Internet lead provider AutoUSA reports a 273% May year-to-date increase in consumer leads for fuel-efficient Toyota Prius hybrid-electric vehicles, at a time when gasoline prices are topping $4 per gallon.

AutoUSA’s Prius online leads have been steadily growing over the past three years, more than doubling from May 2006 to 2007 in addition to the significant spike this year.

“With gas prices continuing to go up, more in-market auto buyers are looking for hybrids and green vehicles,” says AutoUSA President Phil DuPree. “What we’re seeing with the Prius is indicative of the changing buying habits of consumers and new market demands.”

The Prius is the first mass-produced HEV. It was initially sold in Japan in 1997, and marketed internationally starting in 2001. In May 2008, despite consumer interest, Toyota reported a 40% drop in Prius sales. The auto maker attributes the decline to a shortage of batteries that is likely to be resolve in January 2009.

“The situation with Prius is frustrating,” says Mike Martini, sales manager at Burnsville Toyota in Minnesota. “It’s both a good and bad problem,” “Our closing ratio is being impacted, but we’re increasing the number of pre-orders.”

Burnsville Toyota is one of the largest Prius dealers in the state. According to Martini, the dealership is averaging three to five Prius pre-orders a day on both Internet and walk-in customers, with a six- to eight-month wait on delivery.

“We’re taking pre-orders, but we’re also trying to educate potential Prius buyers on the different options available, such as the Corolla and Camry,” Martini says. “Sometimes they don’t really need to buy a hybrid because another energy-efficient vehicle will meet their needs.”

Information helping environmental and gas-conscious consumers in their vehicle purchasing decision is Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). “Successful dealers are finding that once buyers understand TCO, many more vehicles become an option,” says DuPree.