RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Hybrid Vigor

The corporate media has an interesting way of looking at "America's New War," contending that we're bombing Afghanistan out of the stone age and into the present. While it's great to see Afghan women in blue jeans and young men carrying VCRs out of stores in Kabul, we're not deluded. Bombing terrorists deeply into caves is not the same as bringing them to an international body like the Hague tribunal.

But seeing Afghan women in jeans makes us feel like we've won something, and the flush of success makes us spend money. Despite the news that America produced 3% more carbon dioxide last year than the year before, we're buying gas guzzling cars and trucks.

0% financing and cheap gas haven't hurt sales. To insure that cheap gas will last, our Prez is filling hollowed-out salt domes on the Gulf Coast with 700 million barrels of oil. This Strategic Petroleum Reserve -- SPR -- will be the world's largest oil stockpile, taking 130,000 barrels per day for three years to fill from its current level.

You'd think that Congress would have to approve such a purchase, but working through the Interior Department, the administration avoided asking. They're taking oil in place of royalties corporations owe for drilling on public land. In other words, Dear Voter, nobody asked your representative and nobody will ask you.

This under-the-table trade sheds more light on the administration's insistence that we must drill ANWR, and if you feel increasingly manipulated by Big Oil and Big Government, you need to do what you can. Use gasoline sparingly. Share the ride. Buy a hybrid car.

The late, great Donnella Meadows said that one-third of the energy used in a car's lifetime goes up the stack in its manufacture and transportation to dealers, so buying a car is not an environmental decision to take lightly. But if you're in the market, don't fail to look at the new hybrids. These little boogers use a combination of gasoline combustion and rechargeable batteries. The batteries kick in when acceleration is needed and recharge by when the car decelerates.

Last spring, my 1993 Ford Explorer bit the dust. I had justified owning the behemoth on the grounds that I don't drive much anyway, and that we needed a four-wheel drive with room for family excursions, so we remembered Donnella's words and kept the old beast.

As the Ford gasped its last breaths, however, I started test-driving other cars. We wanted to buy American, but I regret to say that American car manufacturers haven't changed mile-per-gallon (MPG) standards since 1974. That's almost 30 years of lost technology!

There are a lot of experiments coming along -- hydrogen fuel cells, solar cars, but so far only two hybrids are the available to consumers. I drove the Honda Insight, then the Toyota Prius. Then I drove them both again, and again. I chose one, and I love it. With 4,500 miles on the speedometer, the car has averaged 58.9 mpg driving in all kinds of conditions. That 58.9 is something the car keeps track of.

The car has pep. My husband drove the car home on the interstate at 70 plus, announcing the speed with every tick, "I can't believe we're going 75. I can't believe we're going 76 ... " With aerodynamic shape and a load of batteries to stabilize it, this car hugs the road.

For me, speed is less important. Almost all of my driving is on blacktop and gravel roads. On blacktops, for sheer fun, I'd take my hybrid over anything else I've driven. Ever.

On gravel roads, here's the caution: The tires are tiny. Within a month of getting the car, I'd blown a tire. The car sat parked for two weeks waiting for a new tire from California. Since then, I've slowed down on gravel, and had no more problems.

I had hoped to go through winter before writing about my hybrid, because snow may bring a blizzard of problems, but is there anyone who thinks "America's New War" has nothing to do with oil? We need to think about this. I'm using one-fourth of the gasoline I used a year ago without changing my quality of life one smidge.

One of my friends, a computer geek, calls my car "a prototype." He says that until a few years ago it was impossible to build such a car because it is "constantly making decisions about which energy source to use." Another friend designs solar cars at the university. When these techies first saw the car at our farmer's market, they asked to drive it. After driving, they asked, "Can we take it apart?"

Even though there are major differences, the hybrids have similar characteristics. And many of the innovations could be built into any car. Hybrid cars ride low, about four inches off the ground. The low clearance helps with aerodynamics. Aerodynamics also require that the undercarriage is flat, so there's a flap of metal over the various automotive pipes and bolts. This also protects the lumpy parts from gravel.

From the driver's seat, the very cool gauges tell you how much mileage you're getting, how much juice is in the batteries, and whether you're using gas or electricity. The gauges lure you into games like, "Can I average 75 mpg today?" or "Can I coast at 150 mpg from here to the stop sign?" You get better at racking up high MPG, and your skills transfer to driving other vehicles. MPG gauges would be a good addition to any car or simulator used for instruction.

But my favorite feature is "Auto Stop" which shuts down the engine when you're stopped at a traffic light, or when you've hopped out to pick up the mail or open a stock fence. At first, the shutdown feels like a stall, but after you're used to it, the incessant exhaust from other cars at stop signs seems insulting. Auto Stop should be built into every new bus, mail truck, delivery van, tractor, eighteen-wheeler, or any other vehicle.

The most unexpected pleasure of this car is the quiet. My car and I sneak up on flocks of turkeys in the road. Dogs don't hear us coming and don't bother to chase. If everyone drove a car like this, the world would be much quieter.

Moving from a SUV to a 2-seater wasn't nearly as hard as I expected. The usual stuff -- briefcase, cooler, and so forth -- fits easily into a well in the back. This well is the best way to carry plants that I've ever had. They stand up straight without tipping over.

The well is sunk into a large, flat deck that provides surprising space. Going to our farmer's market, I take a card table, two folding chairs, four yard signs, a yard umbrella and stand, still leaving room for a neighbor in the front seat. The guys at the feed store laughed when I drove it in the first time, but they load 300 pounds of grain -- 6 feed sacks -- in the back without blocking the windows. Now the feed store guys say "hybrid" means half sports car, half pick-up truck. Even with that load, I get the same 58-59 mpg, with no change in performance.

Next time we buy a car, there might be a lot of fuel-efficient choices. Maybe some of them will be American-made.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches college English in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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