In the driver’s seat

Pull the plug on high gas prices. The new dual-fuel cars are good for the pocketbook and the environment. The technology is cool, too.

The Toyota Prius’ battery recharges every time the breaks are used, which means it gets better mileage in stop-and-go city traffic.

The Toyota Prius’ battery recharges every time the breaks are used, which means it gets better mileage in stop-and-go city traffic.

Photo Illustration by David Jayne and David Robert

Last week, my husband and I ran out of gas on the freeway. Luckily, we were able to coast to an off-ramp and push the car to a gas station without much trouble. As we pumped gas into the tank, Scott and I looked at each other and laughed. It seemed very funny and almost ironic that we had just run out of gas in our new hybrid car.

The definition of a hybrid vehicle is one that has two or more sources of power, in most cases gasoline and electricity. The first mass-produced hybrid was the Toyota Prius. Released in Japan in 1997 and in the United States three years later, the Prius has become the best-selling hybrid. Our friend Dan Johnson purchased a 2001 model and is very happy with it.

“Two words: stealth mode,” he says. “The car is silent when using the electric motor, and people can’t hear any engine noise coming from the car. The look on their faces is priceless.”

Being geeks, Scott and I were very impressed by Dan’s Prius. While there are other hybrids being manufactured, the Honda Insight and Civic, and planned—the Toyota Highlander and the Ford Escape SUV for example—in November, when we needed a new car, we decided on the redesigned and more efficient 2004 Prius. After some research and a test drive, we were sold. There was no question that the 2004 Motor Trend Car of the Year was the best option for us.

Because hybrid vehicles are relatively new, not much is known about them. Scott and I were more familiar with the technology than our dealership was. We have fielded a variety of questions, from the uninformed “Where do you plug it in?” to the humorous “Can that thing go on the freeway?” The misconceptions about hybrids are so erroneous that many people won’t even consider purchasing a one. Let me clear up some common fallacies.

Hybrid vehicles do not plug in. The Prius is powered simultaneously by an electric motor and a standard gasoline engine. The electric motor alone can provide enough energy to cruise at low to mid speeds (up to 40 mph). However, when the car needs to accelerate quickly, travel up hill or reach higher speeds, the gas engine turns on to provide more power. This happens not only automatically, but also seamlessly. Unless I’m watching the screen display, the transfer of power is imperceptible.

There is a power-split device that electronically controls the transmission and determines the most efficient combination of gas and electricity. According to Toyota’s Web site, the Prius has a “continuously variable transmission with an infinite number of gear ratios that are always changing depending upon speed … and engine rpm.” This translates into no “shift-jolt” when accelerating.

While Prius’ gas engine is powered by fuel, a sealed nickel-metal-hydride battery drives its electric motor. The battery is recharged by the hybrid’s regenerative braking system, which explains why the Prius never needs to be plugged in and how it gets better gas mileage in stop-and-go city traffic. “The Prius’ electric motor becomes a generator, converting other wasted kinetic energy into electricity for the battery,” the manufacturer’s Web site says.

To be even more efficient, the Prius actually turns off when it comes to a stop. The gas engine shuts off entirely, and the electric motor becomes silent while still powering the display and radio. I thought this would be hard to get used to, but with a gentle touch to the gas pedal, the car smoothly moves forward again.

I chuckle every time the car shuts off at stoplights. The technology is just so cool.

Regardless of technology, the fuel economy of any car depends on the driver. Above the Prius’ stereo, in the dashboard, sits a 7-inch multi-function touch screen. In addition to controlling the stereo and climate, the screen also shows the average gas mileage (updated every 10 seconds) for the current tank of gas.

Local Toyota Prius owner Betty points out the air-intake vents that cool the battery on her hybrid car.

Photo By David Robert

Having this display as a constant reminder of fuel economy has dramatically changed the way I drive. Getting better gas mileage has become a game. My personal challenge is to drive smoothly enough that the gas engine won’t even turn on. I have read of hybrid owners pulling up next to each other to compare their current gas mileage.

Reno doesn’t have many hybrids, so Scott and I have our own little friendly competition. To date, I’m winning with an average of 45 miles per gallon, and he’s not far behind at 40 mpg. The Prius is said to easily achieve 60 mpg during city driving. However, when the car is cold, the gas engine stays on until it is warm enough to run on the electric motor alone. I’m eager to see how good the mileage will be during the summer months.

Many people hold the false assumption that hybrid owners compromise on performance only to have expensive, tiny cars that are good on gas.

First, the Prius is comparable to a V-6 engine in terms of speed and power and can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 10 seconds. From experience, I can say that it handles just as well as, if not better than, our previous midsize sedan.

Second, the Prius has an interior of 112 cubic feet, can seat five people, and is large enough that Scott, who is 6 feet 4 inches tall, finds it comfortable.

Finally, the 2004 Prius is quite inexpensive. It has a base price under $20,000—lower than average for midsize cars, not to mention the $2,000 tax deduction hybrid owners receive. Also, consider the cost of running a Prius versus a Ford Expedition. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s estimates: Driving 15,000 miles at $2 per gallon for gas, our Prius will cost us about $540 to drive this year; Ford’s SUV will cost about $2,063. It turns out the Prius is a pretty good deal, and more people are starting to realize this.

Originally, Toyota planned 37,000 Prius hybrids annually for the United States; however, due to high demand, production has already increased 31 percent. Experts predict that hybrids will become even more popular as gas prices continue to rise.

However, as another Reno Prius owner, Betty (she asked us not to use her last name), pointed out, it’s not really the gas mileage that has people excited about their hybrids. “I’m proud to drive my Prius,” she says. “We are all going to drive cars, but we have to start somewhere. Why not choose something that is better for the environment.”

The fuel economy and techno-geek appeal are great, but for me it’s about the way I feel when I drive it. It’s about the 90-percent reduction in smog and 50-percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. It’s about trying to decrease dependence upon oil. It’s about knowing that the choices I make affect not only me, they also affect you.

Are hybrid cars the perfect answer? No. As Scott and I learned while pushing our Prius, you still have to put gas in them. But, as a “partial-zero-emission vehicle” they are something to consider.

At a stoplight a few days ago, the man in the next lane motioned to us. We rolled down our window.

“How do like your Prius?” he asked.

“We love it,” Scott answered. “The gas mileage, the technology, the emissions control, everything. It’s a great car. “

The guy nodded. “That’s good to hear. My wife and I have a white one on order, and it sounds like it’s worth the wait. Thanks!”

Scott and I watched as the man pulled away in his large Yukon SUV. We looked at each other and smiled.