Friday, April 06, 2012

Things sort of environmental, on the personal front.

I have been working on this post for (like) a week.

Earth hour was last Saturday. Just like I am only mentioning it now, I kinda blew it off, watching TV (and later driving over to my girlfriends to walk her dog while she worked). I watched a LCD TV in my apartment which has all CFL's (expect for a couple of LED lights). But do I feel bad I didn't turn off my lights (I can't even remember what I was watching).

I just recently bought a Prius C, which was probably a bad or at least unnecessary decision. The "C" is a new model hybrid, which Toyota says is selling quite briskly. It is smaller, a hatchback built on the Yaris sedan's frame, and starts under 20 grand (mine was around twenty). It is being marketed to people in their twenties getting their first car, which is funny in a way because I am finding that to maximize mileage, you kinda need to drive like a 70 year old on tranquilizers. More on that later.

I am pretty sure I have mentioned I had a 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid with a manual transmission. Was there a problem with the Civic? Well, yes and no. It was starting weirdly, that is, sometimes when I turned the key lights would come on, it would wuh wuh like cars do when the battery is low, then it would catch. Mind you, the auto-stop, which turns the engine off at traffic lights, still worked fine. The starter problem actually scared me some.

Plus, there was a (not really official) mechanism for tracking mileage that was estimating high. The car has a real time mileage horizontal bar graph below the odometer, which was hard to get exact readings from but worked well enough to give me a sense of where I was MPG wise at any given moment. But with the trip odometers there was also an average mileage reading, showing the mileage from the last time you tripped the trip odometer. I would trip the trip odometer every time I got gas (I generally let the tank get pretty low), so I could have a sense of how I was doing. I also tracked my mileage on fueleconomy dot gov, each fill up. Well, the trip odometer was showing mileage higher than what was showing me. And the car's mileage in general was down. I had been in the low 40's pretty consistently (except on trips when I was in the low 50's!), but now I was in the upper 30's.

Bothersome, but these things should not have been enough to make me want to replace what was still quite a good car. I mean, I felt a sense of mortality about the car, but it was/is a Honda, and potentially good for another 100,000 miles (not with those hybrid batteries, though). Still, the Prius C really caught my eye. It appeared to be everything the Honda Insight (second generation) hybrid should have been but was not turning out to be. The Insight (second generation) was the first hybrid to sell under 20 grand. But the Insight (second generation) got only about the same mileage as my 2003 Civic hybrid and it's drive-ability was pretty well slammed by reviewers.

The Prius C (c for city), on the other hand, also starts under 20 grand (my level two was a bit over 20), gets a bit better mileage than a regular Prius and is supposed to be reasonable to drive. As I mentioned, it is built on the Yaris frame (I believe it must be the four door sedan frame), so it is truly a small car. The front seats are roomy, the rears are OK if the front seats are pushed forward by/for short people like me, and the cargo space is pretty small (although you can fold down the rear seats).

But the Prius C is turning out to be a challenge to drive in such a way as to get the EPA rated gas mileage. Let me back track on this issue for a second. With the Civic hybrid, I obsessed when driving about how the hybrid battery was doing. That battery would discharge when one accelerated, and recharge when one "engine braked", which to say let my foot off the gas pedal while the car was going and still in gear. When one did that in the Civic, the car would apparently change to have only one cylinder firing, although the other three kept moving (presumably from the motion of the car), and of course the electric motor was spinning in reverse or something to do the charging and braking. Engine braking gives you fantastic mileage on the Civic hybrid. You could see whether the battery was charging or powering the electric motor by looking at the dash (which once prompted my mother to tell me to stop looking at my dash). So obsessing about the state of the battery was actually a good way to get good mileage out of the Civic, although it tended to make one look for hills to drive down, and make one shudder at big rolling hills on the highway.

But if driving the Civic stick shift hybrid took some skill, the Prius C has brought a whole new set of challenges. So far, the way tracking the gas mileage in the Prius C works is this: every time you start the car, it starts from zero gas mileage. There are ways to set up recurring mileage, but so far I haven't attempted that. But I am using an energy monitor-type thing, that tells you whether the car is running in gas only, gas and electric, electric only, recharging mode, gas and also recharging mode and maybe other modes too (cloaked?). This monitor also displays the mileage for your (my) current trip.

Now, being as it is spring and therefore somewhat cool in the mornings, when you start the Prius C, the gas motor kicks on after about thirty seconds. When the gas motor is on, when the car is warming up, the mileage really sucks. Once the gas motor warms up, you can take off from a stop light using the electric motor if you accelerate really (really, really) slowly. There are times when accelerating that slowly drives my fellows American drivers somewhat crazy, but the more you use the electric motor, the better the city mileage.

Of course, in busier traffic, one feels pressure to accelerate faster. What you can do in that situation is when you do reach 25 MPH, you start to "pulse and glide". To pulse and glide, one needs to let one's foot off the gas and coast and then speed back up at some point. Then if you are coasting/rolling along at, say, twenty three MPH, when you put your foot on the gas (gently) the car will run on electric only, which really helps keep gas mileage up higher despite the earlier faster acceleration.

Now as I said, the Prius C starts gas mileage fresh each time you drive it. Getting up to 40 or (ideally) 50 miles per gallon in any given city trip can be a considerable challenge, especially on trips of three miles or shorter. If I didn't try to drive so gently, if I just put my foot down and went, I suspect my mileage would be in the 30's or (maybe) low 40's. Many people would be happy enough with that sort of mileage, but the person likely to buy a Prius C is likely to expect more. So I roll slowly, keeping an eye on the dashboard energy monitor thingie.

As I said, the "C" is being marketed to people in their twenties, a whole new market for the Prius line. Now, I suspect a significant fraction of the current brisk sales are people like me, mileage enthusiasts excited by a twenty grand hybrid that gets Prius mileage. We will be the trailblazers, who will work at getting the high mileage, who will have the patience and different priorities to accelerate and drive so gently (read: slowly) to get there.

But what of the twenty years olds who are being courted by Toyota? Well, the car has kind of a regular (automatic) gear sift instead of the other Prius model's joystick like tiny gear shift. It also has an almost alarming array of audio type features (as if the energy monitor were not enough to distract you). There is a CD player and of course car radio. The car radio, by the way, sometimes tells you stuff about what song is being played. There is a port for a USB cable (from your iPod or increasingly your smart phone's music player). There is bluetooth as well, to either sync your phone for calls, your phone for playing music, or to sync it for both.

What happens if the twenty year old starts having kids? Time for a Prius V (as in Victor, apparently, since we have forgotten about the Romans, except when counting Super Bowls).

No comments: