Bye-Bye Gas Guzzlers; Hello Green Cars -July 2008

by: Margaret Carroll-Bergman

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

If you’re out to save the planet or money at the gas pump, or just tired of circling the Old Historic District in the summer looking for a parking space, it may be time to investigate hybrid technology or at the very least, a smaller car.

When driven under 25 mph, hybrid cars run on electricity and use no gas. They are fuel-efficient when driven over 25 miles per hour. The island seems uniquely suited for hybrid cars and SUVs, especially around town, where it’s not necessary to shift into third gear.

My husband drives a Toyota Prius, which gets 50 mpg in town and 46 mpg on the highway. The Prius lists for $25,000. It is low to the ground and aerodynamic to get the best gas mileage, and you never get the feeling you are going to roll over while driving in the snow or high winds, the way you do when driving a SUV, truck or a Jeep.

The Prius, because of its odd styling – it looks like another boring economy car – is a niche car. It’s the opposite of the Hummer, another niche vehicle – which gets 13 mpg – in size and general philosophy. While I’ll never wage war in a Prius, I could outrun the enemy, something I am not sure I could do in a Hummer, an off-road vehicle developed by the military, and find a place to park or hide behind the Stop & Shop.

The Prius also has plenty of leg room in the back seat, which is great for my daughter, who is 5-feet, 11-inches tall, her shorter sister and the family pet.

Except for the Toyota dealership in Hyannis, which has the hybrid Prius and more traditional hybrid Camry and Highlander SUV in stock, other car dealerships in Hyannis were waiting for the factory to send them their 2008 hybrid cars.

Jim Deasy, the Internet sales manager for Hyannis Toyota, let me test drive a hybrid Camry, which lists for around $26,000, about $5,400 more than the gas-only Camry. Deasy came along for the ride.

The experience of driving the Camry, which had leather seats, was somewhat dampened as the seats were covered in plastic and paper mats protected the floor. Deasy turned on the heated seats, a novelty for me, but as with all novelties, it quickly wore thin.

“The Camry is the number-one selling car in the United States for eight years running,” said Deasy as we drove past Dunkin’ Donuts. We did not stop for coffee for fear of splashing it around the car. “The hybrid Camry uses the same technology as the Prius and gets about 34 miles to the gallon.”

Without a doubt, the Camry was easy to drive and parallel park and handled well in the Hyannis traffic.

According to Deasy, the 2008 hybrids use third-generation technology, with Ford purchasing Toyota’s earlier hybrid technology and Nissan leasing it.

“The Internet department sold 18 Priuses to Nantucket last year,” Deasy said. “Just pick up the phone and we’ll drive it on the boat.”

Don Allen Ford, the only car dealership on Nantucket, sold nearly 50 hybrid cars and SUVs last year and is waiting for the factory to send the 2008 hybrid models to the island.

According to Don Allen’s owner, Bill Tornovish, the hybrids were easier to get last year than this year.

“Ford wanted more of the market share of California and decided to put all the 2008 supply to the West Coast,” he said.

You can order a hybrid from the factory, but it might take six to eight months to arrive on-island, unless the availability changes.

One hybrid, a Ford Escape which gets about 34 mpg and was special-ordered by a customer, did arrive at Don Allen and Tornovish took me out for a test ride.

We cruised noiselessly around town, the engine rarely using gas, but I felt the ride would have been more fun in an old truck.

Somehow the Escape’s special household voltage feature, which could operate a coffee pot and a waffle iron while driving, spoke of work to me. Tornovish, an amiable man, might as well have handed me a rag and a bottle of lemon oil and told me I could dust while he drove.

While not as fuel-efficient as some other environmentally-friendly vehicles, the hybrid Ford Escape and the Mercury Mariner have one distinct advantage: They’re SUVs. Powered at slower speeds (less than 25 mph) by a 330-volt nickel-metal-hydride battery pack, the Escape hybrid is perfect for island driving, said Tornovish.

The base model hybrid Escape sells for under $30,000, and the base gas-only Escape sells for $22,500.

Although not a hybrid, the Mini Cooper was developed in Europe roughly 50 years ago and the 21st century version gets between 30 and 36 miles per gallon.

British born artist Kerry Hallam, known for his vibrant oil paintings of Nantucket, met me at the door of his studio, dangling the keys to his yellow Mini Cooper in his paint-speckled hand.

Hallam’s 2002 Mini was one of the first on the island. It was also the first year the car, developed in this incarnation by BMW, was sold in the United States. This is the seventh one owned by Hallam, the others he owned while living in Europe. A new 2008 Mini Cooper lists for around $18,000.

As I pulled away from the curb and drove to the end of Pheasant Lane, shifting into second gear, I soon forgot I was driving a car which was a little bit larger than a golf cart. The Mini was fun to drive and easy to parallel park, especially on India Street.

