The first time out of the gate wasn’t that auspicious for the Toyota Prius, part of the vanguard of the gas-electric hybrid cars just edging their way into the American market. In the land of SUVs an oversize sedans, the original diminutive Prius looked like a Lilliputian jellybean on the highway.
The 2005 Toyota Prius is the latest example of the evolution of the little green machine into a gas-saving status symbol. By ditching the econobox styling for a Star Trek aesthetic, Toyota hit the hybrid sweet spot, even stealing the thunder of hybrid models from that other Japanese behemoth, Honda.
Underpinning the Prius is a two-engine system, one electric, one gas powered. While the traditional motor dominates for acceleration and such, the electric motor supplements during less demanding periods. The batteries recharge by recapturing energy during braking — one of the reasons that the Prius’s estimated MPG is higher for city driving than for highway, the opposite of gas-only vehicles.
When you slip inside the cockpit, you’ll find that the traditional dashboard has been reshaped into more of a control center. Mounted in the middle is a screen the provides instantaneous information on gas mileage, electricity generated, and which engine is working at any moment. It’s almost like a video game, where the goal is to bring the average gas mileage up through attentive and careful driving.
Believe me, any car where I find myself conscientiously avoiding all jack-rabbit starts must be doing something special.
While the screen is nifty in a Buck Rogers way and the push-button starter makes you feel like sitting back in the captain’s chair and declaring “Engage,” other aspects are less enamoring. Instead of a standard shifter on the floor or the steering column, a stubby little stick on the dash needs to be maneuvered like a joystick to put it into drive, and the press of a separate button puts the vehicle in park. The wave of the future perhaps, but at this stage of the game its more annoying than progressive.
Actually driving the Prius for the first time is disconcerting — even when you know to expect it, you’ll still panic the first time the gas engine cuts out a stoplight. With no sound or vibration, it’s for all the world like a stalled car. In fact, the overall experience at the wheel of a Prius is less like driving a car and more like riding and elevator. It’s a conveyance that you’ll likely use everyday, but after repeated use will give little thought to.
But that’s kind of the point, as the Prius is eagerly snatched up by the commuting masses. So much so that Virginia is considering revoking the special privilege the hybrid-car owners enjoy, namely driving solo in HOV lanes during rush hour. Also, a lot of gasoline traditionalists have groused that with the dealer premiums the owners pay over the sticker price on the hot-selling Prius, they would have to drive them for years and years before ever seeing a savings on gas costs.
Of course, that’s not really the point. The Prius is succeeding less for a perceived savings in gas costs and more for the simple saving in gas (plus that HOV lane bonus). Hence recent articles on pro-war right wingers hopping on the hybrid bandwagon — less gas used eventually equals less oil imported.
Whether that equation will hold, or if hybrids will grow enough in the market to even make it possible, won’t be known for some time. For now, the Prius is a competent vehicle for those who want a serviceable, mildly distinctive car that makes a big statement. Others looking for a more traditional approach in a hybrid — less shuttle pod, more automobile — will want to look elsewhere.
Find more of Sean Bugg’s car reviews online at www.metroweekly.com.