Every morning, as Lynn Schmidt walks out of her Long Island, N.Y., home, opens the door to her baby-blue Prius, waves to her grumbling neighbor and pulls out of the driveway, she has every reason to smile.
It's not just the 45 miles per gallon her gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle is getting. And it's not only that she can go three weeks without a fill-up.
It's also because that through her choice of automobile, Lynn is doing what she considers her share of being ecologically reasonable.
"Everyone should be concerned about the level of emissions," says Schmidt. "We all need to do our part and make changes for the better."
She's not alone. With skyrocketing oil prices, many owners of hybrid vehicles and practitioners of the "green" lifestyle are seeing their eco-friendly choices pay off.
But that's led to some grumblings from late adopters — and charges that the greener-than-thou are guilty of "eco-snobbery."
Schmidt says she bought the Prius two years ago partly because of the huge potential savings on gasoline, but also because the car offered her a chance to be environmentally conscious.
The other day, she pulled up next to another Prius — and the two drivers exchanged a knowing smile of eco-camaraderie.
"There can be some smugness on the part of the Prius owners because it's distinctive," says Michael Omotoso of the automotive-marketing-data giant J.D. Power and Associates. "It's 'Hey, look at me, I'm driving a hybrid!'"
Studies conducted by J.D. Power show that the typical hybrid purchaser is better educated and wealthier than the average car buyer. Furthering the exclusivity is the fact that available hybrids are hard to find.
"If someone wants a Prius, they better put the order in," says Erin Dwyer, a salesperson at Sunrise Toyota of Oakdale, N.Y. "The list is getting longer each day."
Waiting lists of three months seem to be common nationwide, to the point where an online support group has sprung up.
Auto analysts say that in California, demand is so high that used Priuses go for close to what a new one would sell for.
"Unless Toyota sends a lot more cars, we're going to see Prius wait lists spin out again to about six months," one Berkeley, Calif., Toyota dealer told HybridCars.com in June.
In fact, sales were down in June of this year because dealers simply ran out of stock, prompting Toyota to switch a planned Mississippi factory's production line from Highlander SUVs to Priuses.
This gives the entire idea of hybrid driving a slightly our-crowd feel.
"I think that we Prius owners need a dating/whatever program, to hook us up with other Prius owners," says one poster on Priuschat.com.
He admits it's half a joke, but says it "stems from my inability to look at people with gas-burning cars as attractive."
It's clear that hybrid buyers want to appear environmentally conscious, observes Aaron Bragman, a Detroit-based research analyst with the Global Insight economic-forecasting company.
"A big component [of hybrid ownership] is the social aspect," he says, adding that if a consumer just wanted to save money on gas, he or she could buy a new subcompact for $11,000 instead of forking out a minimum of $22,000 for a hybrid.
Toss in the tax breaks and access to highway HOV lanes that hybrid drivers get in many locales, and it's no wonder old-school drivers can get irritated.
"I do believe in global warming, but the Prius isn't the answer," posts one commenter on the popular tech blog Engadget. "Every time I look at a Prius, it only reaffirms my belief that ultra-liberals and poorly educated science environments are the world's greatest threats. GO HUG A TREE PRIUS BUYERS!"
Some environmentalists are cheered that skyrocketing hybrid sales seem to be boosting green awareness in general.
The Center for Science Teaching and Learning, a Rockville Centre, N.Y.-based organization that houses animal exhibits and educational displays about nature, is seeing 40 percent more bookings as a birthday-party venue this year as compared to 2007.
Green-related inquiries to the center, such as asking how to use eco-friendly products in a home garden or how to get a hydrogen-powered car, have increased 56 percent from last year, says Director Ray Ann Havasy.
But as with many aspects of the environmentally consciously lifestyle, such as organic milk in the supermarket or the surcharge New York's Con Edison utility slaps on kilowatt-hours generated by wind turbines, there's a premium to be paid.
"There is a lot of interest in naturally grown food," observes Havasy. "But people do not seem to understand why it costs more."
That principle applied to automobiles is what's preventing a lot of potential hybrid buyers from making the switch.
Long Island mom Beth Wollweber says a brand-new hybrid just isn't economically feasible right now, even though it takes about $150 to fill up her old GMC Suburban, which she uses mainly just to run errands around town and doesn't think she could sell for much.
"I would rather be eco-friendly — and pocketbook-friendly," says Wollweber.
Her neighbor Norah LeBlanc, who's lately been biking or walking more often instead of driving her 11-miles-per-gallon GMC Denali, isn't ready to fork over for a Prius either.
"If I could find a hybrid in my price range, then it would make sense for me and I would buy one," says LeBlanc. "I don't love, love, love how it looks, but I sure do like the idea of it."