Originally published Nov. 15, 2006
I woke up grumpy in the pre-dawn darkness Thursday, and not because the puppy bolted up at 2:30 a.m. to play. No, I was upset over something dogging me for months -- the poor mileage I've been getting in my 7-month-old Prius.
Since summer, despite all my driving tricks and countless tips from other hybrid owners, mileage has fallen to under 50 miles per gallon, usually in the 43 to 47 range. A few times, as low as 41 mpg.
I WANT 50-PLUS MPG! EVERY TRIP!
Yeah, I'm whining. My Prius mileage is more than twice what I got in my old Honda. Yet many hybrid owners are fixated on this, and not just because gas prices are rising again or because the dashboard screen displays mileage instantaneously.
We are mad at Washington for failing to boost mileage requirements. We are disappointed in the gas hogs getting less than 20 mpg. And we are frustrated by hybrids that get far less than the mileage listed on new car stickers.
Plus, we love driving two weeks and having to fill up just once for around $20.
When the AAA announced its first seminar for hybrid owners at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma County, I jumped out of my chair. Sign me up. I had to know if there is something I can do about my "poor" mileage.
So off I headed in the early hours Thursday morning, up Interstate 880 and I-80 to Highway 37. In the right lanes, easy on the gas pedal. Gliding when I could.
About 20 folks showed up for the two-hour morning session, a dozen Prius owners, two Highlander drivers, one Civic and one Camry owner. When AAA auto automotive manager Mark Woods asked how many got better than 50 miles to the gallon, only a couple of hands went up.
Many, like me, had pored through the 440-page driver's manual to the point where the reading had given us major headaches.
"This is all I think about, " said Charles Holmes, a chef from Glen Ellen who bought a Prius three months ago. "I'm fixated on the screen in the car. At dinner, we talk about what kind of mileage we got that day. When I'm cooking, my mind wanders and I think about it.
"Do we ever get past this point?"
There was an hour of class talk, followed by time with auto experts showing us what's under the hood and in the trunk of a Prius and Ford Escape hybrid. Then a spin around a course set up at the raceway, with Woods turning classroom tips into on-the-road reality.
"Every time I get into a hybrid, I have to relearn how to drive, " Woods said. "When I do, that's when I get better mileage."
Many tips are common sense. Don't race at 80 mph. Windows up. Air conditioning off. Blah-blah-blah.
What about the peculiarities of a hybrid, which operate on both batteries and gas? My mistake: thinking the key is to always use the battery more than the gas engine.
That can drain the battery and until it recharges through braking, you end up using the gas engine, sapping mileage.
When starting from a dead stop, do it with zip. When accelerating while in motion, lightly apply your foot to the pedal and then take it off to put the car in gliding mode.
Remove your shoes.
Other advice: Stay out of the stop-and-go slow lane, where I usually camp.
Check those tires every couple of weeks. Improperly inflated tires can really hurt the mileage.
And don't be so hard on yourself.
"Getting 40 miles to the gallon is still pretty good, " Woods said.,
Nope. Not good enough for me or Ellen Pontac and Shelly Bailes, who drove their lime-colored Prius from Davis to the seminar. They had their tires checked, and pressure was too low. The AAA guys pumped more air in. They had their list of tips. They got 49 mpg on the way to the seminar, 52 on the way home.
"All a sudden it was fun driving again, " said Pontac. "How did you do?"
My tires needed about three more pounds. Air in. I stayed out of the slow lane, keeping with the flow of traffic at a steady 66 to 69 mph in the No. 2 lane. Shoes off. Air conditioner, off. Windows, up.
On the 90-minute drive back to the Merc, I flipped the dashboard screen so I couldn't see the overall mileage while I was driving, only the moment-by-moment estimates.
I pulled into the parking lot, pausing for a moment. I didn't want to be disappointed again.
I flipped the dashboard screen.
Yes, yes, YES! A whopping 55.1 mpg! My best ever.
The grump was pleased.