Better Than Speed (Driving a Hybrid)

(The other day I heard Bill McKibben and Paul Hawken on the radio addressing the Commonwealth Club. Did that stir up the memories! In the 1990s, I was an environmental journalist, first as an editor at E: The Environmental Magazine, then as a contributing editor to The Amicus Journal, published by the Natural Resources Defense Council, and as a special correspondent for the Adirondack Explorer. I also wrote for Mother Jones, New Age Journal, In These Times, and others. I was steeped in the issues that McKibben and Hawken address with such eloquence as author/activists. By the early 2000s, I’d ventured off to write more personal essays. By I’ve retrieved this one from 2002, a shorter version of which appeared in Mother Earth News. Let me dedicate it to McKibben, Hawken, and thousands of others fighting the good fight. The girlfriend in this piece is history. But the car is still going strong, averaging 52.6 miles per gallon over its 192,061miles to date. My little effort to deprive the oil companies of some of my money.)

At 210,000 miles, my beloved Nissan Sentra was given a death sentence by a mechanic who found the underbody too rusted to pass the next vehicle inspection. I wasn’t surprised. For the past year, the car had grown rusty boils and stains, while pieces had chipped off in my hands like tree bark. Plus, the locks now froze in the snow, the speedometer light bulb had been burned out for months, and the headlights looked dim as yellow parchment against the Catskills forest at night. I’d miss this rugged little car. Bought used, it had served me well for five years of living in a log cabin and enjoying the sort of driving experiences on wilderness roads that many Americans only know from SUV commercials. But nothing lasts forever. I was ready for a new car. I wanted a hybrid.

By combining an electric motor with a gasoline engine, hybrid technology enables cars to get much better fuel mileage. While every environmentalist likes the idea of higher mileage, hybrids are still something of a novelty. To be honest, I’d never even seen one on the road. But, for me, mileage was a personal issue.

The previous summer, my girlfriend and I had visited the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for 18 days of backpacking and river rafting. Not only had we flown hundreds of miles in a bush plane to be dropped on a tundra runway, we had essentially traveled back in time to the Pleistocene when mountains were bare rock and snow, valleys were covered by tiny Arctic flowers and birch trees barely up to our waists, and wild animals roamed the open landscape largely ignorant of humans. We saw wolves and grizzlies, musk oxen, and caribou migrating by the dozens, hundreds, and then thousands through the same passes and valleys of the Brooks Range that we were following north to the coastal plain. If they happened to walk close enough, we could hear their tendons clicking, but being skittish animals, they were quick to stampede, a thrilling sight that made the ground shiver while our hearts raced. It made me realize how tame cowboy movie stampedes are compared to the real thing.

At the end of our trip, we camped on a gravel reef beside the Arctic Ocean, where the pack ice was melting apart in early July. In rubber boots, we walked out onto a surreal landscape of open pools, frozen fairways, and upturned ice boulders and spires. Without waves, this ocean was quiet as a bathtub, yet our guides warned us to be vigilant for polar bears that might be hunting the seals we regularly saw, and could just as well try hunting us. Fortunately, we didn’t encounter a polar bear, but my girlfriend did find a polar bear skull that she gave me as a souvenir from this remarkable trip. To us, the Arctic Refuge felt like the last edge of the North American continent that our modern civilization hasn’t conquered.

On the 19th day, we visited the Prudhoe Bay oil complex, a network of drilling pads, pipelines, gravel roads, and processing plants spread across an area the size of Rhode Island. To my surprise, I didn’t find it especially ugly. Compared to an abused industrial swamp like the New Jersey Meadowlands, it looked like a model of sophisticated engineering and environmental care. But it certainly wasn’t wilderness. It looked more like a military base. And, if extended eastwards into the Arctic Refuge, the oil complex would destroy the wild beauty of that landscape as surely as bombs have destroyed cathedrals.

