46 Miles Per Gallon... 47... 48...

Rarely do I worry about how much gas I'm burning while lead-footing it through town. But after a few days in Toyota Motor Corp.'s (TM) new Prius, I became fixated, like a kid staring at a video game, on the fuel-economy numbers flickering at the top of my dashboard. Soon I was poking along at 55 in a 65-mph zone, sweltering with my air-conditioning purposely shut off and the windows rolled up (it cuts down wind resistance). All that so I could nudge my mileage up to the government-rated 48 miles per gallon.

Life in the slow lane has never been so thrilling. Sliding behind the wheel of a fuel-sipping gas-and-electric powered Prius or its only rival, Honda Motor Co.'s (HMC) Insight, can be habit-forming. The Prius, just now hitting U.S. showrooms, displays average fuel economy in real time through a video screen. The Insight, which has been on sale in the U.S. for six months, also tracks mileage on a dashboard display. Owners strive for the best fuel-economy stats, then brag about them in Internet chat rooms.

THE REAL DEAL. But whereas the Insight is a hip two-seater, the Prius delivers high efficiency with real-car performance and convenience. Its 1.5-liter, four-cylinder gas engine and 33-kilowatt electric motor combine for 114 horsepower, vs. 73 for the Insight. That's no hot rod, but it matches many compacts on the road. And the $20,000 Prius comfortably seats five, so long as the three people in the back aren't too lanky. The trunk is roomy, offering 12 cubic feet of cargo space.

The most noticeable difference in driving a hybrid is the interaction of the electric and gas power plants. In the Prius, the electric motor gets you started smoothly, with a ghostly silence. The gas engine shuts down when you're stopped. At about 10 miles an hour, you can feel the gas engine subtly start up without the grind and shudder of an ignition start. That recharges the batteries while giving the Prius a fairly peppy acceleration. It helps that the all-steel body is a lightweight 2,765 pounds--more than the 1,800-pound aluminum Insight but a lot less than the typical 3,200-pound small car. There are a few downsides. Once you're up to highway speeds, the Prius does broadcast a fair amount of road noise. And it took me three days to get used to the tight brakes.

Still, no one buys a hybrid expecting muscle. They're falling for the high-tech gadgetry and great gas mileage. For many, the Insight has the same funky fashion appeal as Volkswagen's (VLKAY) New Beetle. That look--especially the distinctive ''skirt'' that extends halfway down the rear wheels--is not for everyone. When I took the Insight for a spin, one driver stopped me to call it a computer mouse on wheels. While the Prius has a more conventional exterior, its interior is decidedly modern. The touch-sensitive video screen toggles between the fuel-use monitor and a fun schematic showing how energy flows between the wheels, electric motor, gas engine, and battery.

Next up: Ford (F) and GM (GM) are promising hybrid versions of their hulking SUVs and pickups. If the car companies can transplant this technology into their most popular models, we'll really have something to honk about.

By David Welch in Detroit

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The Eco-Cars

TABLE: Here Come the Hybrids

PHOTO: Honda Insight

DIAGRAM: How Hybrids Work (.pdf)

TABLE: It Pays to Drive Green

46 Miles Per Gallon... 47... 48...

Commentary: The Japanese Are Making the Right Bet on Hybrids

CHART: Backsliding on Fuel Economy

ONLINE ORIGINAL: "Right on the Tip" of the Hybrid Age

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