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Hybrid sales growth trailing off

New hybrid registrations grew at second-slowest pace since 2000 last year.

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Registrations of new hybrid vehicles in the United States increased 28 percent in 2006, but that was the second-smallest increase since 2000, and represented just 1.5 percent of new vehicle registrations, R.L. Polk & Co. said Monday.

During 2005, hybrid registrations more than doubled, rising at the fastest rate since 2000.

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Hybrid technology is "not so new anymore, so you've got this second wave of buyers, more cautious in seeing what the market offers," said Lonnie Miller, director of industry analysis for Polk.

Hybrid vehicles use an electric motor in addition to a gasoline engine to power the vehicle. Battery power for the electric motor is supplied by the gasoline engine. The arrangement allows gasoline power to be used more efficiently, resulting in greater fuel efficiency.

The Toyota Prius, which gets an EPA-estimated 55 mpg overall, accounted for 42.8 percent of all hybrid registrations in the United States. The Toyota Highlander Hybrid SUV, which is rated at a combined 29 mpg for its two-wheel-drive version, was the second-most popular hybrid model in the nation, accounting for 12.5 percent of hybrid registrations. Overall, three-quarters of the hybrids registered in 2006 were made by Toyota Motor Co.

(EPA fuel economy estimates are for the 2007 model year. Estimates for the 2008 model year will use new testing methods that will result in generally lower figures.)

"The Prius continues to set the pace for this category. However, with several new models debuting over the next two years, and many in the works for the near future, Toyota market share will be challenged," said Miller.

Toyota has begun offering purchase incentives on the Prius which, until recently, had had months-long waiting lists of buyers.

The Honda Civic Hybrid was third-most popular hybrid vehicle, accounting for 12.3 percent of hybrid registrations. The Civic Hybrid gets an EPA-estimated 50 mpg in combined city and highway driving.

Ford sells hybrid versions of its Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner SUVs. General Motors sells a hybrid version of its Saturn Vue SUV.

Nissan recently introduced a hybrid version of its new Altima sedan, but it is currently available in only a few states.

Among the new SUVs coming on the market this year are hybrid versions of GM's large SUVs and its Saturn Aura sedan.

Ford expects to release hybrid versions of its Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan sedans in 2008.

The Chrysler Group of DaimlerChrysler is planning to offer a hybrid version of its Durango SUV in 2008, as well.

Hybrid market growth will probably continue at roughly the current pace said Miller, as more hybrid vehicles enter the market.

"It's still a supply-based category," he he said.

Meanwhile the used vehicle market, in which hybrid vehicles still command high prices, is also feeding more of the demand, Miller said.

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