Because Americans are big babies who would rather strangle their economy with energy shortages than drive a car that is even vaguely weird, the Department of Energy's EcoCar challenge asked a bunch of universities to build the most energy efficient car possible using a stock General Motors body and a bunch of fairly typical parts.

So it's kind of a miracle that the winner — a team from Virginia Tech — managed to transform a totally vanilla heap of American steel into an 81 MPG fuel-sipper. The key, of course, was plug-in hybrid technology, the same thing to make an appearance in the Chevrolet Volt and the forthcoming plug-in Prius.

They're calling it an "extended range electric vehicle," and in a sign of the times in which EcoCar was conceived (2008 — it was a three-year-long competition), it runs on E85, a gasoline blend with 85 percent ethanol. The same stuff that, in a rare moment of clarity, Congress just gave up on.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.