You can keep your iPods and Razrs and Treos. My vote for the coolest gadget of the 21st century — so far — goes to the Toyota...

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You can keep your iPods and Razrs and Treos. My vote for the coolest gadget of the 21st century — so far — goes to the Toyota Prius.

In the normal realm of things, I admit, a car doesn’t qualify as a gadget. But if the definition of a gadget is something that makes a routine procedure — phone calls, listening to songs, entering contact data, driving a car — new and fun, then the Prius fills the bill. Before I go further I should disclose that I have owned a 2004 Prius for more than a year. That doesn’t make me a blind evangelist. A column a year ago suggesting the car was not as “smart” as touted generated more than 100 e-mail responses from highly vocal Prius partisans.

Since then, with some 16,000 road miles under my belt, I’ve come around to a more sanguine view. Whatever drawbacks the Prius has are more than compensated for by its ability to alter wasteful driving habits, save fossil fuels, promote renewable energy and restore the “wow” factor to technology (at a time when a lot of new stuff just doesn’t work well).

Consider a recent trip from Redding, Calif., to Sacramento on Interstate 5. Flat, straight and monotonous, it’s the kind of terrain that really gets a Prius owner’s juices flowing.

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The speed limit is 65, but most traffic goes 75 to 80 mph. Starting at 80 and decreasing in 5 mph increments, I monitored my miles per gallon for five-minute segments on cruise control.

At 80, I averaged 37.8 miles per gallon. At 75, I was at 47.6 mpg. At 70, I went up to 49.5; at 65, I was at 57.2; and at 60, I was up to 61.3.

Here’s the shocker: At 55 mph, my gas consumption was 65.9 mpg.

I conducted each interval twice for verification and found no variation beyond 1.8 mpg. The numbers listed above were the better of each set.

I also drafted semi-trucks at around 60 miles an hour, registering 64.8 mpg (about the same as driving 55 mph). It would have been interesting to draft the semis at different speeds, but trucks stay pretty constant.

I was able to conduct the test because the Prius’ computer screen displays a constantly changing bar graph of current miles per gallon and automatically averages mpg over any distance.

In addition to driving slower on freeways, Prius owners soon learn to coast to stoplights and then avoid accelerating from stops. (This saves wear and tear on brakes and engine as well.)

When we ordered our Prius nearly two years ago, it was for its “green” virtues. With gas prices on a seemingly inexorable march, the Prius and other alternative vehicles are drawing interest out of pocketbook considerations.

Whatever the rationale, the Prius’ combination of visual feedback and driving efficiency reaffirms that the highest and best technologies are not just the cool ones, but those that transform human behavior for the better.

Seattle freelance writer Paul Andrews has written about technology for more than two decades. He can be reached at pandrews@seattletimes.com.