By Joe Simpson.
The Toyota Prius hybrid car. This is the car that could show the way forward for auto industry, or represents everything that's wrong with the current environmental debate. It depends on your opinion, but if you're interested or aware of sustainability issues and the auto industry, then the Prius is a vehicle that is hard to ignore, and one we've talked a lot about in the past.
I'm ashamed to say though, that we'd never actually driven one before - something I always felt slightly uncomfortable about. (Would it be fair to say that it is a foolish man who criticises or raves about a product without experiencing it for himself?)
While in LA though, we finally got to drive one. This is interesting in itself - the fact that the Prius has now appeared in Alamo's rental section either means that there's massive demand for this green product in LA (possible), or Toyota are now into a world of oversupply and large discounting to rental fleets with this car, as it heads into its twilight years (equally possible).
So what's it like? Well, strange and totally normal in equal bouts. Allow me to expand. Firstly, starting-up the Prius is a wee bit different to a normal car. Get in, slot the 'key' in the dash and press the 'power' button (this only works if you have your foot on the brake as with most automatics - as Mark discovered to his consternation in LAX when he couldn't get it to move!). This is where it gets weird. Having pressed 'power', the car cycles through a kind of 'check' process, before 'ready' appears in the display. But (assuming the car isn't flat cold) there's then no noise. The engine doesn't 'start'. The car's running off battery electric power - and this can be a tad disconcerting.
The view that greets the driver in the Prius. Gear knob described below is under the airvent to the right of the steering wheel. Speed, gear etc appears in the thin array directly under the windscreen.
You then continue as you would in any normal car - except where a manual or auto shift gearlever would normally sprout from the floor, here there's a massive bin and set of cup holders. The gear selector is a kind of knob on the dash next to the steering wheel. You move it across and down to put it in 'drive', and across and up to 'reverse'.
Pootling down the road at a few miles an hour, there's still no noise - as the electric motor powers the car at low speeds - but accelerate, or get beyond about 15 miles an hour, and the petrol motor now kicks in - pretty seemlessly it must be noted - and powers you down the road. Slow down, and the engine cuts out again - energy from the brakes being 'recovered' to charge the battery. But there's an extra trick here, which after a while gets quite addictive. If you pull the gear knob directly 'down' from it's normal resting spot you put it into an extra mode - 'B' - which activates full 'regenerative braking'. This improves the amount of energy the battery can grab back, and has the effect of slowing the car down an awful lot - in the same way that engine braking does in a manual gearbox car but multiplied. It becomes quite a game to see if you can read traffic, or predict lights, and actually manage to slow down just in this regenerative mode, without touching the foot brakes at all.
Coupled with the dashboard display which shows fuel consumption, energy flows, state of battery charge, and how much you're managing to 'regenerate', driving this car become a game: mostly to drive as economically as possible, but (when one gets fed up, or the red mist descends) to drive as un-economically as possible! Driving like a yob reveals that the Prius has quite a decent turn of speed... but appears to have an egg-whisk fitted under the hood. Floor the throttle, and the CVT transmission being controlled by that dashboard gear knob means that there's no sense of kick-down, or stepping of ratios - instead you get what might best be described as a loud 'mooing' noise coming from the motor up front.
The central screen in 'energy' modes:
Other observations? The batteries, which reside under the boot floor noticably intrude on the boot space - the boot floor is really high. This raises the question as to how forthcoming electric cars like the Chevy Volt, and Shai Agassi & Renault/Nissan's project will package the batteries in their vehicles - particularly as they are talking about swapping the whole unit in and out. The Prius suggests that - done badly - lots of batteries have the potentially to take away space and utility in the average car, which could put consumers off.
Overall though, the Prius - it pains me to say this - is very impressive. It's a technical marvel - and asks for very little compromise of its driver and passengers. You can sense that technically, this is a hugely complex machine, but that doesn't translate in the driving experience. Instead, two things dominate. Firstly, that display makes you acutely aware of how your driving style is affecting how much resource you're using - and I suspect it unobtrusively 'eggs people on' to drive more economically. But a 'game' is perhaps the best way to describe the Prius, in that you are also totally removed from the experience. That the technical gubbins is all tucked away and disguised for you is admirable, but totally removes you - the driver - from the action. The Prius is like driving an appliance, actually 'driving' it isn't 'fun' in any way. I'd really like to believe that the future of driving and cars will be a tactile, involved experience - where skill and precision from the driver can result in a truly satisfying experience being had - and that's not true here.
The final irony? For all its technical wonder, at the end of our trip the Prius came out with an average of around 45.5mpg. Which is 5 mpg short of the diesel Fiat Punto I use on the clogged streets of London. Sure the Punto is smaller, and the comparison not entirely even - but the Punto achieves what the Prius is vaulted for (fuel economy) in a far, far simpler way, is quicker and just as comfortable for two. It's a hell of a lot more fun to drive too.
Prius, Prius everywhere... here's why.
Sign by the 'X' for Toyota's next hybird
Toyota - ready to redefine mobility at last?
Images: Joseph Simpson and Robb Hunter (who is a transport track, Industrial design student at University of Cincinnati, and all round top guy for sorting so much out on the west coast) for the Movement Design Bureau. Photos are available for use under a creative commons license, please reference this page.
Posted by Joseph Simpson on 15th February 2008