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Dickinson and Williston are Ground Zero in the oil boom transforming western North Dakota.
In both towns, six-lane roads, gas bars, fast-food outlets, temporary houses and overpriced motels sprawl across the bald prairie. With the influx of thousands of oil workers, rents are too high for many long-time residents.
My partner Denise and I visited the towns as we tested a 2012 v ? the largest member of Toyota?s Prius hybrid family ? on an 8,000-kilometre drive from Toronto to Calgary and back. Between the two stops, we spent a magical day in the badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which only reminded us of the main reason for choosing a v for the road trip.
Oil seems plentiful once again, thanks to discoveries such as the supply in tiny shale pores under North Dakota. But there?s a high environmental price to pay for extracting it, just as there is from burning hundreds of billions of litres of gasoline every year.
Our aim was to determine whether it?s possible to do a long road trip in comfort and safety in a vehicle that sips fuel. As I wrote last week, the v swallowed plenty of luggage and left us in good shape after days that averaged more than 800 kilometres.
Fuel economy is more difficult to assess. The best way to save gas is, of course, not to travel. With family in Calgary that wasn?t a palatable option ? although some environmentalists argue that?s the future. Flying would eliminate the road trip we looked forward to and generate far more carbon emissions.
Cars offer a wide choice in fuel economy. We picked the v because along with its decent size, official tests say it consumes just 4.6 litres of gasoline per 100 kilometres of combined highway and urban driving.
We had another choice: We could drive as carefully as possible; trying to match or even beat the official fuel-economy number. The extreme of this technique is called hypermiling. It requires a quiet foot on the accelerator and brake, low revs, speed below 100, and to avoid abrupt moves, a long gaze ahead.
Hypermiling has appeal. It saves fuel and money. Its focus on awareness, anticipation and avoiding jackrabbit starts and stops is simply good driving. But it can be annoyingly slow ? when you need to cover 900 kilometres in a day, with sightseeing along the way, you don?t want to dawdle. On roads with high-speed limits, it?s also dangerous. So we behaved like average drivers, keeping up with traffic, even when the limit was 120 and the flow even faster.
And with the weather consistently hot, we had the automatic air-cooling system engaged and consuming power.
How did the v do under such circumstances? Remarkably well. We burned about 480 litres of fuel for an average consumption of six litres per 100 kilometres. When we used hypermiling techniques for short distances, the number fell below five.
Clearly, we weren?t in a performance or sports car. After all, the v is advertised as a family hauler and its gasoline and electric motors combine for only 134 horsepower. But it cruised North Dakota and Montana at up to 135 kilometres an hour, with power to spare.
The v offers Normal, Eco and Power settings, which largely impact throttle response. In Eco, it strained climbing the long hills on the TransCanada, north of Lake Superior, but had no trouble in Power.
Running downhill, the consumption indicators ? a numerical readout near the large speedometer and bar graph on the navigation screen ? often dropped to zero. Equally gratifying, at border crossings or traffic jams, the electric motor powered the air and audio systems most of the time. (At one 50-minute wait, the gasoline engine kicked in briefly twice to recharge the battery.)
Our conclusion: The Prius v is an enjoyable choice for any length of road trip and might keep a few litres of oil beneath North Dakota.