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Fuel for Thought  
Our columnist wanted some wheels. So he took one of those gas-electric cars for a whirl  

    April 30 —  You can learn a lot about this country when you go car shopping during an energy crisis. That’s what I was doing last week—much to my chagrin. As a New Yorker, I have about as much need for an automobile as Marcel Marceau has for throat lozenges.  

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  BUT MY WIFE is pregnant with our first child (oh, thank you) and has informed me that the only way to transport a baby from Point A to Point B is to purchase a one-ton machine, preferably one with four doors and air conditioning.
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       But with gas prices already topping $2 a gallon, I figured the least we could do was check out one of those new gas-electric cars that get 70 miles per gallon on the highway. Of course, I was worried that, with this energy crisis looming, demand for such cars would limit their availability or, worse, drive up the price. Then I remembered I live in America.
       Turns out, nobody wants these cars! A Honda dealer in the suburbs confided in me that he was willing to give me the car at “below cost” (that’s autodealerese for “at only a 41-percent mark-up!”). A Toyota dealer told me he doesn’t even sell his company’s hybrid car because “nobody wants it.”
        Joe Shuster, the sales manager at Paragon Honda, thought he knew why his company’s gas-electric Honda Insight isn’t exactly flying out of the showroom. This gas crisis, he said, is not like the last gas crisis—when the combination of high fuel costs and a stagnant economy had Americans reaching for Hondas, Toyotas and Mazdas like they were aspirin bottles.
We can put a tourist in space, yet we can’t build a fuel-efficient car that Americans want to buy?

       “The economy is still good enough that people aren’t changing their buying habits to fuel-efficient cars,” said Shuster, whose dealership is in urban Queens, N.Y. He said that the only people buying Insights are hipsters “who think it’s ‘cool’ to be environmental.”
        We can put a tourist in space, yet we can’t build a fuel-efficient car that Americans want to buy?
        Of course, until procreation forced me to buy a car, none of this bothered me. See, here in New York, the only thing more powerful than ethnic rivalry is the self-satisfaction we get from knowing that all you suckers are paying $2 a gallon for gas. Sure, we Gothamites are often attacked for looking down our noses at the rest of the country, but this time, our elitism is justified. You’re more likely to hear a New Yorker complain about prohibitive Camembert tariffs than moan about the price of gas (we find American complaints about high fuel costs as unseemly as Rodney Dangerfield getting peeved that he is not held in better esteem).
        While you are driving those big minivans and SUVs, we cram ourselves so tightly into subways and buses that there isn’t even enough room to suggestively rub up against the person next to you!
        Ah, but the view from our moral high ground is just divine. It’s far better than the view from the cockpit of your SUV.
        But with half the country driving those behemoths, I wondered whether I had it all wrong. Perhaps the reason no one is buying these gas-electric hybrids is because America simply doesn’t know how to build a cute, sporty, exhilarating, powerful, quick, nimble, fuel-efficient car that people will love.
        Actually, we don’t! Ford is working on a gas-electric hybrid (an SUV, believe it or not!), but it won’t be out until 2003.
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So, just as I did during the last “energy” “crisis,” I turned to the Japanese, test-driving a Honda Insight in order to see if America’s reluctance to jump into the future of transportation was justified.
        I mean, a car with a 1.0-liter, 3-cylinder, 73-horsepower engine—which looks like it was swiped off a golf cart—is a tough sell in a country where bigger has always meant better.
        By comparison, Cadillac’s new Escalade—marketed without irony as “the biggest SUV in the universe”—gets a mere 16 highway miles per gallon out of its 345-horsepower engine (if you ask me, a 345-horsepower engine should only be sold to people who need to haul around 344 horses).
        Well, sorry to disappoint you, America, but on the road, the Honda performed like a “real” car: Whenever I hit the gas, the electric motor seamlessly kicked in, supplementing the tiny regular engine. Underpowered? I think not! This baby zooms to 75 miles per hour (I promise you, officer, I did not inhale!) with no problems.

       And there’s no plugging-in at night (which can be quite an inconvenience when you live on the 12th floor and your car is parked three blocks away): The batteries that power the electric motor re-charge themselves whenever you hit the brakes or downshift. The engine even shuts off entirely when you’re stopped at a light.
        One tank of gas in an Insight can transport you more than 700 miles. At $2 a gallon, a year of driving the Caddy SUV will cost our environment 600 gallons more—and cost you $1,200 more—than a year of driving the Honda. There’s that middle-class tax cut right there.
        But forget the economy and forget your wallet. Think of the gloating! When a guy in a generic Oldsmobuickolet pulled alongside my sleek Insight, I watched his eyes move across the car’s body before coming to rest on the words “68 m.p.g. highway” emblazoned on the test-car’s sticker.
        The look on his face came straight from one of those old Bugs Bunny cartoons when Daffy Duck’s face morphed into a lollypop with the word “Sucker” over it.
        And then I hit the gas and he choked on my electrons. So long, Sucker!

Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for The New York Post and the author of “HAIR! Mankind’s Historic Quest to End Baldness” (Random House, April 2001). Visit him at http://www.gersh.tv/

       © 2002 Newsweek, Inc.
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