RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

No More Gas Guzzling

A reader's recent e-mail chided it's been a while since we checked the hybrid-car industry, and, with sales of the Prius up 30%, and six-month waiting lists for Honda Insights and Civics, it's time for another look.

I suspect that most new purchases are inspired by personal economy rather than the environment, and that's a good way to look at it. The late Donnella Meadows said one third of the energy used in a car's lifetime goes into manufacture and transportation before it gets to you, so buying a new car is not an environmental decision to take lightly.

But, if you stayed away from the 1%-financed gas guzzlers, and your old car is about to die, look at hybrids. They use a combination of gasoline combustion and rechargeable batteries. The batteries kick in during acceleration and re-collect energy from the brakes when the car is stopping.

I've had my Insight for almost two years now, after trading a Ford Explorer that got 15 mpg. I put just under 1,000 miles per month on my car, and it keeps track of its gas mileage. Since the beginning, with 22,000 miles on the speedometer, it's clocked 57.1 miles overall MPG.

I can do better than that, of course. Between here and town, I get 75 MPG on the blacktop and I get 60 to 65 on the highway at 70 MPH. It's slowing down for gravel roads that kill the mileage, and I'm on gravel for 3 to 5 miles whenever I leave the house. To avoid flat tires, I drive below 20 miles per hour. It works. Most of my neighbors figure on one flat per year. I just don't have time to deal with tires, and, at 5 to 19 miles per hour, I've avoided the flats AND gotten to know the roadside flora and fauna really well.

So I've gone from getting 15 miles per gallon in the Explorer to 57.1 miles per gallon at 1,000 miles per month, which works out to a savings of 48.5 gallons per month. Over the life of 22,000 miles, it's 1,067 gallons saved and counting.

When I got my Insight, gas was $1.50 per gallon, and I figured I'd save about $75 per month. Now, of course, gas is higher and I'm saving more. And, making hybrids an even better deal, you can get a tax credit of $2,000 for buying one.

But how do I like it? In three words: I love it.

At first, I worried about having such a small car -- it's a two-seater -- after having such a big car. Where would I put all the junk?

Solution: There's a lot more space than you think. A deep "well" in the hatch has room for a cooler, or four paper grocery-type bags. The hatch -- a wide, flat space -- is big enough for my cello case or the dog carrier (choose one), with room left for brief cases, overnight bags and so forth. Bonus: I've learned to clean my car every couple of weeks or so and put the junk away or throw it out.

Next worry: Passengers.

Solution: Both the Civic and Prius hold four people. I'd recommend test-driving them with your riders. Two years ago, when I started looking, the Prius was very sluggish with a full load. In my two-seater, there's plenty of head room and leg room for one passenger, although particularly out-of-shape people have a hard time getting in and out. Bonus: It's easy to excuse yourself from being the driver when there's a carpool event, or to offer to drive someone else's large car.

Do I feel safe on the highway?

While I avoid I-70, because it's in such bad shape, there are times when I take it. I can easily stay up with the traffic at 70 to 80 miles per hour, and the Insight is the best-balanced car I've ever had. I never feel blown about by the trucks, even though they're thick around me. My kids have taken long highway trips in it -- a trip to Chicago, about 500 miles away, and a trip to Mississippi, about 800. They think it's awesome. Bonus: I borrow their beater when I need to leave a car overnight somewhere.

How about ice and snow?

We've just survived the worst winter in five years, and, with four inches of clearance, the Insight was occasionally grounded. But -- remember those gravel roads? -- most of my neighborhood stayed home. One early morning, I started down the unplowed driveway on six inches of new snow and drove a front tire into a deep hole, couldn't get out, made my husband take me to town. After a few days and a thaw, the wheels got a grip and we drove it right out. As for the ice, I was the only driver that could stop to help when a driver slid off the ice-covered road near the elementary school. Several other cars slid by, the drivers waving and shrugging their shoulders.

And, here's my favorite FAQ: How could you be so un-American to buy a Japanese car? One fellow said he'll buy when Ford perfects their hybrid. My answer: If I hadn't bought a Honda, you wouldn't be looking at a Ford. The only way to make American companies do the right thing is to show there's a way to profit.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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