Comparing Hybrid Oranges to Hybrid Apples

My friend Lisa recently got herself a new car and wanted to get a hybrid.  She test drove a Toyota Prius (which is what Will and I drove all day yesterday) but didn’t like the crazy space-age dashboard interface and the fact that it’s hard to see out the back window.  So she hopped on down to the local Honda dealership and got herself a Hybrid Civic.  She was super excited and decided to go one step further and change her driving style in order to maximize her gas efficiency.  I confess I don’t know much about hypermiling but the techniques she tried were similar to what I’ve heard about – accelerate slowly, try to maintain a constant speed with minimal acceleration and deceleration, allow your car to speed up a bit going downhill and slow down a bit going uphill, and forget about being a speed demon aggressive driver.  Hybrids also have little gauges so you can see what your efficiency is in real-time and adjust accordingly.

Alas, she was working hard to drive like an old lady and was getting unimpressive mileage results, especially in town.  She kept trying and ignoring the honks from the lead-footed drivers around her.  She took the car to the dealership and asked why she wasn’t getting the 50mpg mileage they touted but they told her the car was performing just fine. 

Finally, one week she got distracted and went back to her normal driving habits.  Her mileage improved although it still seemed better on the highway than in the city.  So she has returned to her old driving habits and is feeling a little better about the car but still disappointed.

I mentioned this story to my dad and he said that what most people don’t realize is that there’s a big difference between the Toyota hybrid system and the Honda hybrid system – the Toyota is a full hybrid system while the Honda is a power assist hybrid.  Both have an electric motor and a gas motor.  In the Toyota (the Prius), the electric motor operates the car at start-up and at slow speeds so it is very efficient for puttering around town in stop-and-go traffic.  In the Honda (the Civic), the electric motor operates as as a booster for the gas motor so it accelerates more efficiently and cruises at high speeds on the highway more efficiently.  So, with the Prius it makes a big difference if you accelerate slowly because you can run on the electric motor for a long time.  However, with the Civic you’re always using the gas motor so the in-city mileage is never going to be as good no matter how you drive.

That’s my understanding, anyway.  I did a very small amount of research using Wikipedia and JDPower but I’m afraid my engineering brain has been called upon too many times already today as we prepare for Rob and Angel’s weddin – fixing pumps, arranging landscapes, scaling up recipes…  So let me know if I’m off. this!

6 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    csim33 said,

    May 25, 2008 @ 11:19 pm

    You should pass on this web site to your hybrid-driving friend:

    There’s info on each kind of hybrid and tips for driving and message boards about the different kinds and what-not. I discovered it when I was researching buying our Toyota Camry Hybrid and it was very helpful. And I’ve been really happy with my Toyota, but yeah, the Toyota hybrid system is the superior hybrid system – your dad is correct! My Camry is currently getting a tank-average of 42 mpg and it’s a pretty good sized car.

  2. 2

    Andy said,

    May 26, 2008 @ 9:53 am

    I didn’t know the details about the Civic Hybrid, but I had heard that many hybrids are more on the assisting side. A Prius driven correctly can stay in all electric mode under 41mph for a while, which I’m not sure if (m)any other hybrids can do.

    As for the hypermiling techniques, they take more time and patience than one jaunt around town. I’ve been dong it actively for a year now, and I’m still learning new tricks every month. I was driving a Chevy Venture for work (college-owned) which is rated for 18mpg and the last tank I got was 28mpg. But the last half mile is city driving up a steep hill, and getting into town I can have as high as 40mpg. This is a van, by the way. Hypermiling doesn’t have to be intense, scary, or dangerous in any way, although the media likes to make it out to be like that. Simply learning how to best accelerate a car, finding out where to stop using gas and coast to the next stop, and keeping speed down on the highways will yield around 25%-better-than-EPA mileage. On both vehicles I had driven, I was able to average 150% EPA. I would encourage everyone to try a little harder to get good mileage. It doesn’t always mean going slow either. (I’ve gotten 28mpg in the van going 5mph over the limits).

  3. 3

    Maggie said,

    May 28, 2008 @ 5:38 pm

    Lisa was trying to improve her driving efficiency for about three months before she discovered that driving “normally” actually gave her better results. So I don’t think it could be chalked up to insufficient effort but it’s totally possible she didn’t have the techniques down.

    I’d love to hear some instructions from you, perhaps as a guest post? Do you think you could tutor folks on hypermiling via a blog post or does it really take some “hands on” effort? The one thing I like about both hybrids I’ve tried is that they have a little gauge to give you obvious feedback on your mpg. It’s a little harder when you just have to wait until you fill up next time to determine how many gallons of gas you used.

  4. 4

    Learning through feedback | said,

    June 13, 2008 @ 11:33 pm

    […] up that give you minute-by-minute updates on how you’re doing. Yeah, it can be distracting to see an instant mpg, but at least you’ll know when you’re doing well. That’s also why like the […]

  5. 5

    Lisa said,

    September 23, 2008 @ 9:38 am

    Hey all–wow, I just realized you’ve been talking about me! I’ve been out of the loop. An update–it has been several months since I went back to my old driving habits in my hybrid. I have mostly curbed my need to drive faster than the speed limit, I use my cruise more, and I coast more…all of this has proven effective and I have been averaging 40-46mpg for a combo of city and highway miles!!! It could also have been the break-in period for the engine–since it was a new car. I really think it depends on your driving style–the tips are helpful but working out my own combo was better than trying to do everything they suggest. I do enough highway driving that it makes up for the lower in-city mpg so it works for me. The higher emissions standards and the investment in alternative energy technology (instead of buying yet another gas guzzler) is worth it no matter what make or brand you buy.

  6. 6

    Maggie said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 8:30 pm

    I’m glad you are happier with your car now! I think 40+ mpg sounds pretty awesome. I’m always interested in seeing tips on how to drive more effectively but I’m sure you’re right that you have to work things out for yourself. Sounds like you’ve got it figured out.

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