To my eyes, the Toyota Prius looks like an Area 51 reject: an ungainly sci fi fantasy devoid of charm or beauty. To its admirers’ eyes, the Prius is the latter day equivalent of a Model T or a VW Bug: an automobile whose virtues– and virtuousness– transcend the normal dictates of style. And THEN there’s the debate about propulsion, premiums and politics. It’s hard to think of another car that’s been this polarizing– for both manufacturer (Maximum Bob) and the end user (a.k.a. car buyer). And yet, just as sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, sometimes a car is just a car. Ah, but is the Prius a good car?
The current Toyota Prius (NHW20) hit American showrooms in 2004. The exterior shape hides the black skirts, integrated (vision robbing) rear spoiler and aero wipers that give the Synergy-driven sedan a slippery .26Cd. Clean, smooth and strangely attractive in Spectra Blue Mica, the Prius is still unique enough to stand out. “The” Prius has become “a Prius” without losing its identity.
And yet, for observers who know that “Dino” isn’t just the name of an annoying cartoon house pet, the word “ungainly” springs to mind. For others, “Toyota” is beginning to resonate; the Prius' shape is slowly fading into the masses of Yarii, Fits, and Versas. A refresh is overdue.
The Prius’ interior reeks of cost savings. Toyota hid all the really nasty plastic where fingers rarely dwell (lost parking tickets and french fries excepted). Strangely rippled soft touch materials resembling burnt Ruffles potato chips cover half of the dash, steering wheel and door panels. While it looks “interesting,” a close encounter of the third kind is like caressing a hairless cat. And the lack of beauty was more than skin deep; the center console shook more violently than a crack addict at the Western Casino and Bingo Hall.
The Prius places all the important driving info at the base of the windshield. After a few days, it was no biggie– unlike the gigantic ode to geekdom rising out of the dash like an electronic Kilimanjaro. The LCD information display that controls the car’s auxiliary functions is not so functional (Mr. Bond). The combination of buttons and touch-screen interface makes every adjustment– from the air-conditioner to changing radio stations– a tiresome two or three press affair. [Note: I fly AWACS for a living.]
At least the Prius gives drivers a choice between green and orange tones on the display, depending on whether you’ve got spring or autumn skin tones.
The Prius is motivated by a 76bhp 1.5-liter gas engine married to a 67bhp electric motor, a battery-powered powerplant that stumps-up an astounding 295ft-lbs of torque at 0 rpm. Around town, the Prius could not be easier to drive. It’s quick on its feet, nimble and almost tossable. In Las Vegas traffic, the Prius returned a laudable, affordable 40.5mpg. In stop-and-go traffic, the family-sized golf cart is in its natural element. Magic.
It’s an entirely different story on the open road. Find a slightly hilly/curvaceous piece of interstate and the Prius is more out of place than a gay pride parade at a West Texas football game. On level ground, the Prius easily attains 80, even 90mph (as the Clark County Police pointed out). Introduce a small incline, let alone a mountainous circuit, and the Prius huffs, and puffs, and gets blown off the road by any other vehicle, down to and including a Smart ForTwo.
Climbing the road to the summit of Mt. Charleston, the Prius quickly drained its batteries. It could groan no faster than a pathetic 57mph. Once the battery boost ceased to exist, the CVT transmission buzzed louder, and louder, reducing fuel consumption to 17.5mpg. Throttle response ceased to exist, and momentum became the name of the game.
If the Prius handled like a Honda Civic, you could dismiss its Pinto-like performance with the old “a slow car driven fast can be fun" argument. Nope. The Prius washed out into drastic understeer on every curve. In fact, the battery pack in the rear caused the back end to sway outwards when I lifted off the throttle. Who knew you could have a ‘moment’ in a Prius?
The more I pushed the Prius– and I mean that in the “I want to get home in time for dinner” sense of the word– the more it resembled a four-wheeled Lean Pocket. (“Remove from box, place directly in InSinkErator.”)
As a driving enthusiast, I’d describe the Prius as a funky Corolla with a big battery and bad handling. As an observer of the automotive scene, I’d call the Prius the uber-Toyota: inexpensive, efficient, reliable transportation that makes you feel good about not driving anything else. I’m not damning the car with faint praise; it’s what makes the Prius the people’s car of our time.