I’m competitive. I mean, really competitive. I’m the kind of dad who has a hard time letting his children win at Monopoly. When I go biking, I race. To me, there is no such thing as a “friendly” game of cards. Gardening? It’s a contest to see who can grow the most and the best.

I’m a competitive driver, too. I accelerate hard and brake hard; the speed limit is more of a guideline than a rule. I count the cars I pass.

My wife and I recently went shopping for a new car. My commute is about 10 miles each way, so we wanted a car that would save a lot on gas. I’m tall, so it had to be roomy enough that I wouldn’t lose circulation in my legs. And naturally I wanted performance. It’s hard to be competitive when you can’t accelerate.

A used hybrid fit the bill perfectly: Good mileage, decent performance, and the tiny engine meant there was a surprising amount of legroom inside.

A hybrid’s dashboard isn’t like other cars’. Readouts show current and average miles per gallon. Speed is displayed in 2-inch-high numbers that sit front and center, impossible to ignore. There are a bunch of other cool displays covering battery conditions. It was futuristic enough that during the test drive I told my wife, “I feel like I’m driving a video game!”

Little did I know.

The car was supposed to get 40 to 45 mpg. But in my first week of driving, I only got about 35. My wife worried that we had bought a lemon. So the next time I filled up the tank I decided to see how high I could push my mileage, thinking that might offer a clue to what was wrong.

The first thing I noticed was that I got very poor mileage when I was accelerating — and the harder I accelerated, the worse it got.

So I began accelerating more gently and gradually whenever possible.

Speeding also worsened gas mileage. I moved over to the right lane and worked to find a fuel-efficient cruise speed I could live with.

Hard braking didn’t hurt mileage directly. But if I was constantly slowing down and speeding up (like, say, a tailgater) then I had to accelerate more often, which did hurt. So I started hanging back from the car in front of me, trying to coast up to slowing traffic instead of zooming up to it and then braking. I found myself feathering the gas and brake pedals, treading lightly where I used to stomp.

I learned to hate stop signs, tight curves and going uphill, because all of them sap speed and require acceleration afterward. I’ve begun building a new map of the Twin Cities in my head, one where I know the relative elevation of different spots. My commute to work, for instance, is downhill. It’s easier to get good mileage going to work than coming home.

In my competitiveness, I may have gone a little overboard. For instance, I hated idling at red lights, watching my hard-won mileage bleed away. The engine is designed to shut itself down when the car isn’t moving. But there are exceptions, like when the heater is on. So I set the cabin temperature to an efficient 64 degrees and began turning off the heater when the car wasn’t moving.

And it worked! I got 41.8 mpg from that tank of gas. And every tank since then I’ve been working to goose it higher. Every tenth of a mile increase in gas mileage is a victory; every decrease is a setback.

The day I broke the 41-mpg barrier, I yelled “Yes!”, pumped my fist, and looked around. I was driving the speed limit in the right lane, with plenty of following distance between me and the car in front of me. I was keeping a light foot on the gas pedal and a wary eye on my current mpg, trying to keep it above 50 so that my average wouldn’t be hurt by the hill that was coming up.

I knew I was just as competitive as ever. But my competitiveness was now focused on that little green mpg number on the dashboard.

To the rest of the world, I was driving like my grandmother.

Shaken, I sped up a little and moved into the left lane, but my heart wasn’t really in it. I’m a sucker for a good video game, and my car was proving to be one of the most addictive I had ever played. Winning had a real payoff: money saved, pollution averted. Plus, I can play it while driving. Try doing that with “Angry Birds.”

I’ve since come to terms with my good driving habits, and the extra 6 mpg that comes with it. And it makes me wonder:

If someone had told me to drive more slowly and gently in order to save gas, I would have ignored them. But all it took was a number displayed on my dashboard for me to come to that conclusion myself. And by becoming more fuel-efficient, I’ve also become a safer, more law-abiding driver.

What if every car showed the mpg you were getting? What would your high score be?


Steven Ray lives in Minnetonka.