The joy of driving

Why hybrid-car owners have more fun

MATCHING SET <br>Bill and Linda Scott liked the hybrid Honda Insight so much they bought two of them, one for him, one for her. They especially like the good gas mileage—they’ve cut their commuting fuel bill by two-thirds.

Bill and Linda Scott liked the hybrid Honda Insight so much they bought two of them, one for him, one for her. They especially like the good gas mileage—they’ve cut their commuting fuel bill by two-thirds.

Photo by Tom Angel

William and Linda Scott have solved their commuting problem in an extraordinary manner, and they couldn’t be happier about it.

The couple lives on an olive farm in Corning. He works as a court commissioner in Butte County, traveling to Chico, Oroville or Paradise each day. She works in Redding, for the school district. Between them, they travel 750 to 1,000 miles a week.

Every morning, they commit a revolutionary act simply by turning on their cars. His is a silver 2001 Honda Insight powered by an innovative gas-engine/electric-motor combination. Hers is a bright-red 2001 Insight.

They’re low-slung, aerodynamic two-seaters that look and ride like sports cars but also get nearly 70 miles to a gallon and emit only a small fraction of the smog-producing pollutants spewed out by the average car, so few that they qualify as ultra-low-emissions vehicles and a 10 percent federal tax credit.

Recently, the Scotts don’t mind bragging, they filled up their 10-gallon tank in Corning and drove to Laguna Hills, in Orange County, and still had gas when they arrived. Their commuting fuel bill is one-third what it was before, they say.

The car isn’t a slouch in the pep department, either, Bill Scott says. Driving up the Grapevine out of Bakersfield, “We were flying by Mercedes-Benzes, Volvos, you name it, and I still got 62 miles per gallon.”

In their own way, the Scotts are pioneers, people willing to invest in an unfamiliar technology—both the Insight and the Prius are new this year in the United States, though not in Japan—because it makes sense, economically and environmentally. What they didn’t realize was how much fun their cars would be.

Bill bought his first. Linda was skeptical. “I had my heart set on a Ford Escape,” she says. But just a week after he brought his car home from Wittmeier Honda, in Chico, they were back at the dealership to get hers. Silver wouldn’t do, though. “As you can see,” she says, laughing and indicating her vivid red-print summer dress, “red’s my color.”

People notice both cars, but hers especially, Bill says. Guys pull up next to her on motorcycles and want to know about the Insight. People stop her at the supermarket. “Honda should pay us for driving them,” she says with a laugh. “Everywhere we stop people ask about it. We do so much advertising for them!”

At this point I should say that I’m not exactly a disinterested observer of the hybrid-car phenomenon. Two months ago my wife and I took possession of a new Prius. And, like the Scotts, we’re now true believers. We’re convinced that, until fuel cell vehicles come along, hybrids make total sense.

We’re in good company. Leonardo di Caprio drives a Prius, as does Meryl Streep. And five members of Congress own the car. Locally, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey owns a Prius, as does former Chico City Councilman Dave Murray.

Our car is comfortable, seats five (we have kids), is plenty peppy, has most of the amenities (stereo, power windows, air conditioning), emits about one-tenth the amount of toxic pollutants of the average car, and gets 45-55 miles per gallon. Pulling into the gas station isn’t nearly as painful as it used to be.

Plus the car’s darned fun to drive. It’s roomy, it handles well, and it’s got a personality of its own. That’s because it’s so highly computerized. There’s a computer screen on the dashboard that tells everything you need to know about how the car is performing—your mileage right now, your average mileage for the last five minutes, for the five minutes before that, and so on. It’s as if the car is training its owner to learn how to drive it right, so as to maximize fuel efficiency.

Hybrids work by using their sophisticated computer program to analyze various data—level of charge in the battery, speed, resistance, throttle engagement—to decide whether to use the electric motor, the gas engine or the two together at any given moment. The system maximizes efficiency by collecting excess electrical energy from the gas engine, as well as from compression when going downhill or coming to a stop, and routing it a the nickel-metal hybrid battery for use by the electric motor.

Unlike an all-electric car, hybrids are self-recharging and don’t need to be plugged in. The car even lets you know when you’re doing a good job of recharging the battery, giving little gold marks when you’re doing well. Last weekend, coming down from a foray to Stirling City, it awarded me no fewer than 14 such marks. I was thrilled.

But what’s really fun is pulling up to an intersection. The car goes dead quiet. As other vehicles noisily chug away, filling the air with toxic exhaust while going nowhere, my Prius is as still as a cat waiting to pounce. Then, when the light turns green, it springs forward, quietly but quickly.

Henning Fisker and his wife are originally from Denmark, which they fled during World War II, when the Germans invaded. They live in Paradise. He’s a retired electrical contractor—"I’ve been interested in electricity since I was 15 years old,” he says, traces of Danish still in his speech—which is part of the reason he became interested in buying a hybrid car.

First he checked out the Insight, but a two-seater was too small, and besides it came with manual transmission, which he didn’t want, he says.

Chuck Patterson Toyota, in Chico, didn’t have a demo Prius on the lot (it still doesn’t, though one is on order and will be available in a month, I’m told), so Fisker went to Hobbie Chevrolet-Toyota in Oroville. He fell in love with the car right away.

Wanting a Prius and getting one are two different things, however. They aren’t sold off the lot—you have to order over the Internet. It’s easy to do, but it takes three to four months for the vehicle to arrive from Japan. No instant car lust gratification here.

Fisker ordered his Prius around the first of November last year and took possession of it in February. He says the best mileage he’s gotten so far is 62 while doing a steady 55 mph on the highway. What tricks has he learned to get that kind of mileage? “Put a rotten egg between your foot and the gas pedal,” he quips.

Like all Prius owners, he loves the car. “We have a Jeep Cherokee,” he says, “but this one is more comfortable. And it’s so quiet! It’s so easy to have a conversation.”

He doesn’t spend much time in gas stations these days, he says, and when he does fill up, “I look around like I’m lost,” he says, laughing.

Lest you think hybrids are a passing oddity, consider that Toyota has now come out with a hybrid minivan (though it’s not yet available in the U.S.) and is developing a hybrid unit for its popular Camry model. Honda plans to offer hybrid versions of several of its models, and Ford is developing a hybrid SUV. General Motors expects to have a series of hybrid vehicles ready for the 2005 model year.

In the meantime, Honda and Toyota are selling their hybrids as fast as they can make them—well over 1,000 a month in the case of the Prius and just shy of that for the Insight. The 2002 Prius, now on the market, offers options not available on the 2001, including cruise control, side airbags, a navigation system and daytime running lights. And the Insight is now available with a continuously variable automatic transmission. The base price of both vehicles, around $20,000, remains the same. And, as mentioned, both qualify for a tax credit of about $2,000.

Hybrids aren’t perfect vehicles. They still run on gas and emit some pollution. But they’re highly economic and as clean as anything on the road today—even all-electric cars come with an environmental cost, whether it’s damming rivers, burning natural gas or piling up nuclear waste. If every car in America were a hybrid, the country would be energy self-sufficient and the amount of vehicle-caused greenhouse gases would be cut in half. Until fuel-cell-powered vehicles come along, hybrids make terrific sense for most drivers.