Sunday, July 11, 2010

My Week With A Toyota Prius

I've heard a lot of the pros and cons of driving a hybrid car. Some of our friends have a Prius and love it. Other articles I've seen have been very negative of the Official Car of the Green People. Being a person who loves fast, preferably German, cars, I've been more on the side of efficient diesel powered cars than hybrids. Call me a torque whore, but nothing beats that kick in the pants feeling of brute force.

For the last week, we were visiting my relatives in Maine. Since we flew into Boston and always rent a car, my curiosity of the Prius got the better of me when I found I could rent one thorough Herzt for only $15 more than our usual standard/full-size car. I reserved one. Since we would be driving quite a bit, I figured we could easily recoup that extra cost in gas savings.

The first order of business was to go test drive a Prius at one of the local dealers. Since neither of us are petite, especially me, I wanted sure we could fit comfortably in one. A few weeks ago Tara and I were down in Tempe on the weekend, so we stopped by the Toyota dealer down there. A nice older gentleman greeted us and we explained the situation. He showed us their selection and we picked out a pretty blue one the same color as Tara's Camry. It had most options except the solar cell-powered roof vents and remote A/C. The salesman demonstrated how to start/stop, select gears, and park it. I took it on a test drive with Tara up front and him in the back seat. In the mixed loop of highway and side streets, it drove quite well. Tara and I had ample room and I was able to get comfortable behind the wheel. The steering wheel didn't telescope as far out as I'd have liked, but it was certainly doable. After the test drive, Tara admitted that she actually loved the Prius and wanted one. And she hadn't even driven it.

So fast forward a few weeks and we arrived in Boston to the Heat Wave of '10. Humid and miserable with 90s even up in Maine. Our rental Prius was a dark grey 2010 model that was pretty much as stripped as they come. No navigation, solar room, nothing. Still, except for a sunroof, it had the same options as Tara's Camry. It had the proximity key, gentle-touch locking on the driver's door handle, and all the fancy hybrid displays for charging, range, 15-minute graph of mileage, etc. Curiously, it had no remote trunk release, even just a button on the cabin. Just the manual switch above the license plate in the back.

Once I had everything adjusted to my liking and our bags loaded, we were off. The first thing you notice is the engine revving at a constant speed due to the continuously variable transmission. Unlike conventional cars, where the engine noise will get louder as you gain speed, this is constant. You get used to it and it's not a big deal after a while. In the stop-and-go traffic on Route 1A north from Logan, it ran great. The engine shutdown/startup at stops is seamless. For the most part, I didn't notice it happening. While not a stoplight dragster, it has enough power to keep up from stops and accelerate like any other car. More than once in light traffic, I found myself doing 75MPH on 1A before I realized it. So highways speeds weren't a problem at all.

The most annoying thing I found was the visibility out the back hatch. The rear hatch has two panes of glass, the main rear window and a lower section. There's a solid metal bar where they join together and it was right in the middle of my rear view. You get used to it, but visibility was also an issue with Tara, who is about 5' tall.

For all the press it got/gets, the Prius basically drives like a regular car. I've owned a 1978 Chevette, 1984 Oldmobile Firenza wagon, 1995 Saturn SL1, 1999 Saturn SC2, 2002 Audi A4 3.0 Quattro (whom I still miss), 2006 Audi A3 2.o, and my current 2008 VW Passat sedan. Add in various rentals and friends vehicles, I can safely say I've driven a wide variety of cars. The Prius is pretty much middle ground among them. It's not sporty at all, but it handled the twisty roads of my youth in Georgetown at pretty good speeds with no problem. It was an excellent highway car, smooth and pretty stable in crosswinds and rain.

The best part was the mileage. The EPA rates the 2010 Prius at 51 city/48 highway. I had thought I'd read it had a 12.5 gallon gas tank, so when we had fill up after only about 450 miles, I was disappointed. With an indicated range of 7 miles until empty (Tara hadn't noticed the low gas light when she headed into Georgetown), I filled it up at the closest gas station to Georgetown. It took less than 9.5 gallons. This was with it a step away from running on fumes. The trip computer and displays had been indicating upwards of 47 or 48 MPG in our mixed driving. On the highways, I kept at a pretty steady 75 MPH with cruise control. When not stuck behind slow cars into and out of Georgetown, I also kept a bit above posted speeds. We drove roughly 900 miles during our visit and used only 19 or 20 gallons of gas. Overall we averaged between 45-47 MPG and occasionally saw close to 49 MPG. This without any attempt at hyper-miling and with the Power Mode button enabled.

Granted, I was just renting the car. My Palin-loving relatives kept spewing out what I assume was Fox News propaganda about how the Prius is an evil car, blah blah blah. Luckily, I just tune them out. My sister risked divorce and disownment by actually sitting in the car and admitting it seemed pretty neat. My friend Joe gets a bit over 40 MPH in his Mini Cooper and that car is loads more fun to drive. The Mini is rather short on luggage space, though, and not really a practical four-person car. The Prius' trunk isn't a large as the Camry, but it held our huge suitcase and Tara's computer bag fine. Fold down the rear seats, and you'll get a lot more space.

What I came away with is the Prius is a completely practical car despite being a full hybrid. It has plenty of room, even for a large person like myself. It has more than enough power to keep up with or pass most traffic on the highway, and will get nearly 48 MPG doing it. I drove it like I drive our cars and still got over 46 MPG overall. Would we buy one? I'll let you know when Tara decides to trade in her Camry. :) Starting at only $23,o00 or so, it's a very tempting proposition.