TEST DRIVE: Hunting Hybrids

When Mr. K—Ms. D's brother—is in town, he and I have a tendency to disappear for hours at a time. If you happen to reach me by cell phone during one of our excursions, you'd likely find that we're in a new vehicle from a local dealership, one of us manning the controls while the other peppers the hapless salesperson with questions about the mileage, the engine's power, the quality of materials, the mindset of the workers who built the car, the exact chemical composition of the flecked plastic dashboard insets …

With gas prices edging up toward $2 a gallon and the Mississippi 2020 environmental shindig coming to Millsaps soon (see Talk of Jackson), both Mr. K and I had a strong desire to explore our fuel-efficient alternatives. I hadn't ever been behind the wheel of a hybrid gasoline/electric automobile and wanted the experience first hand. So we set out with that goal in mind.

Currently there are three hybrid vehicles generally available on the U.S. market—the Honda Insight, the Honda Civic Hybrid and the Toyota Prius. We headed to the Honda dealership with the desire of seeing what I feel is the first really marketable hybrid—the Civic. (To be fair, the Prius is also practical—if a bit of an ugly duckling.) The Civic Hybrid is a four-door Civic retooled to run on both battery and gasoline. It looks like a normal Civic and offers pretty much the same dimensions and capacities—it just happens to get 51 miles per gallon.

Unfortunately, neither Honda dealership in town had a hybrid Civic available when we set out last week, although both felt they would have models available within days, claiming the last one had been sold out from under them.

At both dealerships, the general consensus was that the Civic Hybrid is a better seller than the Insight, Honda's original space-aged hybrid. The Insight really looks more like a concept show-car than a practical driver, but, if you're ready to make an eco-statement, there's no better way than driving the most efficient car in the U.S.

Paul Moak Honda happened to have an Insight on the lot, and I was able to take it for a spin. With only two seats, Mr. K wasn't able to ride along, as our salesman required the co-pilot's chair. To most who consider the Insight, the lack of storage space is probably a turn-off—the car is really a hatchback, and the cargo area is situated much higher than most three-door styles, thanks to the batteries. The Insight does have a cubby-hole trunk under that hatchback floor, good for about 2 cubic feet of storage.

Mr. K. told me later that, as the Insight drove away in near silence, it seemed like I was being carted off into the future. Indeed, a golf cart is an apt analogy—the Insight I drove had a continuously variable transmission, meaning you feel no shift points. It had a little pep to it—for a 65 horsepower engine—although I didn't get over about 40 mph, so couldn't test highway performance. And most golf-cart-like is the fact that the gas engine can literally shut off when you reach a complete stop, and the car runs on electricity while you wait. When you start up again, the gas engine kicks in, propelling the car and recharging the batteries at the same time.

The automatic transmission gets considerably lower gas mileage than the manual—about 57 mpg (highway) vs. 68 mpg for the stick shift. Of course, both numbers are stratospheric to begin with—considering you could cut your annual gasoline bill from, say, $1,200 to $400. Honda also advertises that, under certain circumstances, you can get a $2,000 tax break on your Federal return.

But is the Insight practical? To a Miata owner (that's me), the Insight feels like a step up, with room for golf clubs, overnight bags and pretty much anything Ms. D and I would need to get to, say, the Mississippi Coast and back. Knowing that, I think the Insight could make the ideal second car for commuting to work, particularly for single types or childless couples.

Of course, more than two seats can be handy. But don't fret—practical hybrids are coming, as evidenced by the Civic Hybrid, the Toyota Prius and the Ford Escape Hybrid—the first hybrid SUV—that's promised for early next year. It's a category I plan to watch carefully.
Todd Stauffer is the Publisher of the Jackson Free Press. Watch this space for the Test Drive column, now appearing regularly.


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