Gasoline Car Review

I recently purchased a Mazda Miata. This car is interesting because instead of running on electricity, it is powered by a combustible liquid called gasoline. The vehicle has an engine that mixes the gasoline with oxygen from the air, ignites the mixture, and uses the resulting combustion to push the car forward. I don’t fully understand the details of how it works, but this difference in propulsion technology totally changes the experience of owning and operating a vehicle.

After taking delivery of the car, my first hurdle was getting it to do anything. I opened the door (the handles are very prominent), sat in the driver’s seat, and… nothing happened. No screen showed any messages. The climate control didn’t turn on. The car seemed dead. I pressed the accelerator (Mazda calls this the “gas” pedal) but again, nothing. I called their support line and quickly figured out the issue: Unlike a normal car, a gas car needs to be “started”. Apparently it would be wasteful and expensive to keep the gasoline engine running all the time, so you’re only supposed to run the engine if you’re moving the vehicle. The starting process is pretty painless: You insert your key into a slot on the side of the steering column, push the clutch pedal (more on that later), then turn the key and hold it for a second or two. I succeeded on the first try, causing the car to jump to life and emit all kinds of crazy noises. Imagine if a steam locomotive had a baby with a machine gun. That’s the sort of noise that comes out of a gas car. It evokes both excitement and concern.

My next bit of confusion was regarding the climate control. At first I thought it was broken, but it turned out that a gas car’s heating system is unique. Instead of using electricity to heat up coils or pump heat into the cabin, it uses the engine’s excess heat to warm the cabin. This means that the cabin won’t get warm until the engine has been running long enough to heat up. This only takes a few minutes, but on a cold morning it can feel like an eternity.

With the engine running and the cabin warm, it was finally time for me to get moving. That’s when I ran into another quirk. Unlike normal electric motors, gasoline engines have a narrow range of RPMs that they can operate at. Too slow and the combustion reaction can’t self-sustain. Too fast and the engine explodes. To get around this limitation they use a transmission with multiple gears, sort of like a bicycle. The lower gears are for when you start moving. As you gain speed, you shift into higher gears to avoid hitting the engine’s RPM limit. This process of shifting gears involves careful coordination of the gas pedal, the clutch pedal (an extra pedal to the left of the brake pedal), and the shifter knob. I won’t get into the details, but shifting gears is definitely a skill that must be learned. Shifting gears can be fun in the right circumstance, but it can also be tedious and frustrating, especially in stop-and-go traffic.

After lots of practice and profanity, I got back home and turned off the car. Again this step is unusual, but it’s necessary to save fuel. It was quite easy, as it was basically the reverse of starting the car: You turn the key in the opposite direction and remove it. The car became silent, so I got out and went inside to make dinner.

The next morning I tried to start the car but nothing happened. Troubleshooting took a while, but I eventually figured it out: A gasoline car needs gasoline and electricity to run! Apparently the headlights didn’t automatically turn off after I left the car. This meant that the car’s tiny battery lost its charge and couldn’t turn the gasoline engine on. What a pain! To add insult to injury, the car lacks a standard charging port. I couldn’t just hook up an extension cord to charge it. I had to get someone else with a gas car to stop next to my stranded car, then pop both hoods and connect some giant alligator clips to both cars’ batteries, and then run the working car long enough to charge the dead battery. It gets worse. If you mess up this “jumper cable” configuration, the battery can explode and send acid everywhere. This is ridiculously unsafe, especially considering that the battery is so close to extremely flammable gasoline. I can only imagine how many of these vehicles would catch fire if they were common. Hopefully firefighters are trained in how to extinguish this unique type of fire.

Oh and when you pop the hood you’ll notice another problem: there is no storage! The gasoline engine is massive. It occupies the entire front of the vehicle, leaving no room for luggage or groceries. You’ll have to fit all of your stuff in the trunk. It’s absurd that the owner’s manual neglected to mention this.

Refueling was a mixed bag. Whenever I parked in my garage, I had to suppress the urge to plug the car in. Gasoline is only available at special stations, and it is prohibitively expensive to get a gasoline line installed in your home. So unlike a normal car, you don’t wake up every morning with full range. The only way to add range is to go to gas stations. These are similar to fast charging stations, but smelly and more dangerous. I certainly wouldn’t want to live near one. The stations require you to turn the engine off while fueling, meaning you can’t listen to music or otherwise entertain yourself. There is one upside: refueling is very quick. After I started the gas pump, I went to the bathroom and grabbed a snack. By the time I got back it was already done! A couple of other drivers were giving me dirty looks for bogarting the pump, so I quickly put the nozzle back and drove away. I was surprised that there was no interlock to prevent the car from moving while refueling. Maybe it’s intentional to allow for in-motion refueling in the future.

The speed of refueling does help offset the lack of at-home gas pumps, but the dependence on gas stations gives me a lot of anxiety. What if I’m in the middle of nowhere and can’t reach a station before I run out of fuel? What if the station runs out of gas? With a normal car, I can plug in anywhere there is electricity. Even a standard appliance socket can add enough range to get to a fast charging station. But a gas car needs gasoline to move. If you’re too far from a fueling station, you have to have someone bring you gas. If that’s not an option, then you need to call a tow truck.

After using a gas car for a while, I do find some aspects appealing. For one, it’s an engineering marvel. The machinery that harnesses combustion energy is ridiculously complicated. It’s amazing that the thing works at all. The word that comes to my mind after driving a gas car is “primal”. All of your senses are engaged: the sound and vibration of the engine; the smell of volatile chemicals and exhaust; the nagging reminder that you are speeding around with a tank full of napalm. Some may find it terrifying; others (such as myself) find it exhilarating.

But no matter how enjoyable a gas car is at its best, it’s just not compelling for daily use. Compared to the status quo a gas car is inconvenient, slow, noisy, smelly, and dangerous. I think a few enthusiasts and hipsters will enjoy tooling around in these things, and rich people might have one for special occasions (along with their horses and sailboats), but the vast majority of people are better served with a normal car. I doubt these combustion vehicles will ever be popular.

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