Every so often, when I buy gas for my Toyota Prius, I'll see a receipt that another car owner has tossed at the trashcan. Lately, the totals on those slips have been downright scary: $80. $95. I even spied one for $108.
I'm assuming those big numbers are from the owners of S.U.V.s. And while I'm spending $40 and up for a fill up nowadays, I've got to admit that I feel a little triumphant that I made the switch nearly three years ago.
From 2001 through 2008, I drove the Lexus RX, a crossover sport utility that some people call "the ladies' S.U.V." because a majority of its owners are women. I loved my RXs, but I never got better than 28 mpg in them.
The desire to save on gasoline, and reduce my CO2 emissions, convinced me to make the switch. And, the difference has been significant.
I've never gotten less than 39 mpg in the Prius (in a snowstorm, with snow tires) and at times my mileage has topped 50 mpg. That alone would be enough to convince some people to abandon their S.U.V.s and join me in what I've called "the fellowship of the Prius." I wrote about my ownership experience in The Prius Diary for The New York Times.
But there are moments I have missed my S.U.V., and there are things to think about if you're considering your own switch to a car the size of mine.
1) Can you think small? It's a mental and emotional adjustment. Let's admit it: that higher seat and bigger body gives S.U.V. owners a feeling of power. You no longer have that behind the wheel of a hybrid, like my Prius, or the Honda Insight or the Ford Focus. If you do a lot of freeway driving, as I do between Chicago, Ann Arbor and Cleveland, the anchor cities for our Changing Gears public media project, you might prefer a lot of sheet metal around you as trucks whiz by. There's a flip side, though. Driving a small car brings back the feeling of the road that so many of us gave up. And, if you park on city streets or in tight garages, you'll smile to yourself every time you maneuver into a space that wouldn't hold your S.U.V.
2) Can you get along with less stuff? I've often had people tell me, "I'd love to own a Prius, only I have three kids" and everything that kids come with, like hockey gear, and camping equipment and backpacks. I understand that reasoning. My car holds quite a bit, and the hatchback is functional, especially with the seats folded down. But I don't have the unlimited volume that an S.U.V. provides, and it means strategizing about what I can transport, as I had to do when I moved to Chicago over the New Years holiday.
3) What is your driving pattern? We've all grown up with the expectation that we'll get the best gas mileage at a steady highway speed. But hybrids do their best in city traffic. If you have an hour commute straight in from the suburbs at speeds above 70 mph, you aren't going to get the most benefit. Conversely, if you endure a stop and go commute, or you primarily drive from the Upper West Side to Soho, a hybrid might be a perfect option.
4) How much can you spend? With gas prices where they are now, you are not going to have much dickering room. At the New York Auto Show earlier this month, Toyota executives said there was a 9-day supply of Prius cars in the country, due to demand and production issues caused by the earthquake in Japan, versus the 60-day supply that carmakers like to have on hand at dealerships. There will not be many bargains on the most popular hybrids, and there won't be lease deals, either. That sticker shock is going to hit S.U.V. owners hard, and some people may decide the savings on gasoline simply won't make the higher monthly payments worth it.
5) What changes does your family face over the next few years? If you're single, or a newly married couple, the purchase of a small car or a hybrid might make sense now. Likewise, these are very good options for the mobility challenged. My mom, who would kill me if I printed her age, is crazy about my Prius, which is much easier for her to enter and exit than my RX was. But, are you planning to have kids? Are your kids growing like weeds? Do you regularly transport members of your choir, or take part in a car pool? You need to weigh not only your current situation, but also what lies ahead.
Finally, be honest with yourself. If you can't part with your S.U.V. just yet, there are plenty of tips for driving more responsibly. And if you're ready to make the switch, welcome to the club.
Micheline Maynard is the senior editor of Changing Gears, a public media project looking at the reinvention of the Midwest economy. She is a former New York Times Detroit bureau chief and a regular guest on Marketplace.