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On the road to a clean planet

"With its radical stylings, the Honda Insight looks like a car Jack Kerouac might love. But a local Buddhist - who, it seems, is on the road even more frequently than the late dharma bum himself - says her car's attraction drives deeper than the beatnik allure of, say, Dean Moriarty's Cadillac.It has to do with not hurting plants and people and the earth, said the Rev. Anne Heller, making the Insight a rolling reflection of the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path.The Insight definitely fits that bill, the national Sierra Club organization decided, when the it gave the fuel-efficient two-seater an award for Excellence in Environmental Engineering this year.And while the Dalai Lama might object to the sporadic splattering of bugs against the Insight's windshield, he would probably plaudit the car's low impact on the earth, achieved through a hybrid gas/electric drivetrain that gets an average of 70 miles per gallon.Thus, soon after the car hit the market last December, Heller went in with her employer - the Unitarian Universalist Association - to co-purchase one.They said it was really a 'seventh principle car,' she recalled, referring to the Unitarian profession of respect for the interdependent web of life of which we are all a part.The Insight helps to stabilize one of the most important anchors for that web - the earth's atmosphere - which scientists say has warmed about 1 degree since the late 19th century. Most scientists say increased carbon dioxide emissions are to blame, one third of which now come from fossil-fuels burned by an ever-expanding global fleet of automobiles.But Heller, who drives 1,500 to 2000 miles a month visiting congregations throughout the Northwest, said her car's reduced emissions aren't the only thing making the Universalists happy. As well as being good for the environment, (the Insight) is good for the budget, said the Unitarian district executive. The gas bill is cut in half.High gasoline prices have been a strong incentive influencing the adoption of fuel-efficient cars in Japan, where Toyota began offering the four-door, 45-miles-per-gallon (city) Prius in December, 1997. Since then, more than 35,000 Japanese have purchased this gas/electric hybrid, which Toyota will make available in the United States this summer.American automobile manufacturers, for their part, have lagged behind in the race for clean cars, although engineers from the Big Three have been working on different versions of fuel cell automobiles, which will run off of ultra-clean hydrogen and should begin to appear on the market by 2004.But right now, the Honda Insight remains by far the most fuel-efficient car available, and with a base price of $19,495, it should appeal to cost-cutters and environmentalists alike.Yet the car is no mere econobox, Heller said. It rides well, and it's peppy, she said - with some authority, as former owner of two MGs and an Austin Healey. I go 60 to 70 (mph) on the freeway.The Insight requires no special charging, and its internal combustion engine travels 600 to 700 miles on a single tank of gas. Such fuel efficiency results from the assistance provided by an electric motor - powered by a battery automatically recharged by the kinetic energy generated through braking and driving downhill.Heller demonstrated the wonders of the Insight on the rolling drives near her Day Road home Tuesday, using a dashboard display to maximize driving efficiency.Digital gauges tell her when the battery is recharging, and what kind of mileage the car is getting at any given moment.It's fun, because it's teaching me to drive differently, said Heller, who is now less lead-footed. It's like a cat - if you do something wrong, it lets you know.Thus, it seemed like some egregious driving foul must have happened when the Insight's engine suddenly shut off soon after Heller came to a stop in front of a local llama farm, but it turned out the engine does that on its own as a gas saving measure. It was somewhat akin to riding with a thrifty cab driver in Cuba.But once Heller hit the gas pedal, the Insight seemed less like a pampered cab than a golf cart, as it silently glided forward. The rumble of the three-cylinder engine, re-firing on its own, soon followed.Driving the car makes Heller happy, she said. It is ethically consistent with the life I want to lead, she said, pointing to the Buddhist golden rule, which she paraphrases as, Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.Unto others, the former owner of a Land Rover stressed that heavy sport utility vehicles spew noxious emissions, and they tear up the roads.Does that means Heller's mindful motorcar is making up for past sins?I don't know if it's an atonement, she said, gazing at the sleek, silver hatchback. It could be a salvation."

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