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Toyota Prius

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Unlike the Ford Explorer reviewed in an earlier edition of Storm Gods, we didn’t actually buy a Prius. Not that we mightn’t have liked to – doing so will get you no end of cred with your greener acquaintances – but this one was a rental. Honesty bids me say it wasn’t even a rental by choice. On a recent sojourn to the old world, our flight to Manchester was unexpectedly diverted to Birmingham, and by the time I reached the car rental desk, the Prius was the last chicken in the shop.

Having navigated across Britain in a diminutive minivan driven by a lawnmower engine, a tractor battery and several dozen on-board computers, I was really pleased to get home to the Ford Explorer. Not that the Prius isn’t a clever vehicle – its remarkable fuel economy alone is good for half an hour’s conversation down the pub. You don’t just drive a Prius, however – you almost have to be prepared to enter into wedlock with one.

Should you have ignored the considerable marketing behind the Prius, this is a hybrid automobile. It’s powered by a 1.5 liter gasoline engine and a pair of electric motors. The electric motors drive the car at low speeds. The gasoline engine starts when the Prius is asked to get up and move, or when its batteries require charging. The electric motors are used as generators to charge the car’s batteries when the gasoline engine is running.

The power train of the Prius drives a planetary gear set, rather than a traditional automatic transmission. It behaves as a continuously-variable transmission, with only three user-selectable settings – forward, reverse and neutral.

The on-board computer of the Prius is a masterwork of sneakiness, automatically selecting the gasoline or electric drive as needed, maintaining the batteries in an optimal state of charge to ensure maximum battery life – at least ten years, according to Toyota’s literature – and largely succeeding in keeping the remarkable complexity of the Prius out of your face. You need never know what’s going on under its hood.

Knowing what’s going on behind the wheel may prove sufficiently daunting.

The first thing a driver new to the Toyota Prius will note is that almost nothing about it works in quite the same way as does a conventional automobile. The key isn’t a key – it’s a plastic box that fits into a slot in the dashboard. Starting the Prius is a somewhat more complex procedure than would be the case for a gasoline-powered vehicle, although you will get used to it in time. Driving it is a life-changing experience.

One of the coolest things about the Prius is how little fuel it consumes, and it includes a dashboard display to keep its driver apprised of its remarkable economy. It can reach eighty miles to a gallon of gas on highways, but consistently achieving this sort of fuel consumption will require that most of us change the way we drive. Given a week or two of practice, you’ll have the Prius exactly where it wants you.

There are a number of putative drawbacks to the Prius to keep in mind:

  • It’s ugly. Designed to have the minimum possible wind resistance, the aerodynamic shape of the Prius is all about reducing drag. You can get used to looking at it, but I doubt many Prius owners will want to be photographed next to one.
  • It has a very small rear window. For practical purposes, you can’t see much out the back of a Prius. When you put a Prius in reverse, a rear-mounted video camera takes over the dashboard display panel, displaying not only what you’re about to back up into, but guidelines to indicate the position of the vehicle. I’m not sure this is as good as being able to see where you’re going, but it’s slick.
  • It has the acceleration of an aging Labrador retriever. Once you get out on the highway and step on it, the Prius is essentially a conventional gasoline-powered car with a very small engine. This is offset to a considerable degree by its low wind resistance and low weight – the designers of the Prius appear to have used every trick, incantation and state-of-the-art composite available to keep the weight of the car down – but you’ll have no need of a stopwatch to gauge its performance. A calendar will suffice.
  • The seats are hard. I’m pretty sure this has nothing to do with fuel efficiency – I suspect environmentally-conscious drivers just get used to being uncomfortable.
  • The dashboard-mounted touch panel display does everything, and possibly a few things it shouldn’t. It handles the satellite navigation, shows you the car’s fuel consumption, indicates which of its drive systems is currently in use – it also runs things like the window defrosters. This means that if you want to turn on the air conditioner, you’ll need to navigate through the system’s icons… arguably not something the driver of a car should be turning his or her attention to at sixty miles an hour.

In its defense, the Prius has endured crash tests and managed four or five stars in all of them. It’s responsible for a lower level of emissions than most dishwashers, and it engenders a state of rapture amongst the air-quality tsars of California. It’s agreeably roomy inside, with a rear trunk area capable of holding two large suitcases, or a week’s groceries – we used it for both.

Driven in town, the Prius is really quite cool. It makes optimum use of its electric drive system, only enabling its gasoline engine periodically. It’s quiet, and it just seems to go forever before it wants its tank topped up.

Taken out into the great rural void between cities, the Prius isn’t a lot of fun. It’s placid, slow and actually a bit frightening when it’s asked to get moving and largely refuses to do so.

Hovering around $25,000, the Prius may be an interesting option for urban transportation, especially if you typically travel short distances in traffic, and never get out past the suburbs. During the time we had ours, I believe it saved us about twenty dollars in fuel costs over the Ford Focus we’d originally planned to rent. This was good for several pints of truly excellent beer – I’m not sure it would have been worth drilling down through the Prius’s touch screen icons to turn the heat on while navigating a traffic circle.

Comments (1)

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