Maximizing mileage

Published May 31, 2007

SAUK RAPIDS, Minn. - The passion that burns in Laurie With isn't visible until she gets behind the wheel of her Honda Civic hybrid and drives really slowly.

She accelerates gently when the light turns green and coasts down hills to save gas. On highways, she stays in the right lane and watches the big SUVs zoom past.

She is part of a small and extremely dedicated group of drivers around the country who call themselves hypermilers. They almost exclusively drive hybrid vehicles, and their goal is simple: squeeze every mile they can out of each drop of gas.

Some of their tips are a matter of common sense and could help any driver, especially now, with gas past $3 a gallon: avoiding jackrabbit starts, using alternate routes to avoid stop-and-go traffic, anticipating lights and driving a bit more slowly.

But those are just a start. Hypermilers slightly overinflate their tires to cut rolling resistance, seize every chance to coast with their gasoline engines off and sometimes draft like race cars behind larger vehicles.

Some of these techniques can be dangerous, and some cannot even be done in certain conventional automobiles.

Chuck Thomas, a 49-year-old computer programmer from Lewisville, Texas, milks his hybrid Honda Insight for about 75 miles per gallon, 10 more than the government estimate for the vehicle in mixed gas-and-electric driving.

"I do as few accelerations and brakings as possible to get up to speed and maintain it, " he said. He cruises a bit below the speed limit, avoids lane changes and coasts to red lights.

Kurt Antonius, a spokesman for Honda Motor Co., said the company shares hypermilers' enthusiasm for high mileage but cannot endorse some of their techniques.

"It may be great on the race track to do drafting but not on the highway, " he said.

Similarly, Minnesota State Patrol Lt. Mark Peterson applauded the hypermilers' goals, but said that drafting less than three seconds behind semitrailer truck and shutting down a traditional engine while driving sound too dangerous.

None of that dampens hypermilers' enthusiasm. On Web sites like www.greenhybrid.com, they share tales of achievement, backed by photos of mileage displays.

Those sorts of considerations seemed far away on a sunny spring day in Sauk Rapids, and With was happy to demonstrate her high-mileage techniques.

With, whose stingy driving habits started a couple of years ago, let her car roll slowly down the slope of a parking lot before starting it. She eased away from a stop sign and coasted for several blocks down a slight grade through a leafy neighborhood.

"You see a little more, " she said as a playground slid past. The dashboard readout showed 59 mpg on a car the EPA estimates should get 47 in city highway driving.

With a rural highway nearly to herself, she let the car glide well below the 50 mph speed limit. The dashboard readout never dipped below 57 mpg.

Fast Facts:

Going the extra mile

Hypermilers say many of their techniques can help drivers of conventional cars boost their gas mileage:

- Avoid jackrabbit starts.

- Slightly overinflate tires.

- Shift into neutral when going downhill.

- Drive 5 mph below the speed limit, but stay in the right lane.

- Coast to a stop at red lights.

- Shut off the air conditioner.

- Monitor your mileage on a real-time gauge and adjust as you go.

- Draft sensibly behind semitrailer trucks.

- Know alternate routes to avoid stop-and-go traffic.

- Park at the highest point in parking lot and let gravity get the car moving.