After that trip, I wanted the best gas mileage I could buy. I’d first heard of the hybrid concept as a journalist traveling with a solar-electric car rally from Manhattan to Washington D.C. in 1996. The contestants ranged from high school metal shop students to MIT-trained entrepreneurs to iconoclastic professors. (One had not only built his own commuting vehicle, but his own solar house and his own small airplane.) Some rally vehicles were ordinary sedans, vans, and pick-ups retrofitted to be electric, but others were colorful inventions: a highway torpedo-on-wheels, a stock car covered with solar panels, and a three-wheeled cockpit that pulled its biodiesel tank like a trailer. Seeing these adventurous machines, I realized that vehicles have much more potential variety than the monotonous parade of sedans, SUVs, and mini-vans now on our highways.

The great debate at the rally was whether hybrids would soon replace electrics as the green vehicle of choice. The purists still defended electrics, confident that they could somehow overcome the problem that these cars must be plugged in and recharged every 100 miles or less. But several veteran professors persuaded me that hybrids would be more practical. Yes, they’d still have polluting tailpipes, but they’d get better mileage, while still traveling the same distances between fill-ups as conventional vehicles. In fact, hybrids would improve upon the performance of straight gasoline vehicles, because electric motors provide more power and acceleration in low gear. One professor even suggested that Detroit would soon begin converting to hybrids en masse.

As with many optimistic predictions about the environment, I’m still waiting. SUVs, not hybrids, have been Detroit’s favorite new machine. The Hummer, not higher mileage, has been Detroit’s answer to Middle Eastern oil politics. Why anyone would buy a Hummer is beyond me: perhaps they have fantasies of driving out to watch the next desert war like a drive-in movie. Obviously, they don’t care about getting 12 miles-per-gallon on the highway, or something like 4 mpg in the sand.

Fortunately, the Japanese have shown more faith. When I began shopping, I had two hybrid choices: the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight. For professional critics the choice was clear. The Car Talk brothers raved about the Prius on their web site: “It’s a tree-hugger’s dream that any one could be happy with,” unlike the Insight which “makes too many comprises.” Consumer Reports found the Prius “a viable alternative to any small sedan,” while the “Insight’s ride is stiff, its handling less than nimble, and its cabin very noisy.” dismissed the Honda as a “science experiment”…”good for little more than personal transportation.”

Through my e-mail network I found friends who had owned a Prius for a year. A retired couple, they drove the same mountain roads I did and shared my environmental sympathies. (Their son had written a book, Car-Free Cities.) But they weren’t starry-eyed. She’d been a newspaper reporter with a great bullshit detector, while he’d been an engineer. That they loved their Prius was a strong endorsement. I accepted their invitation to take the car out for a spin and soon sat in the lap of luxury.

My Nissan Sentra was a bare bones sedan with two doors, a stick shift, roll down windows, and leaden shock absorbers. In the Prius the hybrid technology seemed like the least of the improvements. It had power steering, power brakes, and what felt like power plush seats. The windshield sloped far out towards the road with digital monitors along the bottom rim as if passing scenery might have captions. Most impressive of all, the dashboard had a monitor like an ATM machine that showed diagrams of the car’s energy flow with moving arrows. To be driving and watching the monitor seemed as futuristic as a World’s Fair ride, until my friend in the passenger seats told me to please keep my eyes on the road.

The hybrid moment came at a stop sign when the gas engine turned itself off to save a sip of fuel. The Prius idled as silently as an electric clock. “We haven’t stalled,” my friend reassured me. “Just press the gas pedal.” The engine purred again. From there, he directed me to the bottom of a steep hill to prove that the car was as powerful as any other sedan. “Go ahead, floor it,” he said, not something I’d heard before from a man in his 80’s. But he was right. The Prius shot uphill so fast my foot never quite reached the floor. I was sold.

To be a savvy consumer, however, I decided to try an Insight for comparison. At the local Honda dealership, I found one in the lot, still half-wrapped from the factory with brown paper covering the hood. Unlike the Prius, which resembled conventional sedans except for a shortened hood, the Insight looked futuristic: part sports coup, part hatchback, and very aerodynamic. Even the radio antenna on the roof leaned back at an angle. Obviously, this vehicle had been designed more in the spirit of an airplane than a tank, unlike SUVs, which would be better labeled as Suburban Assault Vehicles. Later, I learned that the Insight’s front wheels actually stand four inches wider apart than the rear wheels to help the air flow around the tapered body. The most striking difference from other cars, though, was that the rear wheels were largely hidden behind metal covers that blended in with the body. That prevented wind from catching in the wheel wells. But it also gave the Insight a diminutive appearance compared to many vehicles that show off their big tires as a sign of ruggedness. The Insight wasn’t the kind of car that got you laid in High School.

