Driving a hybrid car is definitely a different experience. Witness the following:

– My car offers a lot of information to a driver. I can, by toggling a single button, get access to my tire pressure (which is important for hybrids), what my average MPG is for each of my last five gas tanks, what my average MPG is in total (this was reset when I bought the car) and of course, my current MPG for the current gas tank.

– I also have access as I drive to my efficiency. What I mean is that I can see, in real time as I drive, what my MPG is. This is an interesting phenomenon. On one hand, it’s amazing to see how efficient I’m driving – while I drive. I can, and do, make adjustments based on the meter. On the other hand, I’m not sure I want to be made aware every single time I touch the gas that I’m gulping petrol. Life has enough guilt trips, so I’m not sure I need my dashboard computer giving me more. In the end, though, I have to remember why I bought the vehicle.

– The car has two driving modes that help enhance MPG. One is ECON. I don’t know the nuts and bolts of it, but I can tell you that it reduces power at low speeds when you hit the gas. This is, perhaps, where you notice the largest difference between a hybrid and a traditional gas engine car. In ECON mode, you are conserving quite a bit of fuel by not feeling that instant gratification you’re used to with a gas burner. Since I purchased the car, I have not taken the mode out of ECON. Again, remembering why I bought the vehicle.

– There is also EV mode. This seems like more a marketing feature to me, but if you’re in EV mode, it means the car is running on no gas whatsoever. This is ideal for 92 year olds who drive under 20mph all the time. After 20mph, it switches automatically to the gas/hybrid engine. So it doesn’t really do much for the average driver.

– So here’s what I’ve learned about driving efficiency: cruise control is your best friend. You get optimal efficiency by NOT pressing the gas. So don’t think of the cruise control as a traditional old-school highway tool. I use it everywhere now, to prevent me from going 35 to 40 to 35 to 30 to 40, which I have historically been prone to do. I’m really learning to drive patiently, which I think my wife will just love. It is a little amusing to set the cruise control at 25 or whatever, but the amusement or I guess the embarrassment of doing the speed limit is far overshadowed by the little readout that tells me I’m averaging 60 MPG’s by doing so.

– Embrace neutral. Drop the car into neutral on large downward hills and slopes and Earth will love you. It some cases it will throw the car into EV mode automatically, which will immediately qualify you to be Al Gore’s cousin. And you can smile as your readout again tells you you’re at 60 MPG’s.

– Warm up the car. Better efficiency when you drive a car that’s been running for a few minutes. That’s true with any car, not just hybrid.

– I haven’t driven during hot weather yet, but the word is that air conditioning detracts from MPG. Sigh. This will be a battle, given that I would probably fork over my life savings to be comfortable and cool during the summer. We will see how much it affects MPG in the summer of ’11.

So what are the results? I’ve had 6 fill-ups thus far and my average MPG is 26.9. I’m pretty sure I can do better, because on my 4th tank I put up a 27.7. This is roughly equivalent or possibly a slight improvement on my old Camry. Given my car is a 7 seat Highlander Hybrid with double the cargo space, I’m generally satisfied, but striving to improve that mpg!