This spring, more and more Americans are looking to buy one of a growing array of fuel-saving hybrid vehicles, a Reuters report said.

“With gasoline prices reaching beyond $US2 per gallon and the general concern over the US’s dependence on foreign oil, hybrid vehicles are catching more consumers’ attention,” Prudential Equity Group analyst Michael Bruynesteyn reportedly said in a recent research note.

Hybrids hold only a tiny share of the U.S. car and truck market, but sales have climbed 36% so far this year, according to research firm RL Polk & Co, Reuters said.

The vehicles, which get up to 55 miles on a single gallon of gasoline, are no longer just for technophiles or environmentalists, Bruynesteyn reportedly said.

Reuters noted that a similar trend had surfaced during the energy crisis of the 1970s, when many Arab nations cut off oil exports to the United States and other counties – petrol prices surged, and many Americans turned to smaller cars, only to trade them in for bigger models when fuel got cheap again.

Now people again appear to be staying away from petrol-thirsty vehicles, the news agency said, noting that sales of the Hummer H2 sports utility vehicle, which gets 11 to 13 miles per gallon, have cooled in recent months and there are signs that people are staying away from other larger SUVs.

At the same time, the cost of hybrids, which sell for an average of about $2,500 more than comparable petrol-only vehicles, has limited their appeal since the first one, from Honda, went on sale in the United States about five years ago, Reuters noted.

Total hybrid sales in the United States reached 43,435 vehicles last year, compared with 16.7 million for the overall car and truck market, the report added.

Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club’s Global Warming and Energy Programme, told Reuters that hybrid buyers could eventually make up the extra cost with tax subsidies and reduced petrol consumption.

“People have to remember that they save a lot of money on gas at the pump,” particularly when prices are so high, he reportedly added.

Reuters said that Detroit’s Big Three carmakers, which make most of their profits on sales of big, high-consumption SUVs and pickup trucks, have lagged behind Honda and Toyota in entering the hybrid market.

Besides Toyota’s Prius, only two hybrid cars are available in the United States – Honda’s Insight and a version of its Civic, the report noted, adding that Ford is launching a hybrid version of its popular Escape compact SUV this summer and has plans to roll out others in the near future.

“Among the Big 3, Ford is the clear early leader in the hybrid arena,” Bruynesteyn told Reuters, which added that hybrid versions of GM’s Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra are also in the pipeline – the company has said it could build as many as a million hybrids by 2007.

The news agency said Chrysler is introducing a hybrid version of its Dodge Ram pickup truck though Eric Ridenour, the company’s head of product development, said some carmakers have overstated the benefits of hybrids, which only yield better fuel-economy in stop-and-go driving.

“Will hybrids become ubiquitous?” he reportedly said. “I don’t think so.”

But for now, Reuters said, they seem to be capturing the imaginations of consumers and carmakers and the upcoming vehicles from Detroit will compete with new offerings from the Japanese, including hybrid versions of the Honda Accord, the Lexus RX SUV and Toyota Highlander.

“That will expand the appeal of the vehicles quite a bit,” RL Polk analyst Mark Pauze told Reuters.

Reuters said Toyota decided to increase this year’s Prius shipments to the United States to 47,000 cars from the 36,000 originally planned while the Sierra Club’s Becker noted that Prius buyers in some parts of the country must wait up to eight months their cars to arrive.

The New York Post reportedly named the Prius the “transportation of choice” at the recent Academy Awards, where several stars came via the Toyota car instead of a limousine as part of an effort by advocacy group Global Green USA.

Other entertainers, such as Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Billy Joel, reportedly also tout their ownership of hybrids as part of a backlash against consumerism and America’s love affair with petrol-guzzling SUVS.

Even police officers are using hybrids to save money, Reuters noted – in Florida, the Martin County Sheriff’s Department owns about two dozen and is planning to buy more.

“We consume 60% less fuel with these vehicles,” Sheriff Robert Crowder told the news agency, adding that the hybrid trucks and SUVs hitting the market soon are “probably going to be something we would be interested in.”