It also looked small, even smaller than my Sentra. If this car was basically an aerodynamic cockpit, I couldn’t afford it. I needed the storage space and the sturdiness of a conventional car. The hatchback didn’t look promising for space, and the metal skirt below the bumpers and doors made the car sit so low that I wondered if it could get stuck on a speed bump. On dirt roads in the country it would scrape every rock.

The Honda salesman invited me to crouch down and compare my Sentra’s clearance. The Insight wasn’t any lower, he explained, it just looked that way because of the aerodynamic body skirt. I had to admit he was right. “It’s just like a regular car,” he said. “The only thing you’ll notice is how much less often you go to the gas station.”

Buckled in the driver’s seat, I didn’t find the Insight so small, after all. I did sit lower than in my Sentra, but I had longer leg room and deeper peddles. What was different was how the bucket seat with a high headrest discouraged me from glancing back over my shoulder. And when I did, there was no back seat. It was more like a carpeted crawl space. This car was truly a two-seater.

From the lot, I pulled out into traffic on the commercial strip that passed Home Depot, Wal-Mart, and the mall. Waiting at stop lights on the way to the highway I glanced at other drivers, wondering if they noticed this unusual vehicle. They didn’t seem to. And I didn’t feel that different from driving my Sentra.

Unlike the Prius, the dashboard didn’t have a monitor screen, but it was Digital Age compared to my car. The speed glowed in liquid crystal golden orange, a number hard to ignore. Two matching gauges showed the gas tank and battery charge levels. Another pair of gauges indicated when the battery was discharging to boost the gas engine, or recharging through regenerative braking. (The Prius and Insight never need to be plugged in like totally electric vehicles. They always recharge themselves.)

Then I spotted the miles-per-gallon number in liquid crystal green. In the past, I’d met mileage nerds who kept a notebook in the glove compartment to record fill-ups and odometer readings in order to calculate mpg for themselves, but I’d never seen a car do the math for you. So far, the Insight had gotten 48.1 mpg from the dealer’s lot to the highway entrance ramp. Noticing my fascination, the salesman had me push a button that switched the reading from a digital number to a bar graph that pulsed back and forth, giving the mpg at that very moment. Shifting from second to third gear on the entrance ramp, I saw my mpg slip to 30, but after entering traffic and reaching cruising speed, I eased off the gas and saw it shoot to the end at 150. And stay there. And stay there. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t been so amazed by a machine since the first time I logged onto the Internet.

Wasn’t mpg what it was all about? Our alternative to destroying the Arctic Refuge? Our best hope for slowing global warming? Our declaration of independence from Middle Eastern oil politics? My top priority in choosing a car? The green pulse slipped back to 75 as I lightly touched the gas again but I was enthralled. This was the magic of hybrids. This was better than speed.

Back at the Honda lot, I asked the salesman to open the hatchback for me. I needed to be reminded of why I shouldn’t buy this car. It didn’t have a trunk. It didn’t have a rear seat. (I’d always thought of two-seaters as weekend sports cars for aging playboys with expensive blondes.) It wouldn’t be practical for my life in a log cabin in the mountains where the local guys drove pickup trucks.

But the carpeted storage space was roomier than I expected. And the salesman lifted a lid in the floor that revealed a sunken storage box as large as a beach cooler. It could easily hold several grocery bags. What did I load in my Nissan Sentra anyway? A sand bag in the trunk for winter emergencies. Cassette tapes, overdue library books, a road atlas, Kleenex–all in the back seat within easily reach. A bird’s nest from a day hike that I kept forgetting to bring into the cabin. The truth was, as a bachelor, I’d probably driven 115,000 miles by myself, and another 5,000 with my girlfriend. How many times had I carried a third or fourth passenger? A dozen? Most of the time my storage space had been dead weight.

The truth was, the EPA rated the Insight at 61 mpg for city driving and 68 mpg for highway driving, while it rated the Prius at 52 mpg urban, 45 mpg highway. (Later, I learned that these EPA figures are inflated by some old-fashioned assumptions about our driving habits, such as the idea that we average 48 miles-per-hour on the highway, which may have been true in the Seventies. Today, the average is closer to 60 mph.)

