Contributing Monkie G Living Staff Monkies
Published on April 4, 2010
The Toyota Prius … a “gateway drug?” So claims a well-known actor in a new book of celebrity essays, “The Green Book,” about the hybrid that hooked him into living more “G.” “You know how people say marijuana is a gateway drug? That’s sorta what buying a Prius was for me,” he says. “I love nature, and I love taking walks on the beach at sunset. And if that makes me sound like Miss February filling out her turn-ons in a Playboy bio, so be it.”
Tony Schaefer, one of the founders of the Chicago Prius Club, uses the same analogy when he describes how the Prius turned him from an unaware Buick Regal owner — “Emissions? Didn’t care. Mileage? Didn’t care” — into a “raving, evangelical environmentalist” with a bumper sticker of a stick-figure man blowing his brains out with a gas nozzle.
When it comes to Priuses, Schaefer turned into a pusher and an enabler, turning on people to hybrids, and helping them score that mileage high. “When you are truly inspired by something,” he says, “you should never want to stop talking about it.”
The Prius first picked up sex appeal in 2001 when it was introduced in the United States, and seized upon by stars like Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Bill Maher. Six years later, many more consumers have also fallen under the influence, despite enticing alternatives like all-electric vehicles such as the Zap, or biodiesel conversions that have become available.
But more often than not — especially in places where all-electric cars aren’t marketed, Kentucky Fried Chicken or Hardees are the substances of choice for filling up a biodiesel vehicle but the higher costs limit ambitious conversions — making plain ol’, gas/electric Prius the front runner for people getting juiced about saving gas. And with sales up 93.7% from last year, it’s easily become the most widely available high-mileage intoxicant around.
But sometimes the high-mileage buzz wears off when a Prius falls short of the EPA-estimated mileage (few cars do the way most people drive them), leaving new owners looking for a fix. That’s where Schaefer and legions of hybrid owners step in with tips, inspiration and sometimes cooked-up schemes to get every last mile out of a tank.
Bye, Bye Barca
The 37-year-old corporate trainer wasn’t always hot for hybrids. In 2003, Schaefer was driving “a Barca lounger on wheels,” a plush Regal pushing the limits of its 100,000 extended warranty. Schaefer started car shopping, but not with a hybrid in mind.
“The fact of the matter is that I bought what I thought was the car with the best quality, functionality, and gadgets,” he says. “The mileage was a bonus.”
First generation Prius owners saw themselves as early adapters at the forefront of a paradigm shift. They would hang out on sites such as PriusChat.com to respond to people’s rants about mileage (a Prius requires about a 6-month break-in period for both car and driver to gain optimal mileage), exchange news about future Prius developments, and marvel at one other’s mileage records. Ask a question on the forum today and Schaefer will likely be there answering your question (he has over 5,500 posts to his name).
But Schaefer doesn’t shy away from non-virtual interactions or from showing off his car.
On a sunny June day in suburban Chicago. Schaefer’s 2004 Prius – scoring 66.3 miles per gallon for the last 331 miles – stops along a sleepy, tree-lined road when a classic, red Corvette convertible comes revving around the bend.
The sports car driver, a balding speedster looking around 50-ish, stares dead ahead as he guns it over the crest of a hill. Gas vapors linger in the still air as the Corvette engine throttles off in the distance, and Schaefer cracks wise.
“Was that six cylinders of Viagra?”
Two drivers, same road, going very different directions.
Maybe Baldy was rushing off to the gas station — all that speed can force you to come down quick. Schaefer on the other hand, prefers to cruise the speed limit and keeps a virtual mileage log for all the world to see. To Schaefer, it’s all about pacing yourself.
The original hypermilers were a group of four American men who hopped into a Prius and drove 1,397 miles on a single tank of gas. They attracted an HBO crew who filmed their 47-hour feat, thereby fueling intense interest in the MPG Challenge at Hybridfest where drivers hypermile for “sport.” With six divisions in all, the annual competition draws participants to Madison, Wisconsin each July to vie for the title of most fuel-efficient driver in the world.
Wayne Gerdes, one of the pioneers on that original 47-hour journey, gets credit for coining the term hypermiling, and he revels in the extremes of it — going so far as to pull up behind tractor-trailers, kill the engine, and coast in the draft. He’s also a Chicago Prius Club member but drives a conventional Honda Accord – any vehicle owner is welcome in.
60 or so people in attendance, including a crew from the local FOX affiliate, at a club meeting this May. Hybrid neophytes rub shoulders with hypermilers at a suburban Chicago Toyota dealership, examining the innards of a dissected Prius battery. Club co-founder Wayne Mitchell, an engineer, dressed in a tuxedo, maroon cummerbund and baseball cap for the occasion, explained to the crowd how he clocks mileage in the 70s in his Prius by not using his air conditioner or heater – even in the dead of a Chicago winter.
Later, Schaefer says that while he appreciates all efforts to save gas, he is concerned that publicizing extreme high-mileage practices can have the wrong effect.
“It makes it seem like hypermilers are these fanatical lunatics just out to risk their lives,” he says. (Even Mitchell says, “I’m not advocating bundling up like a polar bear in winter. Use the heater. That’s what it’s there for.”)
How to Reach Your High
Schaefer’s message is that you don’t have to draft behind a semi to increase your fuel economy, and he swears by a few practical ways to boost mileage, save money, and ease the load on the environment.
Tip 1: Stuff foam pipe insulation into your Prius’ grill in the wintertime. This keeps your engine warmer, saves gas, and costs only $2.
Tip 2: Keep the heat at 65 degrees in summer, your A/C setting at 86 degrees in summer.
Tip 3: Schaefer over-inflates his tires to 50 psi instead of 35 for an estimated 5-mpg windfall.*
The Ultimate Technique
More than any other practice, a driving technique called “Pulse and Glide” is what makes long-distance records and EPA mileage smashing possible. Pulse and Glide is a special kind of coasting that Schaefer relishes. For optimal results, use the Pulse and Glide technique between about 30 and 40 miles per hour (mph). When you’re in the zone, your engine can remain off while you’re gliding.
On a backroad, Schaefer gives me a demonstration of Pulse and Glide. Clearly relishing the ride Schaefer says, “This is fun. This is the über part.”
Coming Back Down to Reality
Considering statistics of hybrids’ effects on U.S. oil consumption, all these efforts might not seem worth the trouble. According to a Department of Energy study, hybrids have saved 5.5 million barrels of oil over eight years. But standard cars use 8.5 million barrels of oil, a day. So hybrids haven’t even saved one day’s worth of oil. Yet.
If everyone improved their fuel economy by 25 percent, though, we’d cut our import of Mideast oil in half. Schaefer believes that putting a fuel consumption displays in every car – standard or hybrid – would increase fuel economy more than anything else, even more than federally mandated mileage increases.
Until then, he will keep doing his small part and not despairing about his insignificance in a sea of Escalades and Hummers. “Each person can think of themselves as a ripple in the ocean,” he says. “But the fact is when everyone is together that ripple turns into a wave.” This is the message that drives Hybridfest, which next takes place July 19-20, 2008 in Madison, the city with reportedly the highest per capita ownership of hybrids.
Schaefer will be there, of course, with the car he calls Priapus, named after a well-endowed Greek god of fertility. It’s Schaefer’s sly dig at men like Baldy who overcompensate, reminding them it’s the size of your mileage that matters.
*Note to Reader: Read manufacturer’s recommendations, and gauge your comfort level with pumping up your tires. Over-inflating your tires can result in safety issues. Just inflating them to the recommended pressure can save you gas.