Hi-tech cars fight high gas prices

Posted: Monday, October 30, 2000

Dr. Susan Hunter-Joerns loves it when teen-age boys roll down the window at stoplights and say, "Hey, man, where did you get that car?"

The Juneau neurologist thinks her silver Honda Insight, a two-seat, gasoline-electric hybrid, is not only the attractive car she read about in National Geographic and The New Yorker, but also an ambassador for lower emissions and reduced use of fossil fuels.

"I hope they raise the cost of gas to $5 a gallon because we have been raping the earth for long enough. If we open ANWR, it's only five years of gasoline," she said.

Hunter-Joerns has owned only four cars in 40 years, one a Volkswagen she repaired herself. She likes the Insight because "it teaches you how to drive better." Large readouts on the control panel let drivers know how many miles they're getting to the gallon, and when gasoline is being used encouraging people to coast and aim for the 80-miles-per-gallon possible under some circumstances.

She has put 2,100 miles on her Insight and pumped gasoline into its 10-gallon tank only three times. The car weighs 1,800 pounds, has a low center of gravity, and a short turn radius. She finds it easy to drive, and, trained as physicist, believes it is "very well engineered."

"The best thing about the whole design is that it recharges the batteries by deceleration, so you never have to plug it in," she said. "Each cylinder has four valves, so it burns the fuel very clean." She's been getting 59 to 61 miles per gallon in stop-and-go traffic.

With gas prices headed for the stratosphere, drivers are looking harder at alternative vehicles.

Two Juneau drivers are now piloting the Honda Insight. Honda Hut took delivery of one July 24 and quickly sold it to

Hunter-Joerns. Juneau's second Insight was purchased from an Anchorage dealer.

"The Insight is a limited production," said Honda Hut salesman Steve Jones. "We will get two or three over the next year."

Jones has doubts the Insight is a good buy in a place like Juneau where highway driving is limited.

"It gets 60 miles to the gallon and costs $21,000. You could buy a Honda Civic for $13,000, which would get 30 miles to the gallon. If you amortize the difference in cost, even at $2 a gallon, it's still a longtime pay-out," Jones said.

"If you lived in San Diego and commuted to Los Angeles, it might make sense. But not if you live in the (Mendenhall) Valley and commute downtown," he said.

The car saves fuel by switching from gas to electric power when it is idling, said Honda Hut salesman Clark McDermaid.

" When you step on the gas, both work to get the vehicle up to momentum. And then, if we had an area where you could actually cruise, the electric engine powers it alone. That's where the savings comes in," he said.

Honda Hut has considered marketing a comparable vehicle, the Toyota Prius. The difficulty for the dealer is that the Prius requires a special repair technology, and it is not practical to have a designated technician if only a handful of the vehicles are in town, McDermaid said.

The cost of the Prius is in the same range as the Insight, $18,000 to $21,000, McDermaid said.

One of the first Juneau residents to drive a noncombustion vehicle was retired entrepreneur Richard "Dick" Garrison who purchased a four-door, robin's-egg-blue Fiat 124 in 1984. The car operated on a 96-volt system installed by ElectriCar of California.

"It was the same principle as an overgrown golf cart. On a full charge, if I cruised at 40 miles an hour, I could go 50 miles a far cry from the new technology," Garrison said.

The Fiat cost $14,000. He put 2,000 miles on it and recently sold it to a Yakutat man for $3,500.

"It was nice and quiet. You could hardly hear the engine, and it was nonpolluting. It was so easy to own; I just kept it on a trickle charge and never had to go to the gas station," Garrison said.

"It was a plaything. I wouldn't say I got my money's worth," he said. Nevertheless, he is looking into owning a new nonpolluting vehicle.

"The technology is changing so fast. Every day I read up on it, and (all the manufacturers) are going to get on the bandwagon soon. It should be pretty stiff competition," Garrison said.

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