This morning, I looked at the gages on our 2003 Prius and smiled. They showed that the last 215 miles had been driven at an average of 47.3 miles per gallon. The average mileage actually rose slightly on the 14 mile round trip to the supermarket.

That's representative of what my wife and I have experienced in the 40,200 miles since we bought the car in March 2003. It took a few months to get the velvet touch, but since then the car has seldom gone below 42 mpg (long distance driving, high speed, wind and rain). And, try as we might, it seldom betters 49 mpg for any distance.

We're not complaining.

A typical refill for the Prius is about 8 gallons, less than $24. A typical refill on our SUV, a 1998 Toyota 4Runner, is about 20 gallons and nearly $60. Both vehicles go about the same distance between refills.

Today, with oil at $75 a barrel and gasoline back at $3 a gallon, the gas pump gets my attention. Worse, more people are expecting a future price of $100 a barrel than $50 a barrel. So my only wish is that we could find some way to increase the miles driven on battery power and decrease the miles driven on gasoline.

Just as this is happening, the media are filled with stories about a slump in hybrid vehicle sales. Ford is offering zero percent financing for the hybrid version of its Escape SUV because the hybrid version isn't selling. Honda is about to cut back production of the Accord Hybrid, because it isn't moving either.

How can this be?

There is a simple answer. With the exception of the Prius, the second wave of hybrids has tended to goose low end performance at the expense of fuel economy. The second generation of hybrids actually offers lower average fuel economy than the first. Doing that is stupid because it destroys the economic benefit of owning a hybrid. Why pay extra if there is no payoff in higher gas mileage?

In fact, readers of my earlier columns on the Prius started their email notes with a single question: "Will the cost of the battery replacement be greater than your fuel savings?"

My answer: If gasoline remains at $3 a gallon, or less, it's likely to be a push, but I'd prefer to spend the money on a battery. As gasoline rises over $3 a gallon, the extra cost of the hybrid in general, and its battery in particular, starts to look like a really good investment.

In fact, I think Toyota has undersold some of the qualities of both the 2001-2003 Prius and the wildly successful remake that replaced it in 2004.
  • Both models have a continuous variable transmission (CVT). This makes them incredibly smooth to drive.
  • Both models have temperature control air conditioning, a seldom found goodie on cars costing less than $30,000.
  • Both models are incredibly quiet, a quality associated with luxury cars, not econo-boxes. They are absolutely quiet at stop lights because the engine isn't running.
These, not fuel economy, are the reasons my wife loves this car so much. It also explains why I seldom get to drive it.

Sadly, the gear heads are still conspiring to find ways to make 500 horsepower cars for 25 mph neighborhoods. And the status-freaks are still flogging designers to push automotive luxury to the next level, whatever the cost. Yet millions of people are looking for comfortable, practical transportation.

Personally, I'm on a buyer strike. I'm not buying another car until someone sells a plug-in hybrid. Toyota did it with the Prius: A button on the Japanese version makes it all-battery. Sadly, the button didn't survive the trip to America. A California company is designing a retro-fit that would make short trips--- like my trip to the supermarket--- a no-gas/all-battery experience.

Think what that--- multiplied by millions--- would do to oil imports. Think what it would do to clear the air in our cities.

On the web:

Scott Burns' energy reader

Plugin Partners

The Prius Plugin

The California Cars Initiative for Plug In Cars

The latest on hybrid cars

The EV-1 Chronicles

The Sad History of General Motors' EV-1 on wikipedia