Regarding Toyota's poster child for "green" motoring, I had never really been a fan and I'm as guilty as anyone of taking the occasional swipe at the petro-lectro hatch. Hey, it's an easy target. With some followers who see it as a kind of four-wheeled Messiah capable of preventing the sky from falling, it's easy to look at the Prius, roll your eyes, and scoff at the hyperbolic ridiculousness that is "Prius Culture." I had done all these things. Call me a hater. I don't mind. To top things off, I had never even driven a Prius. So I asked Toyota for one, figuring that if I was going to continue being a smartass, I might as well be an informed one.
All photos Copyright ©2007 Alex Núñez / Weblogs, Inc.
In case you hadn't guessed already, I'm not someone who loses sleep over global warming (man-made, natural, imaginary or whatever). I haven't seen An Inconvenient Truth, nor do I care who killed the electric car. While there's no shortage of folks who look at the Prius as a quasi-religious socio-political icon, there are plenty more who are happy to cut through all that BS and just appreciate the car for its practical nature and "gee-whiz" appeal. Clean (it's a PZEV), economical motoring in a usable, innovative package is the Prius' basic mission -- a fact that's lost in the din of the hype machine. Its hybrid system is designed for effortless, everyday use by anyone, even if you're more interested in saving a few bucks at the pump than saving the planet. I can relate to the former group, no problem.
As potential Prius drivers go, I'm probably a good candidate. I have a 60-mile round-trip commute (i.e. 30 each way) that's mostly highway, yet still plays to the Prius' strengths. How so? Well, I don't live in Utopia. I live in Fairfield County, CT, which is home to a lot of fellow commuters. During rush hour, we all get together on I-95 or the Merritt and stare at one another in seemingly endless stop-and-go traffic. The entrance ramps ought to have signs saying, "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." As miserable as the conditions can be, however, the Prius welcomes them with open arms.
In fact, it welcomes you with open arms, too. That aerodynamically optimized Easter egg shape won't win many beauty contests (though I did like the Seaside pearl finish), but it hides within it a roomy midsizer that's well-equipped to carry four or five people in comfort. Headroom in both seating rows is ample, and passengers have a good amount of space in which to stretch their legs. In fact, the Prius' 38.6 inches of rear seat legroom is more than you get in the Toyota Camry, Saturn Aura, and Ford Fusion. Staying in the family, the Prius' front seat passengers have a little more legroom than Camry riders, as well. There's also ample room for your stuff in back, with a hidden storage area under the main cargo space beneath the rear hatch. If you need additional room, you can always flip down the rear seats.
All Prius have push-button start, and my loaded Touring model upped the ante with a fully keyless entry/go system via a smart fob. There's a dock for it in the dash, but you needn't use it. Slide into the driver's seat with the fob in your pocket, put your foot on the brake, and hit the start button. Bang, the car's on. The Prius sparks up in EV mode, and the ICE doesn't necessarily fire up at the same time (though in most cases, I found it did so almost immediately thereafter). The shifter sticks out of the instrument panel and isn't mechanically connected to anything. It's a by-wire setup, so after you've selected your gear with a light tap (reverse is over and up, drive is over and down), the shifter itself (it's more like a joystick, actually) pops back into its "ready" position. When you're done driving, just hit the big "P" button above it to put the car in park.
In the past, I had peered into many a Prius window wondering how well the visually odd arrangement of instrumentation and controls worked in practice. It's quite straightforward, actually. Instead of a traditional gauge cluster, you're faced with an expanse of plastic that ends in a darkened horizontal strip placed near the base of the windshield. When the car's on, that element lights up and presents you with a digital speedo, transmission indicator, fuel gauge, odometer, and the usual assortment of warning/information lights. The center stack is capped with a color touchscreen LCD display that's the primary interface for a number of controls (phone, climate, nav, etc.), and most importantly, the informational "video game" showing the car's powertrain status. The Bluetooth system had no problem making nice with my Blackberry, and big buttons on the touchscreen make dialing a snap if you need to make a call. The center console is home to the usual accoutrements: a bin and a couple of cupholders. There's additional storage on the passenger side, where you'll find over/under gloveboxes on the dash.
Overall material quality inside is good. Toyota mixes up the plastic textures and colors well, and the cloth seat upholstery looks fine. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the steering wheel, which really puts the "multi" in multifunction. Stereo controls are a given, and phone controls are becoming more commonplace, but Toyota goes a step further, adding navigation and climate controls, the latter of which allow you to change the fan speed and activate the defroster and rear defogger without taking your hands off the wheel. it's a nice touch that spares you the act of going into the touchscreen system.
