Hybrid car pioneers Toyota and Honda say they probably can’t build enough of the fuel-saving models to meet demand this year as rising petrol prices ignite consumer interest, Bloomberg News reported.

The news agency said sales of the three petrol-electric models, Toyota’s Prius and Honda’s Insight and Civic Hybrid, are up 50% so far this year but a Prius model change late this year and a production ceiling at Honda mean sales may be limited to about 50,000 cars in 2003.

“Given expected availability and product-release schedules, hybrid sales could be 50,000 to 55,000 this year, no higher,” Walter McManus, a global forecasting director for JD Power & Associates, told Bloomberg News.

Hybrid sales remain at niche levels as retail costs are as much as $US4,000 more than equivalent petrol-powered cars and consumers are wary of new technology, analysts told Bloomberg News.

Toyota and Honda combined sold 36,000 hybrids in the US last year, just 0.2% of 16.8 million new cars and trucks bought, Bloomberg News said.

The news agency said that Toyota has forecast sales of 21,000 Prius in 2003, compared with 20,119 last year, as supplies of the current version run down ahead of the launch of a redesigned 2004 model.

“Demand for Prius is going to continue to outstrip supply,” spokesman John Hanson told Bloomberg News. “The plan right now is to continue to cycle down inventories in preparation for the next generation.”

Spokesman Andy Boyd told Bloomberg News that Honda plans to sell 24,000 Civic Hybrids in 2003, from fewer than 15,000 last year. Should demand grow beyond that, the Tokyo-based company could lift output 25% to supply about 30,000 a year, he added, according to the report.

Demand for two-seat Insights may fall below the 2,216 sold last year, Boyd told Bloomberg, but wouldn’t confirm that 2003 is the last year for the model, the first US hybrid when it went on sale in 1999.

However, just-auto understands that the two-seat coupe has already been axed from Honda’s Europe line-up, replaced by the five-seat Civic Hybrid saloon.

Bloomberg News said that General Motors and Ford plan to enter the hybrid market late this year with three light trucks, with initial sales limited to fleets. Sales to consumers through US dealerships begin in middle of next year, the companies told the news agency, but neither gave sales estimates for this year or next.

GM will sell a small number of Silverado and Sierra pickups with a “mild” hybrid system that raises fuel economy as much as 12%, spokesman Joe Lawrence told Bloomberg News.