We're in a 2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid a few hundred feet away from our hotel in the heart of Georgetown during rush hour, sweat dripping off our faces, our necks, and legs, visibly soaking our clothes. D.C. is experiencing a heat wave, but we've got the windows rolled up and the air conditioning off.
"Let's roll down the windows," I beg.
"Stay strong--we're so close," my driving partner urges.
But I'm dehydrated and my heart is beating as though I've been working out when all I've been doing is stewing in stop-and-go traffic. Reprieve is only a few minutes away in the form of a cooled hotel lobby, and yet I feel I could faint before that point. This competition of suffering will end when we get to the hotel and Lincoln's marketing team logs our average gas mileage for the 24-mile hypermiling challenge, which is slipping from its peak of 52 mpg down to 50. That we are doing this at all is ridiculous. We are two 30-something automotive writers sous-viding ourselves in our own sweat inside the enclosed cabin, all for the chance to win an HD radio and bragging rights.
It's not worth physical injury, I finally decide. I roll down our windows and expect the gauge that monitors the accessory load to skyrocket and our gas mileage to plummet. Nothing happens. We coast into our hotel driveway at the same gas mileage as we had when we were marinating in our self-created steam room, 52.2 mpg. All that suffering for nothing.
When the hypermiling challenge was proposed to us that morning in an air conditioned meeting room in National Harbor, the temperature had not swelled to the forecasted 93 degrees, so the competition seemed easy enough,
The 2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid's ability to stay in EV mode up to 47 mpg meants that we could practically drive to our destination 30 miles away using only the electric motor. The way we saw it, the car would only turn the engine when we needed to accelerate quickly (which we would avoid), recharge the battery (we'd be energy-efficient), or drive on the highway (wouldn't be often).
We also assumed that on a hot day, none of the other teams would even bother to compete. And with us being two women, we had a -100 lb advantage on them. To further reduce our weight load, I pawned my laptop off on a Lincoln PR exec to carry, saving us anther 5 lbs. Further bolstering our success, we would also eliminate all electronic accessories. In-dash navigation with Sync Serivces: Off. Instead, turn-by-turn guidance would be given out the low-tech way--by me using preprinted directions. Air conditioning: Off. Cooled seats: Off. Sunroof: Closed. Windows: Closed. Turn signals: Totally not worth the parasitic drain.
Basically, we turned a fully loaded sedan into a Ford stock car. But unlike most stock cars, the MKZ Hybrid was still standard equipped with luxurious leather-and-wood interior and smooth ride. We were a shoo-in to win.
So off we went, driving slower than Miss Daisy. As we crept out into traffic, we were cautious to accelerate slowly, brake early and for long periods, and stay way under the speed limit. Right away we noticed that the MKZ Hybrid's transition from electric motor to gas engine was almost imperceptible. In fact, the only way to check sometimes if we were in EV mode or using the gas engine was to check the gauges--green meant we were driving in EV mode, orange meant we were using gas. Thankfully, we often saw green. And by keeping an eye on the range indicator that showed how much we could accelerate without requiring the gas engine to turn on, we could drive in the EV sweet spot. The SmartGauge with EcoGuide interface was new to us, but it only took a few minutes for us to become hypermiling masters.
We were off to to a good start as our average MPG for the trip quickly climbed to the mid-thirties and then into the 40s. After 15 minutes in we were averaging 50 mpg and climbing up.
But this was not without conscious effort. Stop lights every 100 feet gave us ample opportunity to regenerative brake. Stop signs, on the other hand, were treated a little less seriously, as we rolled through more than one to avoid completely losing momentum. On roads where the speed limit was obviously just a suggestion given by midday traffic's frequent disregard, we held our slow-moving ground as even school buses drove around us. The one-lane roads made it tough not to give in and drive at the flow of traffic, but we were undeterred. With our sight set firmly on winning the competition, we drove on the shoulder when we could to let traffic pass us (only to find themselves stuck behind a moving truck). At least once, I believe, we were passed by a granny in a walker.