As for the experience behind the wheel, it's pretty vanilla. It's good vanilla, to be sure, but vanilla nonetheless. The car is extremely quiet -- virtually silent in EV mode and still admirably muted when the 1.5L adds itself to the mix. You need to really romp on the gas to make the combustion engine intrusive-sounding. The "sport tuned suspension" that's part of the car's Touring package soaks up bumps fine, and the Prius is nimble as it trundles around town. Expansion joints and other pronounced road imperfections didn't result in any squirrelly behavior -- something I've experienced in other cars fitted with low-rolling-resistance tires. Acceleration is good when you consider that the engine and Hybrid Synergy Drive's electric motor combine for the equivalent of a modest 110 hp according to Toyota. When the two work in concert, there's ample torque to be had. The 50 Kw electric motor delivers 295 lb-ft from zero to 1200 RPM, supplementing the 1.5L's peak output of 82 lb-ft at 4200 RPM.. Highway merging isn't a problem at all, and in most cases, you'll find yourself resisting the urge to bomb about, anyway. The reason for this -- and to me, it's the most impressive thing about the Prius -- is the car's innate ability to encourage economical driving.
This is largely due to the aforementioned "video game" screen (formally called the Energy Monitor) that gives occupants a graphical representation of which elements of the drivetrain are doing what, as well as showing the battery's state of charge. After spending a short time driving, you can pretty much figure out what's happening under the car's skin by how it feels (it's pretty obvious when the engine is off, and you get a sense for the regenerative braking, too), but the Energy Monitor confirms your thoughts with a quick glance. I soon found myself using the Consumption screen instead. It displays your current fuel economy, overall average fuel economy and a bar graph representation of fuel economy and recharging activity in 5-minute increments. This made it easy to see how consistently good (or bad) I was doing with regard to my fuel consumption, and was far more useful than the Energy Monitor, which is cool for a few minutes and impresses newbie passengers but quickly gets old.
Around-town driving is great and all, and open highway driving is very predictable (i.e. you're pretty much using the ICE once you're at speed), but what ultimately converted me to the "pro-Prius" camp for good was how excellent it is in stop-and-go traffic. As long as the battery has juice, the car stubbornly refuses to fire its gasoline engine while it crawls along. Eventually, the Prius will have to fire up the ICE if/when the battery's charge drops too low. When this happens, you almost sigh in disappointment, because it's going to cut into the "high score" you've been working on the last few days in the "game." Then you sit there, realizing you're kinda bummed out because of what will, in the long run, be an inconsequential dip in your average fuel economy. This is the epiphany. This is when you know you truly enjoy driving the Prius, a car you may have reflexively disliked before. After a week with it, I averaged a solid 44 miles per gallon over 285 miles. I could have done better, too, but I admit that despite my heightened sense of awareness regarding gas mileage, I would still stomp on the accelerator now and then.
I took no long road trips, so I can't tell you how it does in that respect. As a daily driver, it's very good, and as a commuter, particularly in congested areas, it's flat-out excellent. At a tick over $28,393, my tester was not particularly cheap for an economy car. But don't think of it in those terms. The Prius Touring is a roomy, feature-laden midsize car that happens to also get excellent fuel economy. Feel free to rant about the supposed cost disadvantages of the Prius; how the so-called hybrid penalty isn't worth it, and so forth. You're missing the point. The Prius is like any other car in that if you like it enough and feel you'll be happy with it, you're going to be OK with spending the money required to put it in your garage. As for all the "Prius Culture" baggage that follows the car everywhere, that you can keep.
It's neither the prettiest ride nor is it the fastest or most dynamic, but it's got geek appeal, is comfortable and is engaging to drive in its unique way. Hate on it all you want, but know this: Prius does its thing exceedingly well. Every night, I tell my daughter to try something new at dinnertime. The common reply is almost always, "No, Daddy. I don't like it." This generates an automatic "But you never even tried it before!" from me. When it came to the Prius, I was as stubbornly opposed to the idea of it being worthwhile as my daughter is to new foods. So I walked the walk that goes with the talk I constantly give her. I tried the Prius, and I'll be damned. I really liked it. So says a hater, through a mouthful of crow.
All photos Copyright ©2007 Alex Núñez / Weblogs, Inc.