The good news: I got a promotion. The bad news: I landed in one of my newspaper’s suburban bureaus -- a wonderful spot, but about 35 miles from my front door.
I didn’t own a car, the job started in two weeks, gas prices were climbing, and a 70-mile commute (instead of 10 friendly minutes by bus) was looking expensive.
The Insight, Honda’s two-seater hybrid with amazing gas mileage, sounded almost too good to be true. A lot of reports said it was -- real drivers don’t get the numbers Honda touts. The cars were scarce, so I flew to Wisconsin to become the proud owner of a 2001 Honda Insight, with an estimated 57 mpg in the city, 56 on the highway.
That’s where I randomly met Bradlee Fons, an enthusiast of the cars who started spouting hybrid statistics the moment he introduced himself. He and his son Justin are part of a rare fraternity: hypermilers, people who modify their driving to improve mileage and reduce emissions.
Fons explained that you need to “relearn how to drive” to appreciate a hybrid’s benefits.
After averaging 48 mpg on my way home -- good, but not what was advertised -- I logged onto InsightCentral.net and GreenHybrid.com, two sites that Fons had recommended to learn the ins and outs of hypermiling. The sites are full of people obsessed with their mileage gauges, drivers who log their mileage on each tank of gas, even people who photograph the odometer and post it online to show off particularly successful runs.
Fons also suggested I talk with someone he’d dubbed “America’s greatest hypermiler,” Wayne Gerdes. The nuclear power plant operator in Illinois averaged more than 90 mpg for more than a year driving a manual transmission Honda Insight. He was part of a team that drove a Toyota Prius for more than 1,200 miles, in two straight days of driving, on a single tank of gas.
Gerdes says he has always kept records for every vehicle he’s owned. Tired of paying for gas, he started watching the way he drove in his Toyota Corolla, thinking about the physics of driving and experimenting with ways to improve mileage.
“I hit 52 mpg in my Corolla and I said, ‘Wow, this is pretty special. I bet there’s more,’ ” he said.
Turns out, there’s a lot more. And the handful of driving tips that I adopted worked wonders. Among common hypermiling suggestions: Drive the speed limit, and avoid routes with hills or stop-and-go traffic.
On a recent drive home from work, I checked the odometer: 82 miles since leaving home that morning, or 75.6 miles per gallon.
From downtown to suburbia, and back -- on barely a gallon of gas.