Hybrid Drivers Have It All Wrong

The last two cities I’ve lived in–Ann Arbor and San Francisco–are chock full of Toyota Priuses whose drivers who are convinced they’re saving the planet. Instead, they’re driving me and everyone else positively bonkers with their egg-under-the-pedal, god-forbid-you-keep-up-with-traffic driving style. In an effort to somehow never force the gasoline engine to start, they’ll crawl up the steep San Francisco hills at walking speed and coast down hills 10 mph below the speed limit. They often form three- or four-lane-wide moving roadblocks, none willing to pass the others, lest they give in to their repressed primal urge of wasting fossil fuel. None of them, apparently, has ever been stricken with the urge to actually get somewhere in a timely manner.

And then there’s me and my manic, New-York-taxicab driving style. Through the squeaky whine of the Prius’* electric motors, you’ll hear the deep yowl of sliding wide tires and the screaming howl of a big V-8. Yeah, I’m that guy driving like a crazed car-chase perp, weaving through whatever clump of hibernating hybrids I’m stuck behind. I’m not trying to be a jerk; I’m just trying to get somewhere. And today, I did that in my own little slice of world-saving smugness: the 2009 Dodge Durango Two-Mode Hybrid.

(* Yes, I’m picking on the Prius. Is there anything different between it and most other single-mode hybrids? No. In fact, my only problem with the Prius is the people who drive it. You know the type–the one who refuses to allow it to keep up with traffic. Prius drivers, by the nature of their car’s distinctive appearance, tend to be the most offensive in this regard. But this is my personal impression only, and I’m certified insane, so you shouldn’t listen to me. As always, your mileage might vary.)

I specifically asked to drive the Durango–a rather grotesque vehicle I would normally not enjoy piloting–for two reasons. Firstly, Chrysler recently pulled the plug on the Durango and Aspen hybrids and this will likely be my only chance to drive one, and secondly, because the Durango is only the second two-mode hybrid I’ve driven. What makes a two-mode a two-mode? That’s a complicated subject that’s better left for its own column, but here’s the simple version: a single-mode hybrid (like in every one of those turtle Priuses) is relatively inefficient under steady speed highway cruising conditions because its transmission, an electronic CVT, requires that a not insignificant amount of electric power first be generated and then expended within the transmission. Any time energy is converted from mechanical to electric and back, there are losses. Losses are bad for efficiency. A two-mode transmission also uses an electronic CVT–replete with those inefficiencies–but for heavy-load operation, switches to a fixed gear ratio that bypasses the CVT portion of the gearbox and therefore also the inefficient power Merry-Go-Round.

In the 55 miles of mixed city and highway driving I put on the Durango, I averaged 19.0 indicated miles per gallon. That falls just short of its EPA rating of 20 mpg city, 22 mpg highway. But it’s likely double the mileage I would have gotten with a nonhybrid Durango (rated at 13 mpg city, 19 highway with the same 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 and four-wheel drive.) Why double? I doubt very much the EPA testers who eked 13 mpg out of that big truck are afflicted with the Prius-induced road rage that forced me–twisted my arm, holding a gun to my head–to engage in a driving style that’s, shall we say, less than efficient. Hell, I got 13 mpg in a four-cylinder Subaru WRX last week.

Buried hidden down deep in the road-rage driving style is the actual advantage of hybrids. At a steady cruising speed, single-mode hybrid cars don’t have much, if any, of a fuel economy advantage over a normal, combustion-engine-only car. No, the big benefit of a hybrid system is brake-energy regeneration: recapturing the energy you used to get your vehicle moving by generating it back into electricity to charge the battery and then propel the car again. So the slow-and-steady hybrid drivers have it all wrong–if all they wanted to do was drive at a constant, slow speed, they should have bought a small, low, and narrow, very aerodynamic car with a tiny engine. By driving like a maniac, passing and then slowing down for the each successive Prius Speed Bump, hauling ass to each red light and then drag-racing everyone when the light turns green, I’m taking full advantage of the benefits of my Durango’s hybrid’s brake energy regeneration. And my hybrid is saving more fuel than theirs is. Who’s saving the planet now?