Looking back: Can hybrid cars withstand the Adirondacks?

Turns out, saving gas and saving the planet aren’t such crazy ideas

Adirondack SUV

Editor’s note: The following Viewpoints essay by Bill McKibben about getting by with a hybrid car in the Adirondacks originally ran in the September/October 2003 issue of Adirondack Explorer. And 17 years later, we find this to still be a timely topic.

If there is any place in the eastern United States where one could justify owning an SUV, it’s probably the Adirondacks. 

Winter’s long, roads are steep, mud is one of the seasons—it looks like the kind of places that show up in the ads for Explorers and Expeditions. Driving around suburban Clifton Park in a troop transport with cup holders is simply silliness; driving around Tupper in one makes a certain kind of sense. Or at the very least a Subaru wagon, right?

But only, as it turns out, a certain kind of sense. Because of their insanely low gas mileage, SUVs and other capacious auto/trucks have become one of the driving forces changing the world’s climate. Even as we were warned about global warming in the 1990s, Americans managed to increase their carbon emissions by 15%—mostly because they kept buying steroidal vehicles. And it’s precisely in places like the Adirondacks that that will matter most. It’ll be harder to tell in Clifton Park that the environment has gone haywire—but in these mountains, according to the experts, the best guess is that by century’s end we will lose winter (six months of gray March) and fall (beech, birch and maple replaced by drab oak and hickory) and sugar season.

Therefore, here are the results of a modest experiment I’ve been conducting for the last 18 months. Is it possible to make do at this latitude and this altitude with one of the new hybrid electric vehicles? 

In my case, that means a Honda Civic hybrid. It looks like any other Honda Civic. And it drives like any other Honda Civic. You don’t plug it in—the electric engine recharges as you drive, kicking in to help the regular internal combustion engine accelerate and climb hills. It’s a way to take a very small four-cylinder gas engine and give it enough of a performance boost that it will drive like the cars we’re used to.

In every way but one—it doesn’t have to stop at the gas station very often. In these hills and back roads I’ve been averaging about 53 miles a gallon in the spring, summer and fall. (More on winter in a moment). That’s a lot—you can drive from Johnsburg to Lake Placid, way over on the other side of the High Peaks, on a little more than a gallon of gas. That still means you pour about 22 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere, but compare that with the cloud of carbon trailing out behind an 18-mpg SUV. If everyone in America switched to hybrid vehicles over the next 10 years, we’d soar right past the targets outlined in the Kyoto accords on global warming even without doing any of the other obvious things to stop wasting energy.

But what about winter? Don’t you need a big high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle? In my experience, no—and I spend the winter indulging my serious addiction to cross-country skiing. Which in turn means more than my share of back roads and icy climbs. A good set of snow tires is more than enough to get me up the hill to North River or out to Gore; I’ve owned four-wheel-drive vehicles, and I’ve found them useful mostly for getting me stuck into deeper snowbanks. 

(My experience is not unusual. The surest sign of the approach of winter in Warren County is now SUVs with Jersey plates lying on their backs in the median strip of the Northway above Glens Falls. On an icy downhill, a 4,000-pound sheet-metal titan is a 4,000-pound bobsled. The accident data makes it clear you’re no safer overall in one of these bruisers.)

Of course, a rugged pair of snow tires does cut mileage some—in the winter, the gauge on the dash that constantly calculates my fuel efficiency reports the disappointing news that I’m only getting about 50 mpg. Still and all, I can live with it.

I can live with the size of a Civic. We have a daughter and a dog. And we also have an ungodly quantity of skis, canoes, backpacks, bicycles. But that’s why God made Thule racks. Stick a pod on the roof of a Prius or a Civic hybrid and you have yourself the cargo equivalent of a station wagon. The drag from the rack may knock another couple of miles off your total, which can be a little hard to take psychologically. Once you get into the game of trying to raise your mileage as high as possible, every little hit hurts. (There are Web sites where hybrid owners across the U.S. vie for record efficiency.) But in effect you’ve got yourself the stuffability of a Hummer.

Detroit keeps promising to introduce hybrids, but so far nothing’s emerged. In fact, Ford said last month that the total fuel economy of its SUV fleet was continuing to fall. Toyota is expecting to introduce a hybrid SUV, which will get good gas mileage but nothing like the small sedans. And a Japanese hybrid pickup is rumored to be just a few years off.

You’ll pay a couple of thousand dollars extra for the privilege of driving a hybrid—the Civic runs around $19,000. That investment will pay back at the gas pump over a few years, and will pay off, at least a little, in turning down the thermostat on these sweet mountains.

Bill Mckibben, a resident of Johnsburg, is the author of The End of Nature, which called worldwide attention to global warming.

About Adirondack Explorer

The Adirondack Explorer is a nonprofit magazine covering the Adirondack Park's environment, recreation and communities.

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  1. Kiel says

    Have you ever tried taking your car into the moose river plains? There are a couple of transmission ticklers so I make us take my friends Jeep

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