MARK RECHTIN

A missed golden (state) opportunity for Honda

LOS ANGELES -- Panic struck numerous California drivers on Friday, as the state voided the privileges of the 85,000 holders of yellow car pool lane stickers, attached to Toyota Priuses and other hybrid vehicles.

In 2005, the state of California allowed the car pool lane permits for single drivers as long as they drove a Prius, Honda Civic Hybrid, or a Honda Insight, which at the time were not seeing large-scale acceptance. The permits originally were due to expire last year, but the state extended that deadline until last Friday.

But some alt-fuels vehicles still have access to car pool lanes, and this is where American Honda could have capitalized.

Zero-emission vehicles and natural gas vehicles can carry a white sticker that also gives car pool lane access, through January 2015. Honda has sold a natural gas version of the old-generation Civic, but mostly in scant volumes to a few government fleet customers.

But with the arrival of the 2012 Civic, Honda proclaimed it would make a more retail-focused natural-gas-powered NGV version. But while most of the Civic lineup was to arrive with the car's April launch, the NGV wasn't scheduled to arrive until fall.

Here's where more talks between Honda's strategic planning department and the manufacturing side would have helped.

This end-of-days in the car pool lanes for Prius owners has been known for years. Yellow-sticker holders are desperate to maintain their car pool lane privileges, and are calling Honda dealers in a frenzy to see if they have any NGV Civics in stock.

"Every single person who bought a hybrid to get into the car pool lane is trying to get a NGV Civic, and none exists right now," said Dave Conant, whose Conant Auto Retail Group includes Norm Reeves Honda in Cerritos. "There is a real premium on the used versions. We found one or two [used ones] last week."

Scheduling the start of manufacturing for the NGV Civic to coincide with the yellow-sticker expiration should have been a priority for Honda's planners. A big reason the Toyota Prius is the No. 1-selling car in San Francisco is not for supposed tree-hugger reasons. It's because all those city dwellers who commute 40 miles to Silicon Valley want to blow past traffic in the car pool lane.

A few years ago, Toyota had the wick cranked up on Prius production at just the right time and, blammo, instant market share domination in Northern California.

The marketing of the NGV Civic would have been a no-brainer for the California Honda dealer associations. Prius owners would have flooded the dealerships, willing to give up their Toyotas for a NGV Civic in a heartbeat.

They still might, come fall, but there's no time like the present to take advantage of a panicked mob mentality.

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