The Loneliest Hybrid

I’ve always enjoyed hopping in the car and heading out to follow the open road across the vast expanses of the American West. One of my favorite road trips leads eastward from the Bay Area and traces the route of the Pony Express over the High Sierra and through the rugged basin and range landscape of Nevada, toward Utah and beyond. It’s a wonderful journey along what is now Highway 50, famously known in Nevada as “the Loneliest Road in America.” It isn’t all that lonely really, but it does pass through wild terrain and historic little towns more oriented toward the 19th than the 21st century.

This past summer, I drove through Nevada’s past behind the wheel of our automotive future, a fuel-efficient hybrid vehicle. My goal was to see how far I could go on a single tank of gas.

Nissan sponsors the television series I’ve hosted since 1993, Bay Area Backroads. For my Highway 50 trip, Nissan provided an Altima hybrid sedan. I didn’t know what to expect from the Altima, but I did know what the road had in store for me. My crew and I would leave the Bay Area and climb-up the Sierra Nevada and then cross 20 mountain passes before reaching the Utah border about 600 miles to the east—that is, if we got that far. Along the way, we’d shoot a show for Backroads, which we’d later post on my new travel website, OpenRoad.TV,” the Traveler’s Video Guide to the American West.”

I grew up in a family of automobile dealers, but sadly, I have absolutely no mechanical skill or understanding. I can tell you how well a car drives and how I like it, but not how it works. Before heading out, I asked a Nissan technician, Mark Perry, for a short explanation about how the hybrid functions. Here’s what he said:

“Think of a hybrid system as a two-man crew rowing a boat. The electric motor starts rowing first. But, if you need to ‘sprint’ then both crew members need to start rowing. Because there are two crew members, the ‘boat’ can go farther and use less energy.”

Although I’d been a passenger in various Toyota Priuses owned by friends and liked them very much, I had never driven a hybrid. How would it handle, especially at higher altitudes? How peppy would it be?  And, of course, the big unknown: where along the Loneliest Road would we be on our final fumes of fuel?

And so, off we went. I drove the Altima conservatively, but didn’t poke along. I found it had plenty of power, far more than I needed. Acceleration was excellent and the mountain passes posed no challenge. It was comfortable and spacious, though the trunk was a little small for all our gear. Besides watching the road and the passing scenery, I found myself completely entertained by the computerized accounting, in five-minute intervals, of our gas consumption. On steep uphills, we dropped to 20 miles to the gallon. Then downhill, we used almost no gas at all. On flat straightaways, we averaged about 40 or just a little less. Traveling slowly through towns, we often cruised on our batteries, which had been recharged on our downhill runs. I had to get used to the silence of the car when it was propelled by its batteries, but in our otherwise noisy world, I came to covet the quiet.

We took our time shooting stories across Nevada, and on our third day out we reached the Utah border on what the Altima said was near empty. I was pretty impressed and satisfied with that success, but we kept driving east, assuming we’d run out of gas at any minute. The problem was, we kept going…and going…and it started getting late. We needed to get back to Nevada to file a report and get up very early for a long shoot amid bristlecone pines and inside caves in Great Basin National Park. I stepped on the gas—so much for conservation. We flew across the desert and at last, just as the sun set, we finally and mercifully rolled to a silent stop by a farm, 105 miles into Utah. The coyotes howled their approval, nearly 700 miles from where we began with a latte at the Berkeley Marina. We’d averaged about 38 miles to the gallon.

Returning home, with more downhill than uphill, we could have done even better. Global warming is real. Fuel efficiency and energy conservation are critical. I look forward to having more hybrids and low-consumption vehicles to choose from in the years ahead.