Adventures in Hypermiling

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 15, 2008

I hate driving. I hate it even more now that I can't afford it.

With gasoline topping $4 a gallon in many places, there's no shortage of advice from the financial experts: Try carpooling, biking or walking. Cut costs in other parts of your life. Eat out less and stop shopping. Carefully choose the brand and type of gasoline you use because some are more cost-efficient than others. Or just get rid of your car.

Then I heard about "hypermiling," which involves changing your driving behavior to coax better gas mileage out of your car. Hypermilers do such things as drive slowly, brake as little as possible and limit their use of the air conditioner to save fuel.

Not eager to stop going out to dinner with friends and unable to sell my car, I figured I would see what hypermiling was about. Perhaps whatever savings it might produce would be enough to cover the cost of fixing my broken passenger-side window, courtesy of a drunken reveler in Adams Morgan, where I live. (Did I mention how much I hate having a car in this city?)

I googled hypermiling and found no shortage of Web sites offering tips. There's Ecomodder.com, HyperMilingForum.com and CleanMPG.com, among others. I contacted them all in search of someone to teach me how to hypermile and ended up with an e-mail introduction to Kent Johnson, a consultant for an engineering company who lives in Carroll County, Md.

After a brief phone conversation in which he asked me the size of my engine -- Is that really something I should know off the top of my head? -- Johnson and I arranged to meet on Wednesday at a parking lot at the University of Maryland at College Park. He appeared in his red 2005 Chevy Aveo with his wife Mary, who sells Mary Kay cosmetics. He brought along tons of material he had found on the Internet about my silver 2001 Volkswagen Beetle, putting me to shame, as I didn't even know where my driver's manual was until I found it in a bookshelf in my apartment that morning .

"With an automatic, you should get 29 miles on the highway, 22 in the city and 25 combined," Johnson said. "So on average, you should be around 25 miles per gallon."

"Is that bad?" I asked. I have to admit, I didn't think about mileage when I bought my Beetle used a couple of years ago. All I thought about was how cute it would be to have a Bug. (A child of the 1980s, I played the "Punch Buggy" game with my friends, which involved punching each other when we came across a VW Beetle on the street. "Punch Buggy Yellow!" I would shout with glee.)

"I'm betting we can do 10 percent better," Johnson answered.

According to FuelEconomy.gov, he said, it costs me about $4.59 to drive 25 miles.

"Thanks, hon," he said to his wife of 29 years -- they had just celebrated their anniversary, they giddily told me -- as she ducked into their car and reappeared with a calculator.

"So every mile, you've got to chuck in 18 cents, if you wanted to think of it like that," he said.

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