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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Prius MPG

Air Date: Week of

These days, hybrid technology in cars is likely to be as much for increased horsepower as it is for better gas mileage. But not every hybrid owner is looking for more zip under the hood. Guest host Jeff Young talks with Dave Bassage of Walton, West Virginia, about his quest for the Holy Grail of fuel economy, 100 miles per gallon in a Toyota Prius.


YOUNG: When hybrid cars first hit showroom floors, the main selling point was fuel efficiency, with engines powered by gas and electricity, autos like the Toyota Prius got 50 to 70 miles on a single gallon of gas.

But hybrids are changing. A car like the new Honda Accord Hybrid uses an electric motor to boost its gasoline engines, giving them more horsepower than the same model without the hybrid. Cambridge, Massachusetts salesman James Bulger says these hybrids have traded in much of their potential fuel economy.

BULGER: It’s completely a different concept than what the first cars that were hybrid technology came out to do.

YOUNG: But these new hybrids don’t sit well with a group of hybrid owners who are still driven by fuel efficiency. It’s almost become an obsession for some. These mileage maniacs swap fuel economy tips on the Internet. They tweak their driving techniques to squeeze more and more miles from each tank of gas.

Dave Bassage of Walton, West Virginia, is one of those mad about mileage types and he joins us now from behind the wheel of his Toyota Prius. Dave, where are you heading and what kind of mileage are you getting right now?

BASSAGE: Well, we’re on McCorkle Avenue, which is near Charleston, West Virginia, headed for a little town called St. Albans. We’ve been going about six miles so far, and right now we’re getting 81.8 miles per gallon.

YOUNG: That’s pretty impressive, but I’m guessing you want to do even better. So how are you going to improve on that through how you drive?

BASSAGE: What we’ll be doing is trying to minimize our energy flow to and from the battery of the hybrid, and to coast at every possible chance – or actually a form of coasting that we call gliding. The way the hybrid car works, or at least the way the Prius works, is that whenever you take your foot off the gas the electric motors turn into generators and put electricity back into the battery. If you slightly depress your foot on the accelerator while you’re doing that, you disengage those electric motors so that you’re, essentially, just freewheeling.

YOUNG: And so gentle acceleration, right? Is that the deal?

BASSAGE: Yeah, we’ve been actually experimenting with different techniques for accelerating. There was a while when we thought that brisk was the way to go, but the more we tested the more we found that a pretty mild acceleration level is best. The car will show you both its instantaneous and cumulative fuel economy figures, and so, essentially, we try to accelerate in a way that will maximize those instantaneous numbers – which means keep that number just as high as you can.

YOUNG: What’s your personal best? What’s the most mileage you’ve had out of one tank of gas?

BASSAGE: My best tank so far was 71 miles per gallon, which was my last tank. It seems like I’m getting better or the car’s getting better at all times.

YOUNG: Now, in the interest of full disclosure I should probably say that Dave and I, we’ve known each other for a while. And Dave, as I recall, you didn’t always drive the way you’re describing here for us today. You used to be a pretty fast driver.

BASSAGE: Yeah Jeff, you remember correctly. People used to refer to it as “Dave Warp Speed.” I pretty routinely exceeded the speed limit, and my main goal was to just see how fast I could get wherever I wanted to go. But, you know, it’s amazing – once you get all this instrumentation in front of you, and you get that instant feedback that shows you just how well you’re doing, it can change you.

YOUNG: Another thing I recall is you have a bit of a competitive streak and, as I understand it, you’ve found a way to make this maxing out of your mileage, this has become a contest for you. What do you have planned along those lines?

BASSAGE: Well, what we’ll be doing in a couple weeks is that four of us will be driving one Prius, taking turns behind the wheel, nonstop. We’ll start at 6 o’clock on a Friday on a full tank of gas and drive until we run out. And our goal is just to see how far we can possibly get on a single tank of gas.

YOUNG: Hmm. And this is pretty organized – you’ve got a course laid out and all of this stuff?

BASSAGE: Yeah. One of the other drivers has discovered a stretch of road where he’s been able to consistently score 100 mile-per-gallon legs. He just suggested what would it be possible if we could only get a few other drivers to help, and a few of stepped up. So we’re coming from all points of the compass to have fun going nowhere for a whole weekend in Pittsburgh.

YOUNG: (LAUGHS) You’ve basically turned driving like my grandma into a contest here, haven’t you?

BASSAGE: Yeah, isn’t that amazing?

YOUNG: How did this all come about? How did you hook up with all of these other Prius drivers anyway?

BASSAGE: Well when I first got interested in a hybrid vehicle and I started doing research online, I discovered there were a number of discussion forums where people compared notes about their cars. And that’s how I kind of hooked up with this guy.

You know, believe it or not, even though I’m considered a fanatic about my fuel economy, I’m probably the least fanatical of the four of us who’ll be driving. And actually have had the least success in terms of high miles per gallon numbers. The others have all done even better than my 70 mile per gallon tank.


BASSAGE: Pardon me for a second, I’m dealing with a traffic situation here.

YOUNG: Sure, I think that takes priority.

BASSAGE: Yeah, I caught up to somebody actually going slower – a piece of earth-moving equipment.


YOUNG: You don’t really expect everybody else out on the road to drive the way that you’re driving, with this almost hyper attention to detail about saving energy with every push on the gas pedal, do you?

BASSAGE: No, not at all. Certainly, you know, those of us who drive like this, we put a lot more energy into our driving than most people will do. But there are aspects of what we do that others may choose to take on. It could be as simple as just making sure you’ve got good tire pressure in your tires. It could be slowing down by five miles per hour or ten miles per hour, and recognizing that that could save you almost that many miles per gallon. If you think of it as what’s going into your pocketbook then maybe that gives a little more incentive to drive a little slower.

YOUNG: Passed a gas station yet?

BASSAGE: Passing one right now.

YOUNG: Do you notice, what’s a gallon of gas going to cost you there in Charleston?

BASSAGE: You know, I don’t even pay as much attention to that as I used to. I believe we’re up just shy of $2.30.

YOUNG: I think that’s a very telling comment, that the guy doesn’t even know how much a gallon of gas is. Everyone else, I’m guessing, is pretty keenly aware of that.

BASSAGE: Yeah, they probably are. I have done the math and figured out it cost me just about three cents a mile to drive this car in gas.


BASSAGE: Mostly I’ve noted that for the first time in my life I find myself stopping at gas stations for something besides gas. I need to replenish me more often than I need to replenish the car.

YOUNG: When he’s not driving his Toyota Prius around, Dave Bassage works for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. Thanks for talking with us today, Dave.

BASSAGE: Thank you, Jeff.



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