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Novella Sells Out

When a hybrid SUV honks, our girl answers

By Novella Carpenter

Novella "Toyota" Carpenter recently took a dazzling weeklong vacation from her filthy 1976 Mercedes 240D in order to test-drive a Toyota Highlander SUV. It was seven days of sellout shenanigans, which included buying, activating and then using a cell phone despite her fears that they cause brain cancer (has anyone disproved that Swedish rat study?). Other sellout acts included buying nonorganic half-and-half and using tampons with applicators.

How does Carpenter justify her SUV-driving behavior? Simple: It's a gas/electric hybrid. "There it is," she pointed in the direction of a sparkling-gold machine with a roof rack and a sunroof. Toyota has capitalized on the "crunchy" demographic and can now boast that it is the only auto company that has both a hybrid passenger car and a hybrid SUV in its lineup.

Indeed, Carpenter confessed she did feel a bit of an affinity for the Priuses that she saw on the roadway, much the same feeling she gets when she sees a snarled, rusted Benz cruise near her when she is driving the old regular. She tentatively honked twice at the sister hybrids and got halfhearted waves.

"Honestly, I don't know why they gave it to me. Everyone who wants to have an SUV is going to buy one of these." Carpenter scratched her head. "The mileage is great--we went almost 500 miles on one tank of gas." She and Billy racked up those miles when they took the SUV on an extended road trip. Though the couple opted to sleep on the wind-swept beach instead of inside the vehicle, they certainly could have stretched out in the Highlander.

The two rows of back seats easily fold down to create a level area--called "cargo space" in the trade--with room for at least two weary travelers to stretch out and slumber. A group of befuddled fishermen discovered the pair huddled in their sleeping bags in the morning on the beach, shrugged them off as hippies and then did a double take when the crusty couple jumped into a brand-new car.

This was a motif repeated many times during the weeklong Toyota transformation, and Carpenter, for the first time in her long life, experienced what it must be like to be a trustafarian. This disturbed her. "There Billy and I were, dumpster diving in Chinatown for lettuce for our ducks," Carpenter stated. "Passers-by were staring as usual, then they nearly dropped their takeout containers when they saw us throw our bags of wilted lettuce into this shiny, pristine, expensive vehicle." The base price for the vehicle is $30,000; the limited-edition versions and 4WD models are many more thousands.When asked about the new car by her obviously envious neighbors, Carpenter attempted to pretend that the vehicle was in fact hers. They would discover the truth when Toyota came to collect the Highlander a few days later. On the other hand, when confronted by her liberal, bike-riding friends who asked, "Aren't you just part of the publicity machine now?" Carpenter pointed out that it was true, she was a sellout, but the Highlander was a hybrid and got better gas mileage than their moms' Honda Civics.

But it was more than just the mileage, a fact that Carpenter would admit only to herself. It was the way the cup holders fit two different cup sizes by virtue of their being square, not round. It was the way the SUV was silent when you started it. It was the monitor near the odometer that showed whether the engine was being powered by gasoline (a faucet flowing to the wheels) or the battery (zingy arrow from a battery image to the wheels).

While she drove, Carpenter would think about the configurations for seating, a little like a fun math problem: two little people in the way back, two adults in the second row with a little one in the middle and two in front--by God, that is seven total!

When she saw the back of the Highlander Hybrid for the last time, Carpenter knew that it wasn't the car for her. She doesn't have a large family that would justify such a large beast, but for those of you who do, consider it.

Novella will now stop speaking about herself in the third person; e-mail me at

From the August 24-30, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.

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