Even in the dim hours before daybreak, Russell Builta's vehicle is unmistakable -- the super-wide frame, the stout, muscular body, the sparkling chrome on the trademark grill. It could be confused with no other vehicle on the road, save for, perhaps, a Brink's truck.
Sonia Janowsky's car is also a head-turner. It looks like a regular sedan, but one that has been pressed into that ultra-aerodynamic style that is a car's way of saying it comes from the future.
They are the Hummer and the hybrid, the two most extreme cars on the road, as different as Bach and Kid Rock.
Their differences have brought them together in the public eye in recent months, as gas prices have soared to unprecedented levels and a war some see as wrapped in the politics of oil has turned the Hummer, for some, into a symbol of all that is wrong with America. Hybrids have emerged as the "in thing" after an era of bigger-is-better SUVs -- even the new Hummer is leaner and more fuel-efficient -- and virtually all automakers are rushing models onto the streets.
They are entangled in a different way in the Washington area, where a Virginia law that allows hybrid owners to drive solo in carpool lanes has made the vehicles as reviled as Hummers. The provision has led to a flood of hybrids in HOV lanes -- a study released this year estimated that they account for 17 percent of vehicles -- and carpoolers blame them for slowing the lanes.
The view is quite different from the driver's seat, where Builta and Janowsky said that they love their cars and that the criticisms are misguided.
Hybrids "are certainly not causing the traffic," said Janowsky, who drives a Toyota Prius. "I don't think it's a problem yet."
Builta, an ex-Marine, brushes off any suggestion that Hummers are any worse for the environment than any other gas-thirsty car, RV or boat or that they are somehow linked to the war in Iraq. "We didn't go to war for gas," he said. "We'd be there no matter what."
Builta said he bought his Hummer H2 SUT in July because of its unparalleled off-road capabilities.
"It's like buying a four-wheeler," he said. "You're looking to have fun with it, and you get the bonus of the daily drive."
Everything about the Hummer experience on Builta's commute from Woodbridge to McLean is "Like Nothing Else," as ads for the vehicle declare. The thing is wide -- 81.2 inches from end to end -- and riders have the sense of being very close to the cars next to them and very far from each other. Riders sit nearly as high as truck drivers, and even big SUVs seem small and distant on the road below.
"One of the good things about it is I'm a little bit higher up," Builta said. "If five cars up someone is stopping, I'll be ready."
No such luck for the drivers behind him, of course.
Builta also likes the fact that other drivers get out of his way. "People just move," he said, having no trouble navigating through rush-hour traffic. "It's nice."
Parallel parking isn't as hard as people think, he said. It helps that the side-view mirrors move automatically to make it easier. It's finding parking garages that he can get into that's the real problem.
As tough as Hummers look from the outside, they are every bit as luxurious on the inside. Builta's model has warmers on all its leather seats, front and back. A touch-screen computer controls the air conditioning, defrosters and other staples, as well as satellite radio, an onboard navigation system and the OnStar emergency communications system. A phone is hooked into the steering wheel and has a hands-free option that uses the car's speakers, while a digital readout tracks gas mileage from moment to moment.
The view from Janowsky's front seat is equally uncommon. Information for the driver -- and there is tons of it -- is also on a small touch-screen computer.
Displays show where the gas and electric engines are (regular engine in front, electric in back), which engine is being used and how much power is left in the electric motor. Another display tracks gas mileage on a bar chart in five-minute increments.
The oddest part of the Prius is how it starts. There is no key; Janowsky just puts her foot on the brake and presses a button. (Drivers carry a transponder that automatically unlocks the door and is needed in the car to start it. A set of instructions is available for confused valets.)
Then it gets weirder. The car makes no sound when it is turned on because it isn't using its gas engine at this point. The uninitiated have no clue that it is ready to drive.
A couple of things Janowsky would like people to know about her Prius: It doesn't have to be plugged in. The battery automatically recharges when drivers brake. And the pickup is just fine, thank you.
"It's a normal car," she said. "It just happens to get 50 miles to a gallon."
Janowsky said her car always starts slow, and, indeed, the gas mileage on the computer readout for the first five minutes is a not-so-impressive 25 miles a gallon. But it shoots up from there, quickly hitting 52 miles a gallon. The big payoff is when Janowsky hits traffic and the Prius automatically switches from gas to electric. Then the mileage meter registers a whopping 78 miles a gallon.
Janowsky doesn't run into that much traffic, though, because she is able to use Interstate 66 on her commute from Falls Church to the District, even though it is restricted to carpoolers.
"Sixty-six makes such a difference," she said, estimating that the alternatives would add at least 20 minutes each way. She said she also enjoys "being able to hop on any road without worrying what time it is."
Virginia is one of only three states to allow single-occupant hybrids to use carpool lanes. The exemption is due to expire in June, but state lawmakers could extend it.
Janowsky said she would "probably have to look into Metro" if the exemption disappears.
Some hybrid drivers say others in HOV lanes make lewd gestures at them and habitually cut them off, but Janowsky said she hasn't experienced that.
Likewise, Builta said he's heard all the stories about people throwing stuff at Hummers and giving drivers the what-for at gas stations, but he said the reaction he's gotten has been just the opposite.
"People walk up on it," he said. "A lot of kids stop and stare -- it's like a big Tonka truck."
Both proceeded without incident, or even so much as a long stare, on their commutes earlier this month.
Some of the things Janowsky said might shock drivers like Builta.
For instance, she didn't know how much a gallon of gas costs. "Maybe $2.85?" she said.
And: "It's kind of fun to sit in traffic sometimes."
"Sometimes I get five minutes where the gas mileage is infinite," she explained. This is more or less the height of ecstasy for hybrid owners.
"The most amazing thing to me is when I go fill up the car, and I've gone 400 miles and it takes eight gallons to fill the tank," Janowsky said. "I've had a couple tanks in the 450 to 470 range. I was like 'Yes!,' " she said, raising her hands into the air.
Remember the 78 miles a gallon she got in traffic?
Builta's mileage gauge dropped to 6.6 miles a gallon when he hit a backup on Interstate 95. At that rate, Builta was paying nearly 40 cents for every mile he drove. In ideal conditions, he said, he gets about 13 miles a gallon.
Builta said he fills his 32-gallon tank about 11/2 times a week, at a cost of $70 to $80 a pop. He budgets $400 a month for gas.
"Everybody knows it's not like hybrids," Builta said, "but you're not buying it for the economics."