In hybrid country, car drives you

In hybrid country, car drives you

DRIVING YOUR HEAD: The current design of the Ford Fusion, modeled closely after its posh Aston Martin stablemates, has sold well in America. The sedan, bigger than Ford's Focus but smaller than its Taurus, is available with a traditional gasoline engine, as a hybrid and as a plug-in vehicle. Photo by Michael Carmody

I have been, since adolescence, a "car guy." Over the years I have owned something like 50 cars, trucks and motorcycles, the vast majority of which where manufactured in the 1960s and '70s. Most were purchased for less than $1,000; the cheapest was the fully operational 1960 Ford Falcon that I bought for $25. I have enjoyed, in equal measures, the simplicity of the '63 VW Beetle and the retro-sophistication of the '86 BMW 735i; the good-ol'-boy brawn of the '65 Ford F100 pickup and the dainty precision of the '70 Toyota Corona; the ultra-decadent luxury of the '75 Cadillac Sedan deVille and the spartan scrappiness of the '78 Ford Courier mini-truck.

Common to all of them: My lead-footed driving style. No matter what I was driving at any given time, I was most likely driving it faster than the posted limit. I developed a hierarchy of slowness for other drivers, prioritizing which cars I should avoid in traffic, in real time, as I drove. Out-of-county license plate? Religious bumper stickers? Minivan? Let me just get around you real quick.

Among the worst were the hybrid drivers. I know perfectly well that a Prius is capable of pulling away from a red light at the same rate as any other small sedan. So what's with the crawl, Gramps? I started wondering if people who naturally drove extremely slowly and cautiously were drawn to hybrids, or if driving a hybrid actually modified the behavior of the driver.

And then, seven weeks ago, I bought a brand-new 2014 Ford Fusion Hybrid. And I stand before you today a reconditioned driver.

The car I bought had been on the lot for a year and had about 1,000 miles on the odometer. The lifetime history in the onboard computer said the MPG since the car was built was only 27.1, quite low compared to the EPA estimate (44 city/41 highway). I reset the trip odometer at the dealership and started driving the car.

Immediately, I noticed that the Fusion's interactive display system is designed ingeniously to provide constant carrot/stick feedback. In the upper-left panel of the dash is the "driving coach" readout, showing three status bars: acceleration, braking and cruising. If one does these things as smoothly and efficiently as possible, the bars reach the top end of the scale. Step on the gas or brake pedal hard, and the bars quickly diminish.

For those who require further visual aids, the upper-right panel can be switched to "Efficiency Leaves" mode, which shows a pretty graphic representation of a vine, on which lovely green leaves "grow" as the driver continues driving efficiently. The whole screen fills up eventually with leaves — but a quick slam on the brake or a jackrabbit start will send the leaves floating away offscreen. Keep up the bad habits, and the vine grows barren.

Additionally, the car's central touchscreen (which controls the stereo, climate, etc.) can be switched to a display that shows which powerplant — the gasoline engine or the electric motor (or both) — is in operation at any moment. When the gas engine switches itself on, the screen displays the reason why, whether it be "acceleration," "climate control" or "normal operation."

There are many ways to configure which sorts of feedback you like, including the "brake coach" feature, which helps maximize the energy scavenged in braking to recharge the battery. I now leave mine set to display the MPG for the current tank of gas, data which changes constantly as you drive.

The net effect of all this is a hyperawareness of exactly how much fuel is being burned at any given time and a burning psychological need to minimize that quantity. Essentially, every time the car is started, the driver is switched into video game headspace, whether he or she is aware of it or not.

And that's the funny thing about it — I am totally aware that I am being psychologically manipulated, and yet it is still effective. Typically, once a person is aware of external suggestion or direction, its power is instantly rendered null. Yet I find myself on every trip to the grocery store making sure not to accelerate up to the speed limit too quickly, lest the gasoline engine switch on, costing me a tenth of a mile per gallon on my cumulative mileage for the tank.

The last car I had (a 2006 Mercedes V6 station wagon) averaged 18.6 MPG over the time I had it; the tiny Ford Fiesta I had before that averaged 29.7 MPG. In the seven weeks I have owned the Fusion, I have filled up the 13-gallon tank four times; the worst mileage per tank was 35.0, the best (this week) was 38.6. My newfound efficiency behind the wheel has brought the Fusion's total MPG since new up to 34.1 in less than 1,500 miles of driving. I am starting to obsess over hitting the 40 MPG mark, digging into the submenus of the feedback displays to see if there are even more powerful carrots and/or sticks hidden within the forest of available readouts.

So, I now know why driveth the hybrid slowly. Its excellent fuel economy is not so much a triumph of mechanical engineering as it is one of psychological manipulation.