Mocked hybrid drivers get the last laugh at the pumps

July 12, 2004|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - Over decades of driving, my cars have been called many things. Slovenly, for one. Decrepit, for another.

The single adjective that has never been used to describe a car of mine is "hip." Trust me on this.

As a confessed car slob, my sole interest in the motor is that when I turn it on, it will go. Every 10 years or so, when I reluctantly enter a salesroom, I am more interested in cup holders and seat warmers than in anything remotely motor trendy.

Then, a few months ago, we bought a hybrid. This car has a name - Prius - so unracy that it sounds vaguely like a pill for erectile dysfunction. But it not only has two cup holders and optional seat warmers, it has a gas engine, an electric motor and a dashboard screen that tells me exactly how many miles per gallon I am getting every single obsessive second that I have my eyes on the screen instead of the road.

It also has this nifty, if unsettling, way of going absolutely dead silent at the stoplight as if I just stalled out. And, of course, it gets close to 60 miles to the gallon.

Now, for the first time, a car of ours has been accused of being "hip." And I do mean accused.

We hybrid owners - a mere 50,000 in a sea of 17 million cars sold last year - are being typecast as granola-crunching, tree-hugging enviro-snobs. Not only did a New York Times writer sneeringly call our vehicles "hip," another mocked us as "virtuous." A third suggested that we were driving with moral superiority, "the automotive equivalent of corrective shoes."

Since Susan Sarandon eschewed the limo to pull up to the Oscars in her Prius, we've been tarnished with the Hollywood glitter.

One professor even declared that driving a hybrid was a way of saying, "I'm more intelligent than the next guy."

Oh, how I wish I could tell you that we sprung for the Prius because we knew the price of gas was on its way over the $2 mark. Or that we're so thrifty we're putting the roughly $300 a year in saved gas money into our grandchildren's education fund.

But the truth is, blush, that the road trip had become a guilt trip. Every time I pulled up to a gas station in the wake of 9/11, I started thinking about our Middle Eastern "friends" and the madrassas they support with my gas-guzzling dollars. Then too, there was global warming, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the fact of Americans using 10 times more gas than the global norm, the bright pink Victoria's Secret Hummer parked outside my office, and you get the idea.

If the car is to the environment as the cigarette is to the body, if I'm not about to go cold turkey - or cold bike - why not go hybrid? A New Yorker cartoon said all we needed to know about the technology: "It runs on its conventional gasoline-powered engine until it senses guilt, at which point it switches over to battery power."

Anyway, I am more than happy to take a little mockery along with my mileage. But the image makeover from car slob to car snob is part of the weird process these days by which anyone who thinks about doing any good becomes a do-gooder, which is baaaad. Doing the right thing is tagged as the left thing, which is the wrong thing.

It all began when folks sensitized to race or gender issues were politically corrected for being "politically correct." Now everything you say, do or drive gets politicized, polarized and stereotyped. If you follow the religious line of moral values, you get inscribed in the William J. Bennett Book of Virtues. If you follow the line of environmental values, you get mocked as "virtuous." If you eat cheeseburgers, you're one of the guys. If you buy organic greens, you're looking down on one of the guys.

This time, the image remakers may be on the wrong side of the highway, since hybrids are wait-listed and Hummers are discounted. Arnold Schwarzenegger himself has talked of turning one of his Hummers green - though a hybrid Hummer is a little like a low-carb Krispy Kreme doughnut. But I am sure there's a conventional automaker somewhere with a book called Real Men Don't Drive Hybrids.

What does a "hip," "virtuous," "smarter-than-thou" driver do to fight back? We could have every hybrid sold with a NASCAR sticker on the bumper. Or with a side order of steroids. We could change the name from Prius to Pitbull.

Or maybe, as good little hipsters, we can just laugh quietly all the way - I mean aaalllllll the way - to the gas pump.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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