I’ve been driving a minivan for about a decade.  I’ve eyed those sports and luxury cars at auto shows or as they whiz past me on the road.  I’d love to have a Dodge Challenger R/T, an Audi A4 Quattro or perhaps a BMW 650i convertible.  With limitations due to kids and budget, they just didn’t quite ever work into the picture.  Instead, lesser-auto-equipped guys like me have to compensate with stupid driving.

For most, that means aggressive driving.  Jackrabbit starts in suburbia at one stoplight.  Speed up to 60mph in a 45mph zone for half a mile, then stop at the next light.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Swerving around one driver doing ‘only’ 5-10 mph over the limit, only to be blocked a few moments later by the next one.  Frequent changes to the other lane that is moving faster, only to have it slow down, prompting a switch back.   Tailgating within a few feet of someone’s bumper, to let the driver ahead know that they should be going even faster, then once they move out of the way, doing the same to the next car, and so on.  Frequent horn use, to make sure everyone knows how their driving didn’t meet your expectations.  Constant gear changes, even with an automatic, for no other reason than it’s there.  Road Rage.  All dangerous stuff, to be sure, and while guys may be the usual suspects, the same behaviors affect both genders.  For what?  To shave literally just a couple minutes off of a 45 minute commute.

A step down from that are passive-aggressive drivers, whose efforts are mostly to annoy other drivers on the road.  I qualify as a subset of that group, something I might call “passive anti-aggressive” drivers.  Not having a vehicle that will blow anyone away from a stop sign or nimble enough to be weaving through traffic, I took pride in doing whatever I could to prevent aggressive drivers from having their way.  Speeding up or slowing down imperceptibly to prevent them from changing lanes to gain any advantage.  Coasting to slow down somewhat when they tailgate, especially if they have no way to get around.  Pulling halfway into the shoulder to make sure that guy zipping past stopped traffic in the construction zone isn’t going any farther.  The lady that coasted through the stop sign out of turn?  She made a cautionary swerve as I made my point by starting just a bit into the intersection, with no actual intent to go farther.  Still somewhat dangerous behavior in some cases, though thankfully I never had any crashes or even citations.  My wife still hated my driving.

Even so, you can be sure that no one, including a spouse, will be telling any of us idiots how to drive, let alone what to drive!  I mean, seriously, this country is founded upon certain freedoms, like being able to cause car crashes and foul the air.

Then, a funny thing happened to me.  My wife got a Prius almost two years ago.  The funny part is that it turns out a Prius is a challenge to drive to its full potential, just as a sports car is.  The difference is that the potential of a hybrid (or electric, or clean diesel) is fuel economy, rather than acceleration and handling.  Fuel economy also happens to be a lot more useful in urban and suburban areas than performance.   It’s a game to get that miles-per-gallon readout to inch upward.  Any sudden acceleration and it takes a hit.  Slow, gradual accelerations are the key to moving the number higher, as is anticipating traffic ahead and coasting and gradual braking to a stop as far in advance as possible.  Quick braking wastes all that energy into heat and also wears on the brakes while slow stops regenerate that energy into the batteries that will, in turn, help cut the power the gas engine needs to provide as you speed up again.  Technically, slow acceleration and braking can help any car to get better mileage, but with a hybrid it is encouraged inherently by a dash display of fuel economy that should be prominent in all cars.

So now, the ego driving game is changed.  When your Prius is getting 54mpg, you really want to hit 55mpg before that next fuel stop, with gas over $4 a gallon.   That impatient, important executive in his Lexus LX460 still easily zooms around me on the road and pulls away from me at the next stop sign with his mighty V8 engine.  My delight occurs 20 seconds later, as I coast gently up to him at the next stop.  The cycle repeats.  Perhaps I give him a friendly wave at a stoplight when I again pull alongside.  Me, 50+ mpg city.  Him, 16mpg city.  Later, I gently accelerate into freeway traffic from the onramp.  Meanwhile, that red Ford Mustang GT swerves around me even before the merge, not content with my acceleration.  He zooms past weaving around cars to get ahead of the pack.  Five minutes later, I’m in stop-and-go traffic in the right lane and who should I approach in the left?  You guessed it.  Me, 50+ mpg, not using any gas or creating any exhaust at all, as I’m now in pure electric vehicle mode during slow traffic.  Him, 17mpg or less city, with dual exhausts spewing pollution and greenhouse gases even as his wheels are stopped.  Three Prii produce less emissions than either one of those two cars alone.  The lady with the Mazda 3 hatchback is doing slightly better.  She’s only using double the gas I am, getting to the same place at the same time, with no more room inside her car for passengers or stuff.  She’s in traffic ahead of me, keeping right on the bumper of the vehicle in front as we speed up and slow down through the crash scene that is causing the backup.  I’m not even sure she noticed the emergency workers, as she presumably had to keep her eyes on the brake lights of the SUV, just inches front of her, to keep from hitting it.  No one was going to switch lanes and cut her off!  Meanwhile, I gently sped up and slowed down.  I even let a couple cars move in front of me, something I’d never have considered pre-hybrid.   I am smug in fuel economy superiority, and safety, too.

So smug, in fact, I bought a hybrid for myself.  Yeah, turns out I like driving safer.  Not only for my kids, but you know, I want to be around for them later, too!  No, I didn’t get another Prius or even a hybrid version of a Fusion, Camry or Sonata.  We do often put all 3 kids in back around town in my wife’s Prius, but for long trips, that is a real headache.  Literally.  So, I took it to the next level and got a hybrid SUV, the Highlander.  It seats 7.  Tows 3500 pounds.  Goes 0-60 mph in just over 7 seconds.  Has AWD for winter driving prowess.  Normally gas guzzling features, all of them, but not nearly so much with a hybrid. 

Now, instead of a Lexus LS460, it’s a Cadillac Escalade passing me.  Yup.  One occupant, the driver.  No tow hitch.  On their way to work on the jammed expressway.  They could just as well be driving a Chevy Cruze Eco, but of course they “needed” a monster SUV to carry the same stuff we fit in the back of our Prius.  Heck, for the cost of the Escalade, they could have bought a Honda Odyssey Touring for trips with the family in addition to the Cruze Eco for the commute to work!  Yet, of course, they complain about high gas prices, all the while contributing to the problem by sucking gas to the tune of 13mpg around town.  That is, unless they opted to reduce foreign oil consumption and support midwest farmers with E85 fuel.  Then it’s 10mpg.  Me?  28mpg on regular gas.  Yes, I’m being wasteful, too, as I could have taken my wife’s car.  I should have a bumper sticker that says, “My other car is a Prius!”  So, how about that Honda Pilot, perhaps the main competition for the Highlander?  It’s actually slightly larger and even seats 8, making it a bit more kid friendly inside.  What about friendly to the environment for our kids?  16mpg.  Barely over half the Highlander Hybrid around town.  Overall, the Highlander Hybrid gets about 50% better fuel economy overall than other midsize AWD sport utility vehicles with a V6, yet Toyota sells relatively few of them, only around 10,000 per year or so.

Hybrids and expensive clean diesels and plug-in electric cars aren’t the only way or even the best way to cut gasoline use, of course… Continued in Part II