RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Insights Into Better Mileage

It’s been an unusually snowy winter, and my 2001 Honda Insight spent more than a month in a snow bank, poor dear. This is partly because we went nowhere for more than a week, and partly because a bad snow experience in 2008 caused me to adopt the pickup truck for the worst snow days. With its 4-inch clearance, the Honda is scary helpless on a snowy road, or even in a bad thunderstorm.

But even before the bad weather started, I was looking at the new hybrids. After all, “Bluey” will be ten years old in June, and her batteries nearly out of their guarantee period. Our 117,000 miles together has been a blast, I thought, but surely the hybrid builders had come up with some new ideas.

So I started driving the newbies. First on the list was the new Honda Insight, of course, and I took advantage of an oil change day to look at it and then to let a salesman convince me to try it out. Nice car. You already know that the new hybrids are bigger than the old ones. They easily haul four or five passengers instead of the old Insight’s two passengers, so you won’t be surprised to hear that you can fit a lot more stuff in the new one. I tried out all seats and found enough room to be comfortable in any position, even though my usual cargo would be farm supplies, school papers, musical instruments and stuff bound for the recycling center.

That’s the thing about cars. You very rarely need a big one, and neither does anyone else. Even though I’m impressed when I see four people piling out of an Escalade — what a good use of space — it’s rarity. More common to see Mom and the groceries. Or Dad and his briefcase.

My general drive is about 20 miles one way to work or to town for errands. I can fit just about anything I need to haul in my Insight, from six pounds of grain for the sheep to my cello. In fact, I can carry them both at the same time. In ten years of owning the Insight, I’ve only had a few instances when I needed a bigger car. And, in those cases, I’ve been able to rent one for a fairly small price.

But I digress. Back to the dealership and the new Insight, which handles very well. It’s not as much fun to drive as my little one, but I could still enjoy it on the blacktop roads. And one of these days, my knees are going to be tired of operating clutch and brake and I’ll be happy to have an automatic transmission.

But the mileage! I’m probably one of the most skilled fuel misers you’ll meet, habitually taking my foot off the gas downhill and gently accelerating uphill. My Insight has a lifetime mileage of 58.7, down slightly from its peak, and I can coax 15 mpg from the 2001 Ford F-150 unless we’re hauling a trailer.

So I was terribly disappointed when I re-set the mileage button and pulled all my tricks to get the best mpg from the test drive, which took us on a bit of I-70 and several miles of blacktop. Embarrassing to admit I could only get 43 miles per gallon out of it. I’m thinking, if I get to know the car, I might be able to squeeze out a few more miles, but still, I’m just sayin’ ... it’s been ten years, people! What have you been doing? Well, it turns out, they’ve been trying to make the hybrid into something it ain’t. More horsepower. Less attention to MPG. On some models, the electric motor has devolved to speed booster status rather than being a mileage booster.

And the gadgets! I drove, for example, a Prius with a moon roof, keyless entry, rearview camera and remote starter. And then I tried a Ford Fusion with an interesting LCD screen that shows green leaves that grow as you save more gas. The salesman that rode with me was really enthusiastic about that feature.

Have you seen the movie Dilemma? You should. Not just because my stepson Sandy Marshall plays a medic in the film, but because it’s a movie with a message. It’s about a car manufacturer that wants to build a vroom vroom sound into a normally silent electric vehicle! What the ???

The truth is, the salesmen didn’t really seem to like driving the hybrids and didn’t know much about them. One salesman explained that there’s not much margin in them, which I take to mean there’s not much commission. And this just weeks before the price of a barrel of oil has passed the triple digits — again. With every penny of increase on a gallon of oil, they say, America sends another billion dollars to the big companies.

So, to make a long story short: I’m keeping my 2001 Honda. At least until the designers come up with something that does better. And here’s the beauty part: Just before the snow began piling up, my Honda’s batteries started to malfunction. And, as I said, the car turns 10 in June. So, happy day, Honda replaced them, completely for free. The snow is gone. This morning I started Bluey up — instantly — let her run for a while and took off. Yep. I’m keeping her.

Margot McMillen farms and teaches English in Fulton, Mo. You can email her at

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2011

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