[Editor's note: This is a highly subjective and polarizing review. For an alternative review of the 2010 Prius, click here]
Sitting in the new Toyota Prius, I suddenly blurted out, “Open the pod bay doors, Hal,” half expecting something to happen. Alas, I was still entombed in the resin chamber that passes for an automobile interior. If Ralph Nader had been an engineer, this is the car he would have designed, a vehicle for people who loathe automobiles.
Nothing about the insides feels familiar in the traditional sense, unless you are a prior Prius person. The new interior is swathed in low rent plastics which emit nauseating vapors, leather seats (if so equipped) that made me long for Naugahyde and gauges which were not only situated well out of sightlines, but rendered in a primitive digital manner which were indecipherable even up close. Of course I could always tell how slowly I was driving from the desperate looks on the faces of the drivers eager to get past me.
The 2010 Prius’ ergonomics were designed for only two kinds of creatures: those who like to sit five inches back from the front windshield and orangutans. Everyone else will find that the steering wheel, adjustable now for tilt and reach, is still too far away for a proper seat position. There is a nice new electric lumbar support in the seats, which are otherwise unsupportive and ill-shaped.
The driving experience was engineered by faeries. There is an Unbelievable Lightness of Steering, flagrant disregard for handling and a general sense that you are not in a car at all but some anti-gravity device which yaws and rolls without regard for normal physics. I would rather visit my dentist than drive the Prius again—at least he gives me laughing gas.
The one positive aspect of my Prius experience: the serenity of the ride quality. It may have been totally non-involving but it was otherwise quite placid. This proved to be a disaster as I developed a case of narcolepsy while operating the Prius (you don’t drive a Prius, you just sit there and moan along in harmony). On one occasion I drifted off and when I was able to refocus, I discovered I had driven well past my intended destination. If you have a small child or spouse with trouble sleeping, this might be your ride. This sample was mounted with optional 17″ wheels and I found that they not only magnified the road impact but they did little to add interest to the “driving experience.”
The Prius is rendered silly by its own gimmicks. Let’s begin with the transmission. It has three buttons for its various modes, a stubby stalk and a fourth button for park. The car defaults to its economy mode to start, which makes it impossible to make it up my driveway or escape the neighbor’s kids on their bikes. Hammering the throttle only causes a dull moan to be emitted from the engine compartment. The car doesn’t really accelerate—I think it uses sound waves to attempt forward progress.
There is also an EV mode which only goes to 20 mph and only for a mile or so; it’s perfect for when your golf cart breaks down; otherwise it is totally useless.
Finally, there is power mode, which is much like economy mode only the moaning is louder. The transmission stalk made me smile: It provided me with a false sense of control over the driving experience. I could only choose forward or reverse or braking, which was nice since the brakes themselves felt greasy and wooden at the same time and did little to retard forward progress.
To place the car in park required a push of the “P” button, which was separate from the transmission for some reason. My favorite part is that they hid some of the controls underneath the center console; I think there were switches for the seat heaters down there and maybe something else, I couldn’t really tell.
I tried to get into this Prius thing; after all, I receive e-mail from Al Gore all the time. It’s not like I am some Neanderthal gear head (my M3 and S65 notwithstanding). I have a Honda Civic hybrid in my garage. I Grok hybridese. But I must not speak butterfly.
The Prius is the anti-car and no manner of sport package or aftermarket modification can transmogrify the eco-worrier [sic] into anything resembling an automobile. The 2010 Prius needs a new moniker like, “personal vehicular transportation module,” or something similar. It just doesn’t meet my definition of an automobile. At least my Honda Civic hybrid drives and feels like a car, albeit a very slow and dull-witted one.
Maybe that is a good thing. But I have a feeling that one day soon we will be able to drive something that gets outstanding mileage while stimulating its operator in the process. Here is the punch line: the Prius I drove with the technology package approached $34 grand before dealer tack-ons. Honda Fit anyone?
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