The e-mails arrived so furiously that our computer started spitting sparks.
Every company selling a so-called energy saving device for car, truck, sport-utility or van was messaging the merits of their gimmicks.
At least it broke up the monotony of those e-mails that start: “Do you want to make $5,000 an hour working out of your home?” which we suspect is sent by some oaf sitting at home selling energy-saving devices–when not engaging in dot.com pyramid schemes.
But we digress.
If a fluid can be poured in or a device can be bolted on to your vehicle to stretch 13 more feet of travel out of a gallon of gas, the e-mail touting its merits has flashed on our screen. And send cash, no checks.
The barrage started at about the time gas broke the $1.30 a gallon barrier on its way to passing $2 for four quarts of the elixir.
Fear usually is all that’s needed to prompt scam artists to hype the purchase of $100 magic oil to save $1 on the monthly fuel bill.
Oops. Digressed again.
There’s another way to ease gas price worries–cars that get up to 60 miles per gallon in city and up to 70 m.p.g. in highway driving. Even at $2 a gallon, you’d fork over $2 less frequently. And the less fuel burned, the less garbage emitted into the atmosphere to prevent us from enjoying the smell of rotting salmon wafting in from the lake.
When gas prices jumped we made plans to test drive the 2000 Honda Insight and the 2001 Toyota Prius, hybrids powered by gas engines as well as batteries, a combination guaranteed to stretch fuel into that 60 to 70 m.p.g. range.
Months ago we tested both cars in right-hand-drive prototype version. It took about three weeks for the left-hand-drive production models to arrive, by which time the $2.13-a-gallon fuel was selling for only $1.33 at our favorite station.
Ironically, at $1.33, the e-mails stopped. Go figure.
Insight and Prius are energy-saving hybrids that team little gas engines with little electric motors. The little gas engines burn just a little fuel and emit just a little waste into the atmosphere. The little electric motors burn no fuel, and so spew no waste into the air.
The gas engines also help recharge the batteries as you drive and, in doing so, point out the major shortcoming of pure electrics that consume no gas a nd emit no pollutants.
The General Motors EV1, a battery-only electric, requires long stops to recharge the batteries on any trip of 50 to 75 miles.
Insight is a little Citroen looking two-door two-seater, the back bench missing because that’s where the 120 nickel-metal-hydride batteries are housed. There’s just enough cargo room under the rear hatchlid to slip in a set of golf clubs or two and a compartment under the cargo floor to hold a couple bags of groceries or briefcases, but not enough room to hold the luggage for a week’s vacation.
Insight is a high-mileage, 1,800-pound commuter novelty for Point A to B travel. It looks good with its aerodynamic tear-drop design in which the lightweight aluminum body is tapered and narrows by 4 inches front to rear.
Insight’s aero design makes for quiet motoring. Power down the windows, and the air slips past rather than being sucked in the cabin. It is eerily quiet.
Prius is a four-door four -seate r that looks like a Corolla. It has a rear seat, but the back is rigid because it rests against the battery compartment that protrudes into the trunk, which is the reason the trunk is about a third smaller than that in a Corolla.
The 2,700-pound Prius also is a high-mileage commuter for Point A to B travel and, with its back seat and abbreviated trunk, is a more functional, mainstream machine.
Both have 14-inch, low-rolling resistance, radial tires that contribute to the mileage. But to maintain low-rolling resistance, the tread compounds are harder and the sidewalls very stiff. Don’t expect cushy, luxury-sedan ride; do expect to feel any pock marks in the road. And don’t expect sports-car like handling. Insight and Prius behave like your typical high-mileage economy cars.
Off-the-line power is adequate, but neither is a speed merchant. Mileage, not performance, is the reason they are in showrooms.
Insight, with its 1-liter, 63-horsepower 3-cylinder gas engine and 7-h.p. electric motor serviced by 120 “D” size NiMH batteries, is rated at 61 m.p.g. city/70 m.p.g. highway, or roughly three times the mileage you can expect when rolling a sport-utility down hill with the engine off.
Prius is powered by a 1.5-liter, 58-h.p. gas engine teamed with a 30-h.p. electric motor that gets its juice from 40 7.2-volt NiMH batteries and is rated at 52 m.p.g. city/45 m.p.g. highway.
Wait. Higher city than highway mileage?
That’s because the electric motor powers the vehicle when pulling from a stop or under a light load, the conditions when a gas engine burns the most fuel and emits the most pollutants. The gas engine kicks in after the weight has been put in motion, and it doesn’t have to work as hard or burn as much fuel or release as many pollutants.
In Prius, a schematic using orange arrows to detail movement of energy to the wheels from gas engine or electric motor, or both, is shown on a screen in the center of the instrument panel. It shows that if you let off the pedal and coast a lot, batteries allow the gas engine to go on break.
Insight comes with a host of gauges that note gas supply, battery charge, whether the batteries are providing power (assist light) on demand or simply recharging. And a green arrow lights up when the sensors determine you should be up- or down-shifting to provide more power or conserve energy. Lots to look at, lots to decipher.
Hmm. Thought batteries alone create a problem starting in cold climates such as Chicago. Not with Prius, Toyota says, because if it’s cold, sensors instruct the gas engine to wake up and start the car to conserve battery power.
Insight uses its gas engine to start the vehicle and get it moving. The batteries provide juice to the electric motor only when the car needs a boost to aid the little gas engine, such as when pulling out to pass or climbing a hill. Insight never runs on battery power alon e.
Insight and Prius are wonderful innovations that their creators say will ease this country’s reliance on imported oil. But Honda expects to sell 6,500 Insights here this year, Toyota 12,000 Prius sedans. That’s roughly 18,000 of the expected total 18 million vehicles to be sold. In the grand scheme of things, the fuel savings and emission reduction from 18,000 cars in a fleet of 18 million will equal one lawn mower put out of service and one charcoal grill tossed in the garbage can.
But it’s a start.
Honda said in 2002 it will bring out a larger Civic-sized gas/electric hybrid about the size of Prius. Are larger hybrids coming after that, perhaps a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry gas/battery version that could, say, get 30 to 40 m.p.g. in the city? Let Honda and Toyota test the system on low-volume small cars first.
Prius starts at $19,995, Insight at $20,080. Insight and Prius come with enough standard equipment to ease fears that they get such great mileage only because they are bare-bones economy cars. Anti-lock brakes, dual air bags, air conditioning (you can delete it from Insight and save $1,200), AM/FM stereo with cassette, power windows and door- locks, and, of course, cupholders, are standard.
Insight comes only with a 5-speed manual transmission. An automatic is offered in Japan, but not in the U.S. because Honda said it wanted optimum mileage without the sacrifice for automatic. Prius comes with a continuously variable transmission with an infinite number of gears.
Add $82 to Insight for floor mats with a cute little green leaf in the shape of a car molded into the cloth. Prius has no green leaf, but then the mats are only $70.
2000 Honda Insight coupe
Wheelbase: 94.5 inches
Length: 155.1 inches
Engine: 1-liter, 63-h.p. 3-cylinder with 7-h.p. electric motor assist
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Fuel economy: 61 m.p.g. city/70 m.p.g. highway
Pluses: Mileage rating makes $2 a gallon gas easier to stomach. Less fuel consumed means fewer emissions into the atmosphere. Quiet operation thanks to aero (and eye-catching) design. Decent price. Weekly fuel budget.
Minuses: Only a 5-speed. Only a two-seater. Only a two-door. Only 70 h.p. combined or a few horses short of what’s needed to take hills quickly, so prepare for lots of shifting. Rather firm ride thanks to stiff, low-rolling.