’s pace, as is commonplace in Washington’s daily traffic jams.

Baby, We Want to Drive Your Cars

Still, despite the Prius’s three years of commercial success in Japan, and the enthusiastic endorsements it has received in environmental and governmental circles here, Toyota is only gingerly pushing the car into the American marketplace. The company formally introduced the Prius to our shores three months ago, yet I was only the third person to place an order with the local Toyota dealership that handled my early September request. Most of my friends did not recognize the name Prius, although they all had heard of the term hybrid car, even if they were not exactly sure what it meant.

Toyota claims that it has launched an extensive national advertising campaign, but as I’ve noted, the car is not exactly a household name in my area. There is no mention of the Prius in the pages of automobile ads featured in the daily newspapers. No commercials have been aired on the local network affiliate television channels or radio stations here. While the Prius is not a military secret, customers primarily order it from a website rather than from a salesperson at a car dealership, thereby confining ownership largely to computer buffs, at least in my neck of the woods. (According to initial sales reports, California’s technology-minded Silicon Valley leads the country in Prius orders.)

Toyota says it has started out slowly with the Prius to test the waters, and will gradually increase production if justified by consumer demand. The company also is working on applying Prius engineering technology to other types of vehicles, and that is good news even if small consolation to my immediate needs.

Perhaps reflecting the absence thus far of an aggressive local publicity campaign, some automobile dealers in my area fear that the Prius won’t be able to compete with sports utility vehicles and flashy sports cars.

I think their concerns are unfounded. Indeed, I am confident that many a budget-conscious, gridlock-frustrated motorist would rush to buy the Prius if better informed and given half a chance.

So here is the message for Toyota: Don’t be so skittish about exhausting pent-up demand. Drop the timidity, rev up your assembly lines, and truly make this car of tomorrow the car of today.