By John Addison (4/24/09).
This is my first time to drive on a race track and I’m wondering if these are my final moments on planet earth. Here at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca I take the Andretti Hairpin and learn to accelerate in successive turns. After accelerating uphill, I enter “The Corkscrew” where I cannot see the sharp downhill turn to the left until I am in the middle of it. As I get into this sharp turn, I need to prepare for the sequence of curves that immediately follow. Yes, it’s a corkscrew.
I try to remember the coaching that I received. Hold the steering wheel with something less than a death grip. Breathe. Look ahead – but looking ahead at the top of the Corkscrew I only see blue sky. Looking ahead to my future, I only see darkness.
The 2009 BMW 335d that I am driving handles beautifully, offers more turbodiesel acceleration than I care to try, and I guarantee you that the brakes work.
After three laps, I exit the track, park the BMW, remove my helmet as I leave the car, and resist kissing the ground in front of real drivers. I have been invited to test drive new vehicles with the Western Automotive Journalists, even though I write about green cars and clean transportation. I long for yesterday.
Yesterday, I tested cars with good fuel economy on streets with posted speed limits. Drives included three cars that made the list of Top 10 Low Carbon Footprint Cars. Yesterday, the 20 mile test drives were along the ocean in Monterey and on beautiful tree lined roads where I could easily see the next turn.
I had the most fun behind the wheel of the MINI Cooper Convertible. I couldn’t stop smiling with the top down, the sun shining, and the panoramic ocean views. The car was tight enough in handling that I had the experience of being connected with the road, rather than being insulated.
If you want to enjoy driving, consider the MINI. If you need to seat more than two adults, be aware that the backseat practically touches the front. Cargo space is minimal. If your household has two or more cars, the MINI would be a fun second car with great fuel economy. The MINI is small enough to allow city drivers parking spaces that most cars pass by. If you want more leg room and cargo, then the MINI Clubman is a better choice by being 9.5 inches longer.
The Mini Cooper and Clubman have a loyal following that enjoy good gas mileage with a combined 32 mpg. Base MSRP for the MINI Cooper is $19,200; $24,550 for the convertible.
By contrast the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid easily seats five, has plenty of trunk storage, and actually delivers better mileage than the MINI due to Ford’s impressive hybrid drive system. The new Ford midsized sedan that I drove has an EPA certified 41 mpg rating in the city and 36 mpg on the highway. The base suggested price is $27,995.
While the MINI invites you to go out and play, the Fusion Hybrid invites you to efficiently drive from point A to point B while consuming as little gasoline as possible. This car will not be popular in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or Venezuela. It may prove to be popular with anyone considering the Toyota Camry Hybrid; Ford delivers equal room, safety, and comfort with better rated mileage. Although the Fusion Hybrid has a better mileage rating than the Camry Hybrid, that advantage is not always delivered in real world driving. Edmonds Test Drive
In theory, the Ford Fusion Hybrid can travel up to 47 miles per hour in electric mode; I could only sustain the engine-off mode when gliding downhill. Even on flat roads driving 25 mph, the engine would engage.
Ford does a nice job of encouraging drivers to get better fuel economy. The SmartGage had a display section that filled with green leaves as I drove with a light touch that reduced demands on the 2.5L engine. The Ford Fusion Hybrid delivered the smoothest driving experience of any hybrid which I have driven. I did not notice the transitions from gas to electric mode. The transitions were seamless.
Even better mileage was delivered by the 2010 Honda Insight EX which I drove in Monterey. It is rated 43 mpg highway and 40 mpg city. The Insight’s combined EPA rating of 41 contrasts with the 2010 Prius expected rating of at least 50 mpg. The Honda Insight has an aerodynamic body similar to the Prius. Although the two five-door hatchbacks look similar, the Prius is a longer midsized car. In theory, the Honda Insight pricing starts at $19,800 which has pressured Toyota to offer a Prius with a base price only $2,000 higher. The 2010 Insight that I drove included upgrades such as a navigation system and six speaker audio system. The vehicle price, including pre-delivery service, was $23,770.
I started the Insight, and then touched the ECO button. Even in that mode, I had enough acceleration to get on any freeway in a hurry. The ECO mode helped me minimize demands on the 1.3L gasoline engine as I navigated the roads hugging Monterey’s dramatic coast. Like the Ford Fusion Hybrid, I was rewarded with a display of green leaves for my eco-driving behavior. Handling was smooth and a bit sporty. Similar to the Prius, the view through the rear view mirror was constrained.
The mirror is one reason that my mother prefers her Honda Civic Hybrid which also delivers slightly better mileage than the Insight. Drivers who want a conventional looking sedan will pay more for the Honda Civic Hybrid.
Driving the Honda Insight was smooth and quiet even when I went up a sustained 16 percent grade, demonstrating that its electric motor is quite effective in blending power with the 98 hp engine.
Price will definitely be a factor in buyers deciding between the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius. In some markets, such as California, another factor may be the ability to get an HOV sticker with the Insight. For my money, if I could get a larger more fuel efficient Prius for only $2,000 more, then I would get the Prius. On the other hand, if there was a $5,000 price differential at the dealer, then I would go with the Insight. All in all, both are wonderful cars.
I valued the test drive experiences. Now, I am glad to be away from the track and at the computer composing this post. Race track driving can be dangerous for the neophytes. Every now and then I do something dangerous – ski double black diamond runs at Park City, bodysurf Bonsai Pipeline when 12 foot waves are breaking on the outer coral reef, or most daring of all, argue about politics on a crowded New York subway. Perhaps the danger is induced by too much testosterone for the day, or too much caffeine, or by a longing for my lost youth. Most days, if I want an exciting ride then I get on my bicycle or the city bus or the Prius that I share with my wife.
Speaking of youthful enthusiasm for racing, if you are concerned that your teenager may drive like a racetrack driver, take a look at Ford’s MyKey. When teenagers use their personal key, the will be constrained to the maximum speeds programmed by their parents.
If you want great fuel economy, few compromises, and driving pleasure, test drive the latest hybrids from automakers like Toyota, Honda, and Ford. The intensified competition between them is bringing better performance and safety and economy.
John Addison publishes the Clean Fleet Report and is the author of Save Gas, Save the Planet.