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Unintended Exhilaration : The Toyota Prius

 

At first glance, a Toyota Prius may look like a bad joke. Much like the Pontiac Aztek, it's a car so surpassingly ugly it can bring traffic to a standstill.

But surprise! Homely cars often achieve cult status. (The Trabant comes to mind). A friend in Arizona swears by the utility of her Aztek and actually thinks it's cute. My pal Walt, a longtime Harley rider with bar-and-shield tattoos all over his body, declares that even if gasoline went to 25 cents a gallon he'd never give up his Prius.

2010 Toyota Prius rolls onto the Detroit stage at its global debut in January 2009

2010 Toyota Prius rolls onto the Detroit stage at its global debut in January 2009

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2010 toyota prius first drive 010

2010 toyota prius first drive 010

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2010 toyota prius first drive 001

2010 toyota prius first drive 001

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2010 Toyota Prius - showing round Touch Tracer controls that drivers operate with their thumbs

2010 Toyota Prius - showing round Touch Tracer controls that drivers operate with their thumbs

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2010 Toyota Prius two-tone leather interior

2010 Toyota Prius two-tone leather interior

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Hump-backed it may be, but enthusiasm for the Toyota Prius just continues to grow. Which isn't hard to understand when you examine its virtues. Its timing has been impeccable--it's a green ride in a world that's increasingly concerned with pollution--and a high-mileage choice in a world of rising gas prices. Then there's  the driving experience.

My bi-coastal son flew in recently and arrived in a rental Prius for a week of meetings that would take him from our home in the exurbs to New York City, then Princeton, NJ, and back. He would rack up serious miles and his expense account had whispered 40 mpg in his ear. Gas mileage was his game. Parked in our driveway I couldn't wait to try it out.

Once behind the wheel I was profoundly disoriented. The Prius dashboard stretched to the horizon, giving me the feeling I'd be piloting a barge down the Mississippi. The roof was so tall I thought I was  in a moving van. The dashboard video display was unfamiliar. Worst of all, I couldn't get the thing to move without a quick lesson.

But once launched, the Toyota Prius begins to worm its way into your affections.

The video display, which is switchable among several modes, has a kind of Wii appeal and makes the car feel  like a video game come to life. Everything you learned about transmissions in Drivers Ed goes out the window, and figuring out how to select reverse so you can back out of a parking space is a trip into unknown territory. It's all decipherable with a little work, and there's something about the whole rig that a gadget-lover will find hard to resist.

But the experience of driving an almost-electric car trumps everything.

Step on the accelerator and nothing happens, except that the car moves. Steadily and silently it gathers momentum. Noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH), the standard measure on which cars are judged, are eerily absent at low speeds.

The engine kicks in as speed increases, but under electric power the car feels like what we imagine flying must be like--soaring silently above the landscape or, in this case, down the road. We'd need a card-carrying psychologist to examine this phenomenon in depth. But clearly there's a sensory appeal to the Prius and its hybrid (and electric) brethren that goes beyond global warming and gas prices.

The flap about unintended acceleration has put all of Toyota under a cloud for the time being. But my guess is that Toyota has been doing so many things so right, for so long, that though it may have dug itself a deep and expensive hole, the question of its long-term survival is not in doubt. Few of its customers have had problems, and many who are in the market say they're not ready to switch.

Meanwhile, although I'm a confirmed fan of getting my extra mileage out of diesels, the fun of piloting a hybrid is an experience you ought to try for yourself.

Exhilarating barely describes it.



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