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Lessons from my hybrid car

I’m pleased to say the car emergency reported yesterday ended All Well for two reasons: I knew that an oil light meant I needed to stop the car within seconds (and miraculously, a generous road shoulder and light traffic made that possible), and — as I explained to the two Honda dealerships who worked with me, in Macon and Tallahassee — while driving I always keep the instrument panel in line of sight.

That’s because I am a hybrid driver, which means I am fully preoccupied with my Miles Per Gallon meter.

Some of you have asked, and I’m happy to report that I’m really loving Sparkle, my Honda Civic Hybrid. She’s a comfortable, eye-pleasing, fuel-efficient car I feel very safe in as I drive around Georgia. The Civic Hybrid doesn’t get the stratospherically good mileage that a Prius gets, but it was far less expensive, and doesn’t look as if it has a load in its pants. I’m averaging a good 40 mpg, and Sparkle is a quiet, pleasant drive with a nice road grip.

I didn’t go into this past summer thinking I wanted to buy a car “just yet.” I was hoping to drive my 15-year-old Civic another two years (it’s still doing fine;  Sandy drives it). But when we lost the Corolla in a bad rainstorm and I started shopping, I had to admit that as much time as I spend in a car, having some creature comforts (Cupholders! An MP3 jack! A driver’s seat I can raise to my height!) and some safety features such as side curtain airbags makes me feel prosperous, important, and protected. ( Sparkle’s upholstery is also deliciously cuddly, and it’s a practical dark blue.)

I looked around, but back then, with gas $4 a gallon, dealers were selling the already somewhat spendy Prius $2,000 above MSRP. After test-driving other vehicles, I reverted to type and began looking at new and slightly-used Honda Civics.

Amazingly, I had the chance to buy a very-gently-used, Honda-certified 2008 Civic Hybrid at a good price with a clean Carfax report (it was a leased car owned by a family near Warner Robins; I have a hunch they were military), and it has been True Love ever since.

Sparkle also feels solid and well-made. For you who sew, Hondas to me have the hand-feel of a Pfaff sewing machine: solid, handsome, strong, no gimcracky geegaws, and very quiet.

Part of the fun of driving a hybrid vehicle is that you spend a lot of time gaming your own fuel-efficiency — hypermiling, they call it. Hybrids teach us about fuel-efficient driving. If you’re dedicated, you can find websites about hypermiling and other efficiency techniques. But just by driving with one eye on the MPG gage, even the casual hybrid driver learns a few things we could all heed, whether or not we’re driving a hybrid — and whether or not gas is $4 a gallon.

Drive like a lady. If you want to save fuel, don’t gun your motor, drive aggressively (fast starts and stops, lots of zig-zagging), or try to out-run everyone on the road. I learned this several times in rental Priuses well before I knew I’d be buying a hybrid. If you drive hard enough, you can get bad mileage, even in a Prius. But you can drive assertively, even speedily, and stay efficient — just drive as if you’re gliding on a dance floor in a waltz.

Every American needs a pressure gauge. Barack Obama was derided last spring for his practical observation: tire pressure affects fuel efficiency.

(Irresistible political aside:  just as Obama was derided for his warnings about the economy.)

Cars are largely automated these days, but checking tire pressure only requires a simple $10 tool and two minutes of your time. Plus it gives me the feeling I — who once knew an F111 TF30-P100 engine inside-out — actually know something about that mysterious machine that is my hybrid car.

Use cruise control selectively. I found this advice on a hybrid discussion group and proved it: use cruise control on long straight stretches; don’t use it on hilly terrain. However, I have found that cruise control works well on gently undulating terrain, such as Route 441 in Georgia,, so go figure. Cruise control also helps improve fuel efficiency on gently descending stretches such as Old Bainbridge Road, a gorgeous canopy road north of Tallahassee where I might be tempted to pick up speed.

Sensible driving gets you there pretty quickly. This has been a hard lesson for me, but driving like a maniac doesn’t get me there that much faster, and I get far better mileage (regardless of the vehicle) if I take it easy — plus I don’t have that teeth-gritting stress that comes from weaving in and around “slow” drivers.

That doesn’t mean driving 40 mph in the far-right lane… I keep up with traffic and pass my share of slower cars. But I don’t have to be the fastest car on the road. I’ve driven in a dozen countries, sometimes under very grueling circumstances, and I don’t lose any Estrogen Points if I stay within plus or minus five of the speed limit. The difference controlling speed makes on fuel efficiency is sobering, even in a hybrid. If you believe oil is a scarce supply to use wisely and only as needed, ease up on the gas pedal.

Every car needs a MPG gauge. MPG gauges should be mandatory in vehicles. I think of this as the Frappuchino Effect, from the time my father called me to say he had learned that Frappuchinos had hundreds of calories. My dad has a bad heart, and to keep the load on his body light he’s watched his weight as long as I can remember. What seemed like a simple treat turned radioactive to him (and for that matter, to me). In the same vein, a MPG gauge in every car could get everyone driving smarter.

Every driver needs a GPS. Wannabe macho-types think driving without maps or instructions is for sissies.  Odd, because in the flying world, you get street cred for learning to fly by instrument flight rules (IFR).

I’m a good map-reader, but fumbling with a map  on a dark, rainy road (or even a sunny, dry, heavily-trafficked road) is not my idea of struttin’ my stuff.  Having a GPS on my dash puts key information in line of sight, and though Lady — as I call her — isn’t good at the “big picture” (which is why I still have maps in my map pocket), Lady is very trustworthy on the molecular level. (You do have to be able to trust machines.) I have saved countless time, gas, miles, and frustration by having Lady, in her Liza Minelli lisp (“Eggshit in point two milesh”), safely guide me onto tree-obscured exit ramps, help me quickly find alternate routes when bad traffic approaches, find me the closest gas station or grocery store in a strange town, and teach me where the shortcuts are.  Lady also resigns herself to my alternative routes. “Recalculating,” she mutters in disgust, and lets me apply human knowledge to her map-awareness.

Together, Lady and Sparkle are making me a better driver and a smarter person more engaged with my resource usage. People who drive alternative-fuel vehicles aren’t more greatly evolved than the rest of the human race. But as humans, we not only build tools, we, can — if we’re listening — learn from them, and some lessons are very timely.

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