When Patrick Neale filled up his GMC Yukon one day in October 2008, his days of driving big — and on gas — came to an end.
"It was the $100 gas tank that broke me," said Neale, a Naples attorney who has driven the same Toyota Camry hybrid ever since.
Neale is one of a growing number of Southwest Florida drivers making the switch from gas-powered cars and trucks to hybrids, or vehicles using two or more distinct power sources to move them.
They are catching up to a national trend toward greener travel. Since 2008, hybrids' share of vehicle registrations in Collier County has gone from 1.9 percent to 3.5 percent for the first three months of 2012. In Lee County, hybrids' share of registrations has gone from 2.6 percent to 4 percent during the same period, according to figures from Edmunds.com, an automotive research website.
Nationwide, for the first three months of 2012, the share of hybrid auto registrations is at 3.5 percent compared to 2.6 percent in 2008, according to Edmunds.com.
After a dip in hybrid sales last year, Toyota has ramped up production of its Prius, the nation's most popular hybrid, after setbacks in 2011 from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, said auto industry analyst Mike Omotoso.
"In a way it's a brand name, not just a model name," said Omotoso, senior manager at LMC Automotive. "It became kind of the 'it' car to have if you wanted to have a hybrid."
According to Edmunds.com, the original Prius has had more than half of the U.S. hybrid market share since 2008, but that share has dipped this year as manufacturers have turned out more hybrid versions of their own.
Toyota, for example, has begun to make a Prius V, a crossover vehicle, and the Prius C, a subcompact commuter car. A Prius plug-in is coming soon, and Toyota announced this spring it is building a hybrid RAV4.
"It's a really hot market," said Evelyn Camilo, general manager at Germain Toyota in North Naples.
A decade ago, eco-conscious drivers were the main market for Prius. Instead of saving the planet, more buyers — from 18 to 90 years old — are interested in saving money, Camilo said.
Buyers who don't want their hybrid to look like a hybrid have more and more options to buy more traditional cars with hybrid engines, Camilo said.
Neale, the Naples attorney, said he chose a hybrid Camry back in 2008 because he thought early versions of the Prius were "seriously ugly." He was single at the time, and didn't want to arrive in dates in a car that looked like a Prius, he said.
"They were just a little too nerdy," he said. "(The Camry hybrid) didn't suck all the cool out of me."
Gas prices were the final straw for Neale, but for many drivers hybrids still aren't a good deal, analyst Omotoso said.
"For most people, it doesn't make sense to buy a hybrid," he said.
Hybrids cost some $6,000 more than their gas-driven counterparts, and drivers don't keep cars long enough to make up the difference in gas savings, he said.
From a payback point of view, gas prices would have to stay above $4 per gallon and the price premium would have to narrow to make hybrids more economical, he said.
Still, auto manufacturers are expected to turn out more hybrids as new federal fuel efficiency standards force them to lower their fleets' average gas mileage.
Omotoso said forecasts show hybrids will have 6.8 percent of the U.S. market by 2017, or about 1.1 million hybrids being driven off new car lots.
Neale said he would buy another hybrid and will look beyond the Toyota lot next time.
"There's so many alternatives out there now," he said.