The car’s retro interior reminded me of my first car, a 1972 VW hatchback, which I bought second-hand in 1982 from Al Silva. Yet Hallam’s Mini did not have to be pushed to start or covered in blankets to keep the alternator dry at night.

The Mini is not a practical car for hauling the husband, kids and a dog for any distance. The back seat is rather cramped and if your children are taller than 5 feet, you might want to weigh the gas savings against the complaints.

Yet it’s a good mid-life crisis car for a woman who wants an excuse to go to the store alone or take a drive around the island to check up on berry patches. Although it is low to the ground, it takes the rutted dirt of Eel Point Road well and there aren’t as many thrills tumbling down Cobblestone Hill, as the Mini stays on its side of the road when making the blind turn.

Driving the Mini around made me nostalgic to go cruising and although I experienced the Ford Escape, I telephoned Diana “Kim” England, a childhood friend and goldsmith. England was one of the lucky ones able to buy a hybrid last year from Don Allen Ford. I met England at Nantucket Ice, where she had dropped off her 8-year-old son Henry, for skating practice, before we went cruising in her hybrid Mercury Mariner.

The Mariner gets about 30 mpg driving under 60 mph and about 22 mpg going over 70. The braking system recharges the battery pack, which is located in the rear, so you don’t need to take the car on the Sconset Road or state highway to recharge the battery.

The Mercury Mariner sells for under $30,000 and its base model gas counterpart sells for $23,500.

England was kind enough to let me take the wheel as we cruised up Main Street. We were definitely driving a family car and could easily fit three kids and hockey equipment in the back seat.

We cruised Main Street a second time before heading out to the Milestone Rotary, not even drawing the attention of the police car as we awkwardly entered the rotary. It was definitely a utilitarian vehicle, able to go on the beach, but it was February and we weren’t up for a sandblasting on Great Point. So we drove around town one more time, realizing that we aren’t too far off becoming like one of our older neighbors, who in her 80s used to go to lunch once a week with her girlfriends and cruise around town in a 1960 Ford Falcon.

“Every once in a while, the car is so silent that I forget to turn the engine off when I park,” said England. “Once, the motor was running for eight hours and the battery was still charged. I don’t think it used an ounce of gas.”

At least one Hummer owner has traded the vehicle in for a Volkswagen. The tan Hummer at the Volkswagen dealership in Hyannis looked wildly out of place as it dwarfed the smaller Beetles and Rabbits parked on the lot.

While Volkswagen will have cars with clean-burning diesel engines for sale in August of 2008 – which may get as many as 60 to 70 mpg, it is not embracing hybrid technology.

Massachusetts is one of five states in the country which does not allow the sale of diesel passenger cars, although the clean diesel would be compliant in all 50 states, said Volkswagen sales manager Steve Tellegen.

I rode with Tellegen in a 5-speed Rabbit, which averages 32 miles per gallon. We drove down Route 132 to a service road behind the Hyannis Airport, which was full of potholes and ruts and as close to the roads on Nantucket as Tellegen could find.

The ride was smooth and although it was a base model, the two-door Rabbit hatchback, built in Germany, performed like a luxury car and listed for under $16,000.

“We sell a lot of cars to people on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard,” said Tellegen. “Most people see a car on the island and test drive it and order it over the Internet. We can ship the car to the island and also pick it up at the Steamship Authority to service it.”

Another recent arrival on the island is also not a hybrid, but gets great gas milage just the same. It’s also guaranteed to generate a few second looks, if you can get your hands on one. It’s the Smart Car, and a handful have been spotted buzzing around Nantucket since spring. Architect Lyman Perry, a summer resident, has been spotted tooling around in his Smart ForTwo, and Small Friends on Nantucket, an early education and childcare center on the island, is raffling off a bright yellow one later this summer as a fundraiser for its new school building on Nobadeer Farm Road.

While the Smart Car has been making a splash in big cities around the country for the past couple of years, it also makes a lot of sense on Nantucket, provided you don’t live on a rutted dirt road. Not much larger than a golf cart, it is in fact a real car, and surprisingly roomy. Manufactured by Daimler of Germany, which also makes the Mercedes-Benz, it gets between 30 and 40 miles to the gallon, and has a top speed of about 75 mph.

And when it comes to safety, don’t worry about its size and shape. The Smart ForTwo, which is about three feet shorter and 700 pounds lighter than the Mini, and the smallest car the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety ever tested, earned top marks in front and side crash tests.

The only drawback at this point for you car-buyers looking for something small, fuel-efficient and guaranteed to turn a hew heads for at least another year or two? The waiting list. At a sticker price of between $12,000 and $14,000, Daimler can’t make enough of the little buggies to meet U.S. demand.

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