Hy-Tension

I have come to the conclusion that EPA fuel-economy ratings are self-fulfilling prophecies. If you think your car gets great mileage, you'll drive it in such a way as to make that supposition a reality, and if you think your car is a giant fuel hog, then you'll adopt a fatalistic attitude as you drive everywhere with your right foot welded to the floor. I've averaged 45 mpg in a diesel Saab 9-3 (in Europe), and I've averaged 10 mpg in a Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8. In both cases, I was exploiting the vehicle's primary ability - in the Saab, economy at the expense of speed, and in the Jeep, speed at the expense of my relationship with my in-laws.

See, my wife's parents were in the back seat of the SRT8 during a few exciting, high-rpm miles. Now they think I'm a deranged felony speeder whose eyes spin in opposite directions while I rev the engine menacingly at nuns who are taking too long in the crosswalk. And they're right, that's exactly who I am - when I'm driving a 420-hp SUV. If they'd caught me while I was testing a Toyota Prius, they'd probably have discreetly inquired how long I've been addicted to prescription sedatives. Because, as aggressive and profligate as my style becomes when I'm behind the wheel of the SRT8, the exact opposite happens when I buckle into a hybrid. Hybrid drivers have a way of turning into economy zombies, and that's even worse.

Before you get indignant, hybrid people, and begin setting pen to post-consumer-recycled pad to enumerate the myriad ways in which I am a slope-browed cretin, let me ask you a few simple questions: When behind the wheel of your hybrid, do you drive in such a way as to maximize the time spent in electric mode? Do you pay fetishistic attention to your little miles-per-gallon video display? Does your driving style differ at all from your driving style in a conventional car? If you answered yes to two or more of those questions, you're part of a problem I shall now dub, in sound- bite-friendly manner, "hybrid rage."

Hybrid rage happens when a hybrid driver infuriates the rest of the world by driving like a stoned, nearsighted geriatric who's also lost and confused and allergic to g-forces higher than .01. The other day, I witnessed a textbook example of hybrid rage. A woman in a Prius was waiting to turn left onto a busy two-lane street. Miraculously, a driver in the oncoming lane actually stopped to let her out (I should mention that this was in Boston, where local driving protocol was established in 1775, when Paul Revere rode straight to Lexington without yielding). The Prius driver surveyed the situation and knew immediately what had to be done: pull out into traffic as quickly as possible, while throwing a grateful wave of acknowledgement to the benefactor in the other vehicle. So what did she do? She sat there.

I stood on the sidewalk, amazed. Would Prius Lady dare decline an invitation to turn left? A Boston driver, a malevolent creature fueled by hate, instinct, and blind ambition, had overcome his innate contempt for humans long enough to let her out, and she wouldn't go? That's like winning the Powerball lottery and deciding you don't feel like claiming the prize.

The other driver, perceiving that the Prius was staying put, threw his hands up in disbelief and, foot to floorboard, closed the hole in traffic quicker than a falling guillotine. He didn't know what just happened there, but, having driven hybrids, I did: Prius Lady, recognizing that she'd have to pull into traffic with some semblance of urgency, thus activating the car's gasoline engine and affecting her precious miles-per-gallon display, opted instead to stay on the sidelines until there was a sufficient gap to allow a leisurely, carbon-neutral merge. And if you think that decision angered the guy who tried to let her out, you should have seen the faces of the people behind her in line. Come to think of it, you probably can see those people's faces, if you're interested, as I suspect they're still there, waiting to turn left.

Based on that obviously representative example, and since there's no way to verify this assertion, I'll take the liberty of declaring hybrids a zero-sum game. That's right: for every gallon of fuel saved by a hybrid, another gallon is burned by infuriated drivers racing to get around that hybrid, which is gliding along at 25 mph in a 35-mph zone, its driver coaxing every possible inch of battery-operated travel out of his electron-fortified steed.

I've been on both sides of this fence, so I should know. Last summer, I was driving a Nissan Altima Hybrid and came to a stop in traffic next to a guy in a Prius. I asked him, Hybrid Dude to Hybrid Dude, what kind of mileage he was getting, and he instantly shot back, "Sixty miles per gallon!" I believed him, because he drove like he was towing an invisible trailer full of chandeliers. If this guy worked as an EPA test driver, the Toyota Sequoia would be rated at 35 mpg, city. But I have to wonder: how much of that guy's heroic fuel economy was a result of Toyota's engineering prowess, and how much was due to the psychological manipulations of the car's in-dash fuel-economy display?

Driving that Altima, I, too, became a slave to the bar graphs, pie charts, and hourly PowerPoint presentations emanating from that dashboard video screen. At green lights, I accelerated with all the verve of a Nebraskan Soap Box Derby racer. I began slowing for stop signs as soon as they appeared on the horizon. If I had an appointment at the bottom of a hill, I'd drive there and walk home. Anything to please the fuel-economy oracle.

It wasn't until I got back into a nonhybrid that I snapped out of the trance and realized that I'd been driving like a man possessed - possessed by Mr. Magoo.

The solution, as I see it, is to remove all the fancy economy-quantifying displays from hybrids and put them into pickups, muscle cars, and mammoth SUVs. Free from the torment of seeing their mileage to the thousandth decimal place, hybrid drivers will be able to keep up with traffic while knowing that their economy is on the right side of the overall spread. As for the gas-guzzler owners, perhaps a giant, luminous, single-digit fuel-economy number staring them in the face will cause them to think twice before doing a brake-stand launch from each traffic light. That's all we need for harmonious traffic flow and maximum fuel economy for all - a little less righteousness for hybrid drivers, a little more shame for everybody else.

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