31st May 2008

Car Lust–Toyota Prius

posted in Car News Articles |

In most car enthusiast circles, admitting affection for a Toyota Prius is like putting a “Kick Me” sign on your own back. While I like the Prius, I can understand the antipathy.

I’ve read an amusing description of the Prius that describes it as powered by a small gasoline engine, an electric motor, and its owners’ smug sense of superiority. Fair or not, for many people who love cars, the Prius has become a symbol both of people who hate cars and of haughty environmental elitism. The Prius, as the most famous and visible hybrid, also takes a lot of the heat for the fact that hybrids often are overly expensive, complex, use lots of environmentally unfriendly batteries, and tend not to live up to their EPA mileage estimates. Given the fact that a decade-old Geo Metro can match the Prius’ mileage without a massive environmentally unfriendly battery pack, there is a perception that hybrids (and, by association, the Prius) are more a symbol of environmentalism than a useful way to save gas.

I don’t really subscribe to either the viewpoint that the Prius and other hybrids are environmental saviors, or symbols of elitism and hypocrisy. I like hybrid technology–the idea of recouping energy lost in braking is pretty cool, and I think plug-in hybrids have some interesting potential. And, really, it’s not fair for the Prius to carry all of that pro- and anti-hybrid baggage. It should be judged on its own merits, and on its own merits I find the Prius to be a pretty compelling car.

I’m on the record for being a sucker for bloated five-doors, like the early 1980s Saab 900 five-door, the Dodge Colt Vista and (shudder) the Suzuki Aerio, and like those cars the Prius combines a smoothly sloping roofline, the usefulness of four doors, and the extreme utility of a hatchback to carry people and cargo with ease. Its shape is geeky and bulbous in true five-door hatchback style, with a gawky but adorable face and clean lines. Its grinning “face,” lots of glass, and oversized headlights and taillights give the impression of a cheerful car. I like it in the same way I like the AMC Pacer. Oh, and the small clear glass section in the tailgate that supposedly improves rear visibility is a nice little nod to the second-gen Honda CRX.

The Prius doesn’t offer a whole lot to people who really enjoy the pure act of driving. A co-worker of mine once made the amazing comment that driving a Dodge Dynasty was like “driving a pie.” Well, driving a Prius is like driving an iPod. While it doesn’t offer any visceral thrills, it’s still pretty interesting.

Why? Well, for one thing, it’s genuinely cool to be able to drive just on battery power alone. The first few times you do it, the silence is so eerie to be almost Kubrickian. Then, too, it’s fun to watch on the central screen how the energy is flowing between the engine, the battery, the electric motor, and the driving wheels. It’s like a video game where the objective is to maximize your energy–not quite the same as driving quickly, but since I’m a bit of a video game nerd I was pretty engrossed. The start-up and shut-down procedure also seems willfully obtuse–it takes a little bit of getting used to and adds a slightly exotic feel to driving the car.

Toyota intelligently clued into the fact that not all consumers who want a small car want a cheap penalty box. In fact, some are willing to pay a fair amount of money for high-level options. Touch-screen navigation, Bluetooth, leather, and a six-disc in-dash CD changer are all available on a Prius, which sets the Prius apart from other smallish cars and adds an additional technological sheen to the experience. The car-lover purist in me rebels at the idea of the technology being more important than the visceral driving experience, but at least it makes the car interesting.

Francophiles everywhere will no doubt be pursuing me with torches and pitchforks for this, but the Prius feels to me like a modern-day Americanized Citroen. In fact, that probably explains a lot of why I like it. The tall, slab-sided wagon body and tiny wheels remind me for some reason of the Citroen 2CV, and the bizarre dashboard and intentionally opaque controls evoke the Citroen CX’s equally otherworldly interior. It’s easy to forget, since Priii are everywhere, but the Prius is a very quirky car–as quirky as a Citroen. All it’s missing is an overly complicated air suspension system.

One quirk that I hate is the center-mounted instrument panel. I hate it in the Saturn Ion, I hate it in the Toyota Echo, and I hate it in the Prius. It’s a distraction, and I loathe the empty expanse of dashboard right in front of the driver.

My wife and I were shopping for a family car a few years ago, and effort that eventually led to us buying our used Accord. My extensive shopping list included such disparate cars as the Prius and the Dodge Magnum R/T Hemi. The hybrid system made the Prius just a little too expensive for what you get, but if Toyota made a cheaper version with a conventional powertrain, perhaps a turbo four or a small but torquey V-6, there’s an outside chance that I’d be a Prius driver today, and receiving even more abuse from my friends than I already do.

I added the commercial below for two reasons–it references Fresno, and because it has the bizarre but difficult-to-shake vision of a lot of cows hooked up in unfortunate fashion to a methane-collection bag. Weird.

–Chris H.

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