On Saturday, I traded in my 6-cylinder, gas-guzzling, hockey and golf equipment hauling SUV for the Lexus CT200h 4-door hatchback hybrid. The decision was driven by a number of conflicting thoughts, starting with the incongruity of talking about eco-computing and sustainability after spending an average of $10 a day on gas over the summer. There were days this summer when I paid more for gas to get to the golf course than I paid for greens fees to actually play on it (we’ll get into the ethics and eco-sustainability of golf another time). When Lexus introduced the CT200h (basically a Lexus with the Prius drive train, and a modified interior for wider bodies like mine) it seemed like a good time to make the switch.
The car has drawn some puzzled looks from friends. I’ve been driving a full-sized 4-door, wagon or SUV for as long as most people have known me. Deciding to trade in the SUV (replete with hockey smells, stick marks, and some outstanding bumper stickers) was a Springsteen moment for me. Growing up in Freehold, NJ, you have to develop an appreciation for the Boss, even if it was to laugh at the comedian’s joke: If you had one of those days when your parents kicked you out of the house, you broke up with your girlfriend and got in more trouble at school, you’d write a song about car. Fast cars, no so fast girls, and driving down the shore – life in New Jersey in a nutshell. I think that’s why so many people disliked – sometimes intensely – Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. It tells stories that are as dark as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road but as equally full of whatever counts for love when the asphalt runs out, either at the beach or in front of half a duplex. With three decades of hindsight, Darkness stands out as one of rock’s great albums, a collection of stories that was intended to be listened to from beginning to end. An album that produced no hit singles, limited commercial acclaim and probably drove some reviewers back to their typewriters with more cold coffee in hand, Darkness is powerful because its fast cars are raced with a sense of intellectual honesty.
There’s the turning point for me. I simply didn’t need that big a car, and I can’t continue to watch gas prices spiral upward and not take some personal action. It goes even deeper – the more we believe in freedom, and the more I continue to work for technology companies that enable organization and information dissemination, the more likely it is we’ll see disruptions in countries key to the supply of oil. It’s hard to say that you believe in freedom while you’re indentured to the gas pump. As someone commented on my Facebook status when I announced I was buying a hybrid: the dependency is broken one person at a time. I’d rather see $6 a gallon gas and more individual empowerment; that was the intellectual integrity quandry I felt needed an answer.
Full disclosure on intellectual honesty, though: this car is fun to drive. I’ll admit to being a bad driver; I like to go fast; I accelerate out of turns, up ramps, and along freeways more than I should; I over-use my brake pedal and utilize the full Jersey variety of signalling methods (some digital, some bulb-based). The CT200h has a much more compact, enclosed cockpit, it’s about a foot lower to the ground, and you just feel the road more. Balance that out with a cornucopia of sound options including XM radio, and the iPod car accessory system for iPhone or iPod use, and suddenly I’m thinking more about what I want to listen to going from point A to point B rather than how quickly I can make the trip. Real-time statistics from the gas/electric engines inform you of gas economy, mileage efficiency and cruising range. The dash backlighting changes to indicate when you’re charging the batteries rather than draining the gas tank, and I’ve found (in just four days) that my driving style has started to change. I’m trying to squeeze the most out of the gas; I’m gaming the cruising range indicator. I’ve discovered three new bands listening to XM Radio’s Octane (48), using the center console “joystick” to cut between GPS map and song information, purely by feel and without taking my eyes off of the road. I’m celebrating not hitting the gas station after the Dunkin’ Donuts this morning. Ergonomically, the car is a delight to drive and more personally, Roy Bittan’s piano on Racing in the Streets sounds just oh so good.