In our rear-view mirror the line of backed-up cars behind our slow-moving vehicle was easy to ignore because our attention was laser-focused on the SmartGauge. Talk about distracted driving--we were constantly aware of our car's accessory load (none), how much battery we had left (we tried to keep it as high as possible and were always on the lookout for an opportunity to regenerative brake) and the status of our trip's fuel economy.
It didn't take long before we felt the heat of high noon. We decided to forgo air conditioning because it used too much energy. But we also decided to drive with the windows rolled up to avoid creating drag. The only upside was that by sweating profusely we were clearing our pores, so we rationalized, and thanks to Ford's chromium-free tanning of the upholstery leather, we weren't inhaling toxic chemicals.
But when our attention wandered from the new EcoGuide feature that shows us blooming apple blossoms as we drive more economically, the car's other electronics and features taunted us. One little push of a button and we could be enjoying the MKZ Hybrid's new cooling seats. When we missed a turn because of a typo in the directions, we didn't want to increase our accessory electrical load by turning on the navigation system. Sure, music from Sirius satellite would have been nice, but we made do by entertaining ourselves with the SmartGauge and EcoGuide display. Driving economically had become a game. The silence and minimal road noise, broken only by our hysterical laughter that we were attempting this on a 94-degree day, was our sole luxury feature to enjoy.
But we were deluding ourselves.
The thing about hypermiling competitively is that you can't make any mistakes. By missing a turn we lost two miles. Not unrecoverable under normal circumstances, but stopping at the scenic rest stop to change drivers and try to cool down was another. This was compounded by the fact that we left the doors on and the keys in the ignition, which drained the battery and started the ICE engine, took us out of the game.
With the battery way below threshold--somewhere between 35 and 50 percent--the gas engine was the only thing moving us, and we instantly dropped from 55 mpg to below 49 mpg. Game over. It's hard to recharge the battery without hilly terrain or driving at highway speed. And yet neither our pride nor delusion would give, and we proceeded on the George Washington Parkway at 40 mph to our halfway point. We checked in at 52.2 mpg. Not bad! Or so we thought.
With a better-than-average score, we felt confident enough to persist, but our return trip started with a huge handicap. The car we selected had not been previously driven by hypermilers. The fuel tank was down by an eighth (the first leg was only 30 miles and should have used less than a gallon of gas) and the battery level hovered near Low. We really shouldn't have even tried at that point, and yet we did.
On the way back, the outside temperatures showed 94 degrees. Inside the car it was hot enough to kill puppies. The problem was that we should have given up long before. Like at the beginning. Starting out with a near-drained battery was impossible to overcome, and we had already made too many mistakes to win against other more experienced hypermilers. But we were in for a penny, and the pound we were willing to pay was in literal water weight. Little did we know that you can crack the window an inch on the driver's side and another inch in the rear passenger side with almost no additional drag on the highway. Even worse, after we broke down and rolled down the window blocks from the final destination, we found that driving with windows down in city traffic had no effect on our fuel economy. In the end it was all for naught--we were outdone royally by another team of automotive media stalwarts who charged up their battery to full capacity before each leg by parking the car in neutral and revving the engine. They rolled up with a 60.5 mpg average for the second half of the trip.
In hindsight, hypermiling in a Lincoln MKZ Hybrid is kind of a travesty. The point of a luxury hybrid is that you can better than average fuel economy and all the trimmings without the sacrifices or guilt. And if 50 mpg is your goal, there are other cars that you can buy and not nearly die of heat exhaustion. The reason you by a Lincoln MKZ is because you're not a chump--you want luxury, but don't want to overpay for it. The reason you buy a Lincoln MKZ Hybrid is because you're not careless--you want luxury, but you also don't want to thumb your nose at the environment to get it. And as for the Lexus 250h, its nearest hybrid competitor, it only has one advantage over the MKZ, and it's not price, quality, technology, or ride--it's that it offers Plasmacluster ionizer technology in the air-conditioning system that reduces airborne mold spores, microbes, fungi, odors, germs and bacteria, which you really only need if the car is going to be turned into a sauna on wheels like it did with us.
But thankfully, you don't have to drive at school-zone speeds with the windows up and air conditioning off to achieve good gas mileage--the MKZ Hybrid is rated at an impressive 41 mpg in the city and 36 mpg, even when using turn signals.