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Saturday, April 07, 2007

nenpimania : Ninja Hybrid Hackers

A new wave of Japanese hackers who squeeze more out of their Petro Electric Hybrids have hit the scene. They compete with each other and one thing they have in common is that they seem to beat the toyota engineers in the quest for hybrid nirvana. reports :
Toya, a 56-year-old manager for a tofu maker in central Japan, puts special tires on his Prius, tapes plastic and cardboard over the engine and blocks the grill with foam rubber. He drives without shoes and hacks into his car's computer -- all in the pursuit of maximum distance with minimum gasoline.

Toya is one of about 100 nenpimania, Japanese for ``mileage maniacs,'' or hybrid owners who compete against each other to squeeze as much as 115 miles per gallon out of their cars. In a country where gasoline costs more than $4 a gallon, at least $1 more than the U.S. price, enthusiasts tweak their cars and hone driving techniques to cut fuel bills and gain bragging rights.

``My wife thinks I've joined some strange secret society,'' Toya said in January at a nenpimania gathering in Nagoya in central Japan.

Mileage maniacs aren't alone in pushing the limits of hybrid vehicles. As U.S. automakers General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. race to introduce their own models, first rolled out by Japanese companies in 1997, engineers at Toyota and Honda Motor Co. are trying to boost hybrid performance to maintain their advantage.

``With higher oil prices and tightening environmental regulations, people will focus more on hybrid technology,'' said Koji Endo, an auto analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston in Tokyo.

Hybrid Power

Hybrids combine a conventional gasoline engine with an electric motor. The motor powers the vehicle at low speeds, and the gasoline engine kicks in as the car accelerates. The motor uses the motion of the wheels to recharge the batteries.

Toya said he switched to a hybrid after years of driving sports cars, trading muscle ``for the fun of maximum mileage.'' Nicknamed ``The Shogun,'' Toya said he drove 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) on a single 13-gallon (49-liter) tank 17 times last year, an average of 79 mpg. At the advertised efficiency rate, a driver would get 715 miles per tank.

Toya isn't the best, though. A woman from Akita prefecture, nicknamed ``Teddy-Girl,'' is cited on mileage maniac Web sites as getting almost 116 mpg. That's enough to drive from New York to Wichita, Kansas -- 1,386 miles -- without refilling.

By comparison, a 2007 two-wheel drive Ford F-150 pickup running at peak efficiency burns through five times as much gasoline over the same distance.

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