A motorist turns off the engine to coast the final block home.
Another spends $5,000 to convert his car to run on used vegetable oil.
And 10 percent have packed their bags and moved closer to work to save on gas, according to a recent study.
Can roller skates be far behind? No need with the hybrid Toyota Prius going strong. The car that got the conservation ball rolling, sold a meager 15,000 units in the 2001 model year.
As gas prices rose, so have sales, to about 180,000 last year, the same number expected this year as shortages limit sales even as demand swells. To address that, Toyota will begin building the Gen III Prius in 2010 in a Mississippi plant earmarked for the Highlander SUV.
Gen III bows at the Detroit Auto Show in January. Like its predecessors, it will come only from Japan when it goes on sale next fall until the Mississippi plant is ready.
Thankfully, a Gen III is coming. Prius may be the poster car for energy conservation, but it comes up short in room and comfort.
Other factors, such as performance and value versus non-hybrids, are open to debate.
Prius is powered by a 1.5-liter 4-cylinder gas engine and nickel-metal-hydride battery pack that together develop 110 horsepower. On top of that, it boasts and industry best 48 m.p.g. city/45 highway.
Still, the 2008 Prius brings to mind that old saying "There's no such thing as a free lunch" in connection with that 48/45 mileage.
For example, Prius costs about $100 more than a midsize Toyota Camry, which is 14.2 inches longer, or about $4,000 more than a compact Toyota Corolla, only 3.7 inches longer. But Toyota insists on comparing Prius to Camry because both offer amenities Corolla doesn't. Moreover Toyota says its preferred comparison has nothing to do with the $4,000 spread between Prius and Corolla.
And Prius' cost doesn't end with dollars. It runs in battery or gas mode or both when it needs a boost. But even with that jolt, Prius doesn't sizzle leaving the light or merging into interstate traffic.
Fuel conservation makes performance, well, conservative.
And the costs mount. You travel on seats soooo stiff—back and bottom—especially in the rear where they are atop the battery pack. Sit in back long enough—10 to 15 minutes depending on your size—and you'll get a case of the fidgets.
At least cargo room is good, and rear seat backs fold flat to expand the haulability. There's a small compartment under the cargo floor to hide stuff.
Prius starts and gets going in battery mode. At about 25 m.p.h., the gas engine takes over. Batteries chime in when you need that boost. Climb a hill and Prius gets the gas; descend and it's the batteries' turn.
A schematic in the navi screen tells when gas, batteries or both are working, plus current m.p.g.
Coast and the screen will show you are getting 99.9 m.p.g. in battery mode—a symbol of optimum savings.
Press the pedal to enlist gas and the mileage reading quickly dips into the 20 m.p.g. range to signal actual fuel use—or do you say waste?
A consumption gauge shows average mileage in 5-minute increments. In one 5-minute run, we crept along a road posted at 35 m.p.h., coasting at every chance. The 99.9 m.p.g. reward showed up.
Same course with no cajoling and a semi in tow sent mileage to a shade below 25 m.p.g. Goes to show that even in an economy car, your thoughts and actions have to stay focused on saving energy to do so.
A new price leader for 2008 starts at $21,500. It joins the base model we tested that starts at $22,875 and the Touring at $23,770.
Stickers were increased by $550 in May in keeping with higher gas prices. For 2009, they go up another $500, Toyota announced just last week.
The base model tested comes with traction control, anti-lock brakes, climate control, rear-window defogger, power windows/door locks and AM/FM/CD player as standard. Options included $1,175 for a package that added stability control, back-up camera and power, heated outside mirrors.
Read Jim Mateja Sunday in Transportation. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.