The first stop for today’s car shopper is the web, where you can find a plethora of websites, blogs, and community forums for every automotive genre and sub-genre. That’s certainly true for consumers looking for cutting-edge eco-friendly cars. But there’s nothing like getting up close and personal with the vehicles, their owners, and the companies that produce the machines. That’s the inspiration for Hybridfest Green Drive Expo, kicking off its fourth annual event this weekend in Madison, Wisc.

“Consumers can be misled by misinformation about hybrids and other alternative fuel vehicles,” said Eric Powers, founder and manager of the event. “But at Green Drive Expo, they can talk to companies and individuals and feel confident that they are getting honest answers.” HybridFest is one of the country’s largest gatherings of green car owners, who use the event as a chance to learn about new models, custom modifications, and most of all maximizing mileage.

Two-Way Communication

Ford and Toyota, top sponsors of the event, will be showing off their hybrid wares, but the carmakers’ support of and participation in the event has less to do with selling—and more to do with listening. Praveen Cherian, Ford hybrid team leader, told HybridCars.com that he’s there to learn “what hybrid drivers like and don’t like about their cars.” He said that customer input was critical to the development of the new 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid.

Customers specifically told Ford that they wanted more “EV mode.” In other words, drivers want a hybrid car that shuts off the engine more often and at higher speeds—and for a smoother transition between engine-on and engine-off modes. “So we designed our system to shut off at speeds as high as 47 miles per hour,” said Cherian. “The Fusion Hybrid has a lot more engine-off time than the competition. We put in a lot of calibrations for smoother transitions and to increase real-world mileage without the customer having to do anything.”

Cherian will make a presentation on Saturday, July 18, at 11 am, about how new controls, battery chemistry and regenerative braking helped the Fusion Hybrid achieve an EPA rating of 41 mpg in the city. Other event activities include an owners’ showcase and free test-drives. Free public admission to Green Drive Expo 2009 is included with the purchase of a Dane County Fair ticket, which also includes free parking.