But the critics loved the Prius. My friends loved the Prius. And practical cars always had four seats. Even if I couldn’t think of a good reason why I needed them at the moment, I shouldn’t make a rash decision. I needed to talk with someone who drove an Insight in the real world.

Through my network of environmental contacts, I finally found one, a solar entrepreneur who lived a mile up a dirt road in Maine. Over the phone, he didn’t sound impressed by my concerns. “I’ve never put on my chains,” he said, apparently insulted that I would question the Insight’s handling in snow. As for storage, he and his wife had easily stowed their gear in the hatchback for a ten day vacation that summer. And if I lacked the conviction to chose the Insight, he certainly hoped I wouldn’t buy a Prius.

“Why not?” I asked. Who could dislike the Prius? Besides the oil companies?

“It’s full of compromises,” he said. “It only gets 48 miles-per-gallon.” He explained how this sedan had sacrificed mileage performance for luxury. Actually, he continued, I’d get better mileage with a diesel car, such as a Volkswagen Jetta or Golf. Of course, diesels have terrible tailpipe emissions, but I could easily clean up that problem by converting the car to run on biodiesel, and thereby cutting my unburned hydrocarbon emissions by 93 percent. He was passionate on the subject.

“Where would I find biodiesel?” I asked. From what little I knew, this alternative fuel was refined from the oil used by McDonald’s in French fry vats. A colorful concept, but I hadn’t eaten at McDonald’s in years.

“At my web site,” he answered. Through the wonders of on-line shopping, I could order 55 gallon drums of biodiesel, which the UPS would deliver by truck to my driveway.

I can’t say his proposal didn’t have some appeal. The promise of greater self-sufficiency often does. Already I lived in a log cabin with my own well for drinking water, my own wood stove for heat, and my own sewage system, which included the freedom of pissing outside whenever I liked. Why not tell Exxon and the oil sheiks to stuff it?

But the idea of becoming my own filling station had problems. First, I shared the driveway with my neighbor, who’d been so nasty the time he found a cord of fire wood dumped for me that I could imagine his fury at a permanent row of barrels. For sure, he’d make my life miserable. Second, I was the sort of negligent shopper who routinely let my refrigerator sit empty for a week. With biodiesel, I couldn’t very well recover from my absent-mindedness by using a local filling station until my UPS shipment arrived. I’d be stuck, desperately searching for McDonald’s.

So I bought an Insight. And I got lucky, finding a used one, only 10 months old with 14,700 miles, yet $5,000 less than the new model I tested. As an owner, I’ve learned a few more things about this car. For example, the electric motor isn’t really the secret to its high mileage. Rather, the Japanese have made it much more aerodynamic and much lighter than conventional cars by using aluminum body parts, while still protecting passengers within a steel frame for safety. The gasoline engine happens to be the smallest you can find in a car–it only has three cylinders–yet it’s so efficient that it produces 20 percent more power for its size than the engines in most new cars. And the engine can afford to be this small because the electric motor boosts it through the weak spots. On the road, my beloved Insight may not be a Jaguar, but it’s much zippier than my old Sentra or the lumbering SUVs I love to pass on long uphills. If I ever slowed down to the speed limit, I might even approach the EPA ratings.

I admit it: I’ve become a mileage nerd with my own notebook in the glove compartment. After 20,000 miles in this past year, I can report that the Insight’s best fill-up came in Tennessee after several long hot days on the Interstate when a tankful finished at 68.3 mpg and its worst arrived in November at 54.5 mpg after two weeks of toddling around town in cold weather. Usually, I get from 58 to 63 mpg depending on the weather and the amount of highway driving. (One night, for fun , I measured five miles on the Thruway before my exit: 118.0. The only way to do better is to coast down a mountain: 134.6 from the Mohonk Mountain House to New Paltz.)

The only person to complain has been my girlfriend. I’ve overheard her with friends: “What does he say when he walks in the door? Not, ‘Honey, I’m home!’ No, he says, ‘62.3!'” But I know what she really means: When are you going to lend me the keys?

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