by William L. Seavey

Like it or not automobiles (and trucks) will continue to strangle the urban and rural landscape for decades to come. Even when $3-a-gallon (and beyond) gas prices kick in for good.

Clearly, we need eventually to reduce the number of vehicles on our highways, and as gas prices climb, hard choices will have to be made. A few may abandon cars altogether for public transit (if available), but many more will likely look to smaller, lighter, more gasoline-efficient cars.

And some are even looking to vehicles that run on alternative fuels, the subject of over two years of research in my self-published book, Power Your Car WITHOUT Gasoline!

But as much as I’d like to see an explosion of interest in alternatively fueled cars, like you, I live in the real world. And right now the only real show in town is the hybrid electric vehicle, which is a technology that limits the amount of gasoline consumed by an internal combustion engine (ICE) by shutting it down temporarily and running on electric power via a highly efficient electric motor, and battery storage.

These cars are state of the art and have had a half-dozen years to develop and have the bugs worked out. They are safe, and reduce gasoline consumption by at least 25% when compared with vehicles of the same body weight, class, power etc.

Do I like them? In my book I call them a stop-gap solution, and a delaying of the inevitable as we face the Peak Oil crisis (or, short of that coming soon, the next war in the middle east). I don’t even spend much time evaulating them. Yet 90,000 sold last year, and this year the figure may well double. Ford, which is the first “pure” U.S. manufacturer to get into the game, promises 250,000 a year by the year 2010. The Center for the New American Dream, a non-profit group dedicated to reducing consumption, has gotten behind hybrids in a big way (even though yours truly at one time tried to talk them out of it).

Obviously, hybrids will dominate the “green” car landscape well into the future. Hydrogen-fueled vehicles, for a lot of reasons (mainly cost and distribution issues), won’t be in your driveway in this decade. Cars running on biodiesel will be the “fringe” choice of many — don’t get me wrong, I do think, as does energy guru Amory Lovins, that we could eventually run at least 25% of our vehicles this way, but try to find a biodiesel or even ethanol station near you (one exception is SLO!). I particularly like the idea of pure electric vehicles (EVs), which I spend a lot of time with in the book. The EV1, manufactured by GM, was great in many ways, but it was recalled (long story). Smaller manufacturers are working on NEVs (neighborhood electric vehicles), but they mostly lack financing and public support. (Sad).

So now to bring this down to the personal. When I started thinking about retiring my 15 mpg (but sturdy) 20-year-old Ford Crown Victoria, which sped a few dozen people down to Mexico over the years to work on or just hang out at my strawbale house, the conversation with my wife naturally turned to hybrids. She had been driving a secondhand 1991 Honda Civic which has held up well, was still getting close to 30 mpg, but was starting to require a few surgeries here and there. Thus it was time for a New Car, at least for her (I’d still be happy with the Accord).

We’d never owned a new car, and if you are buying anything other than a hybrid, a 3-5-year-old, well maintained economy car is usually a good deal. But wanting to be “bug” free, it made sense in this case to buy new. I should demur once again, however, and mention that Mother Earth News’ issue #212 documents 47 older (and newer, but not necessarily hybrid) cars that can get 35+ mpg. In this day of the hybrid, you still don’t really need to get one to get pretty good gas mileage. But 15 mpg wasn’t going to cut it, even if I could keep the Old Ford alive.

While in Victoria, Canada, we saw the Toyota Prius in action, as it traversed the city in fleets owned by taxi companies. We rode in one and talked to two different drivers. Yes, their hybrids were getting over 50 mpg and were dependable. (Remember, also, that most hybrids get their BEST fuel economy in city driving where the electric motor is working the hardest.) So the Prius was obviously the genuine article.

As I was learning more about hybrids, I was struck by the fact that the new Ford Escape small SUV advertised the capability of traveling a couple of miles in all-electric mode at up to 25 mph. To me, this was the immediate future of hybrids, using motors that made it possible for the car to be a NEV most of the time, and a tiger on the highway when you needed the ICE power. (My understanding is that the Prius still uses some gasoline even when driving at slow speeds. The gas engine does shut down when idling, and generates charging through regenerative braking.)

If we were going to get a hybrid, a system like the Escape was what I wanted! After going into the dealer and subsequently reading an article on the subject, it appeared Honda was about to unveil (in 2006) a Civic that could do what the Escape did already, tool around on all electric power for a few miles. And while EPA mileage ratings hadn’t come out yet, the prediction was for 50 mpg overall. It turns out my wife had already rejected the Prius (didn’t like lack of trunk), and had always had good results with Honda, so she, too, was receptive. It was there, however, where things got very confused.

At the time of our dealership visit I was still trying to determine for certain that the new Civic hybrid, not on the showroom floor yet, would do what I thought. Later — in fact, while I was at the Green Earth Expo with a booth on gasoline alternatives — my wife had decided on a 2005 Honda Accord Hybrid. (And signed some papers). I had never even considered an Accord, and subsequently we had to do all our homework after the fact. It was also $8000 more than a Civic. (The price differential, incidentally, is something several studies suggest may make a hybrid less desirable compared to a non-hybrid model, in that you will have to drive over 100,000 miles to get your savings from less gasoline usage).

After taking the Accord hybrid out on the road together for the first time, it didn’t seem to be getting the promised minimum 37 mpg. The dealer said it needed a break-in period. I wasn’t so sure. This technology uses what’s called Integrated Motor Assist (IMA), which uses the battery power to BOOST acceleration and take the strain off the gasoline engine. The Accord is a much more powerful car than the Civic, which has only four cylinders, one reason my wife liked it. In the car’s favor when cruising at high highway speeds, three of its six cylinders shut down completely.

It took a trip to CNET.com to read other Accord buyer’s evaluations of the car till I was satisfied we had gotten a pretty good vehicle, albeit not one with the fuel savings I wanted. But one buyer took a trip to Las Vegas, and at 75 mph got the promised 37 mpg. Other buyers liked the overall performance, style and leather seats.

My wife does most of the driving, and I can’t tell her what car to buy. (I tried.) Maybe you have experienced this issue in your family. I will say this, however: just the other day Motor Trend Magazine came out with its Car of the Year, and it was the 2006 Honda Civic (in all its models, including the hybrid).

Had we bought a Toyota Prius, I might have considered eventually going the route a few hundred people have, which is making it “plug-in” capable. That makes it even closer to the idea of a pure EV. (See separate story). But for now, we can at least boast that we have bought a car that restricts gasoline consumption, and that will last a long time into the future.

And when the 1991 Honda Accord completely gives out, expect to see the author driving a late 1990s VW Jetta or Passat and fueling it with locally produced biodiesel (I hope).

William L. Seavey is an alternative energy advocate and consultant, and is also author of the People’s Guide to Basic Solar Power. His website is PowerFromSun.com. His next group tour to Baja is February 18-22. He and his wife (the one with the hybrid!) live in Cambria.