Everyone knows about Portland's infatuation with mass transit. But there's another way Portland leads the country in green transportation: hybrids.

More hybrids are sold in Portland per capita than in any other market in the country, according to the latest sales figures. Portlanders are snapping up hybrids--which are powered by a mixture of gas and rechargeable batteries--at nearly five times the national average. Portland claims more than 500 of the 20,000 Toyota and Honda hybrids sold so far in the U.S.

"In Portland, we sell Priuses in bunches," says Toyota spokesman Jon Geffen. "We sell one, then the buyer goes around boasting to their friends, and we sell another by referral."

Aaron Glanville, a salesman for Ron Tonkin Toyota, says typical owners are young, urban couples with a green streak.

"People who buy these cars often do it because of their conscience," says Glanville. "Some of them are serious environmentalists."

Dana Jeffries fits the mold. As a self-described "extreme environmentalist," she's thrilled with her Prius, whose base sticker price is $19,595 and whose mileage hovers around 55 miles per gallon in the city and 42 mpg on the highway. (Mileage is better in the city because hybrids burn no gas at traffic lights, while their conventional cousins are sucking down octane and coughing out hydrocarbons.)

"I love my car, and I talk about it all the time," says Jeffries, a DJ at K-103 FM, who often works her hybrid into the morning chatter.

State Sen. Frank Shields is another hybrid evangelist. "I use that car all the time," says the Portland Democrat of his Honda Insight.

Hybrids' low emissions also appeal to green buyers. The Prius, for example, spews a fraction of a Corolla's carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, and only half the carbon dioxide. In fact, experts claim the exhaust from an idle hybrid is cleaner than the air in L.A.

What's perhaps most remarkable about the hybrid invasion is that hybrids are flying off Portland lots even though salespeople aren't pushing them. That's because Toyota loses about $20,000 on every Prius, which means tiny commissions for dealers. At Tonkin, for example, salespeople earn just $60 for selling a hybrid, a fifth of their commission for a conventional car with the same price tag.

"I haven't ever steered anyone toward getting a hybrid, but I don't need to," says Glanville. "Buyers know when they step on the lot they want a hybrid."

To turn a profit on hybrids, auto makers need to reach beyond the ideological "fanatics," says Thad Malesh at J.D. Power and Associates. Honda has just released a hybrid Civic, which is already turning heads in showrooms. "The Civic hybrid will be a watershed," Malesh continues. "Loyal Honda customers will be comfortable with it because it looks like a Civic."

Salespeople and manufacturers aren't yet breaking even on hybrids; neither are the customers who were sold on fuel economy. According to a March 2001 study published in the Institute of Electricians and Electrical Engineers' Spectrum, savings at the gas pump over a car's expected lifetime of six to eight years do not offset the additional $4,000 to $5,000 needed to go hybrid (a conventional Civic LX costs $17,000, compared with a hybrid version priced at $21,000-$22,000). However, Oregon residents come closer to the break-even point with the help of a $1,500 state tax credit (though Oregon demands higher registration fees for hybrids).

But hybrid owners say their benefits can't be measured in dollars and sense. "The efficiency is great, but diesel engines have good numbers, too," says Prius owner Jonathan Budner. "The real difference is in the lowered emissions."

Despite the lopsided economics, experts and manufacturers agree that hybrids and other alternative-fuel vehicles are the wave of the future. Toyota, in an extremely bold prediction, expects to sell 300,000 hybrids a year by 2005, 20 times as many as the company sells now. To do so, it is banking on hybrid evangelists like Sheila Brown.

"I feel like the belle of the ball," says Brown, a local Prius owner. "Wherever I go around the area, people look at the car, and I tell them how much I love it."