Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Thinking About Cars: Toyota Prius

Full disclosure: I don't have a Prius.

When the Prius was first introduced as a 1997 model it slotted, size-wise, somewhere around the Corolla.  At a glance it sharply resembled the Echo of approximately the same time but in fact the first-gen Prius was its own model.

According to press clippings at the time Toyota took a bath on each one, and they didn't sell very well.  The good sales were coming, however.

The first-gen Prius went through a very mild refreshing, then Toyota really pulled off a big reveal.  While they had been quietly pushing their hybrid technology in a conventional, stubby sedan, they had been developing a wedgy, sleek car that would maximize the car's mileage by taking every advantage it could.  This was cagey thinking.  By first getting the public used to the notion of a car that wasn't always "on," but yet was always ready, Toyota was able to fight half the battle they would need to wage in order to get the Prius to really deliver on its promise.  In order to really produce at the super efficient level, Toyota needed to get the aerodynamics under control in ways the first-generation model could never even approach.

The second-gen Prius introduced in 2003 was larger in every dimension, heavier, much more powerful and paradoxically much more fuel efficient than the model it replaced.  The main reason was its singular shape.  Where the first Prius was obviously shaped like a car, the new Prius was shaped rather more like a torpedo.  The nose rises in one smooth curve from the grille to the roof, and then down in a classic Kammback shape that ends in an abrupt squared-off tail.  Where the first model held four adults, the new one was rated for five.

With its otherworldly shape, here finally was a car of the future.  The world didn't come to an end with the Y2K bug, so it seemed to be safe to invest in a futuristic ride.  Unlike the first generation Prius, the second generation, also known by its chassis code XW20, sold pretty well.

This, the XW20, is the model I have access to.  It's fairly roomy inside if you keep your eyes closed, but once you open them you see just how much detail the interior volume measurements glosses over.  The top of the windshield crowds unpleasantly close.  The rear view is divided by a large dark bar where the shallow slope of the rear window drops to become the cliff-like back end.  The window sills are high in relation to the car's overall height, which I think is partly predicated by side intrusion beams in the doors.  The steering wheel is oddly low, go-kart small, and cannot be adjusted to make it better.  It can be adjusted - I can send it lower.

The dashboard is an acre and a half of matte grey plastic.  The windshield that is so claustrophobically close at my eyebrow level falls away and away until, even leaning forward in the seat, I cannot reach it with my outstretched fingers.  The view forward is pretty good.

The view to the front quarters is almost zero.  There are gigantic A-pillars framing the windshield, yielding the effect of driving in a kind of tunnel.  It's nothing you can't adapt to, but it's a thing.  You notice it, and you don't stop noticing it.

The second-gen Prius cannot be driven smoothly.  Let me back that up: I have taken to heart the wisdom of no less a driving authority than Jackie Stewart, who won so many races so convincingly that I can't help but take his words with some confidence.  Jackie espouses smoothness in driving; a mediocre car driven smoothly will outperform a good car driven roughly.

The Prius, in handling, is a mediocre car at best.  It lurches at odd moments, it responds to the brake pedal not in a linear fashion, but almost a logarithmic fashion.  I'm certain some of that has to do with the regenerative braking feature of the hybrid drivetrain, but it's far from intuitive and requires constant finessing to keep the ride from becoming uncomfortable.

Since it introduced this car, Toyota has graced the world with the new XW30, the third-generation Prius.  I haven't had the privilege of driving this one but I'm assuming it can't be too awful.  Again, Toyota violated preconceived truths of vehicle efficiency by making this one larger again, more powerful again, heavier and somehow, more fuel efficient.  Not having driven one however, I can't say whether it's a pleasant ride.

While worldwide sales of the Prius and its newly available stablemates - the larger, almost wagonlike Prius V and the tiny city runabout Prius c - are good, it's worth remembering that good fuel economy doesn't have to come with NASA-level technology.  With a few smart modifications, you can have a VW Beetle, the old air-cooled one, that will do an honest 38mpg all day in California traffic.  That's keeping up with traffic, 65-70mph, not dawdling along at some unrealistic crawl.  In fact the modifications make a much more powerful, easier-to-drive Beetle.  Interesting how that paradox keeps popping up, more power yielding better mileage.  It's all in the modifications.

And since you're making smart modifications, you can probably do something about the VW's ride while you're at it.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Irony in the News

Drug Charges, No Kidding?
A Wisconsin guy going by the unlikely name of  Beezow Doo-Doo Zopittybop-Bop-Bop is in custody under charges of drug possession, among other things.  None of those other things include his wacky name, which he's only had since last October.  One wonders, if perhaps Mr. Zoppitybop-Bop-Bop had been required to pee into a cup when turning his name change papers, whether he might have been charged for drug possession at that time as well.

Perfectly Safe!
Zambia's Minister of Tourism Guvin Lubinda assures the world that bungee jumping is perfectly safe, usually.   Naturally such pronouncements are never given without reason, in this case a feeble attempt to deny reality.  I've thought about bungee jumping a couple of times, but it's one of those things that my life insurance policy mentions in very clear language.  Clear language that says "you're not covered for this."

No One Hates Iranians Like Iran Hates Iranians
Iran's government has arrested one of its own, a former US Marine, on charges of espionage.  Poor guy was just visiting his parents who are still Iranian citizens.

Think, people.  If the guy's parents are still Iranian citizens, does anyone believe for a moment the CIA would employ someone with such a compromising background to operate as an intelligence operative?  Highly doubtful.  Obviously having someone with in-country background would be very good, but he's also got too big a wedge that the opposition could bring to bear.  In fact I'm surprised he was accepted as a US Marine.

Accusing and convicting him in a kangaroo court of espionage, Iran has sentenced the man to death.  As if you really wanted to annoy America any further Iran, maybe it's time you listened to your own people?

Fiat's Foot in the Door Has Stepped on Itself
When Chrysler and GM were circling the drain a few short years ago, the US government floated them both huge loans to keep them going.  Good idea as it turns out, it worked.  But to get out of debt all the sooner, Chrysler welcomed Fiat to come and pick up the reins that were dropped in the disastrous relationship with Daimler.  Fiat was looking for an angle to reintroduce its wide range of compact and medium sized cars, so popular in Europe, to the US market.  Except in this, the first full year of that nascent relationship, Chrysler's sales are up 36% over the previous 12 months, and Fiat has hit only 40% of its sales goal with its fun and thrifty reimagination of the frisky little 500.

Republicans are Pro Business!
...and Mitt Romney likes being able to fire people.  Now to be completely fair he's saying that the quote is being taken out of context.  And he's right.  In context, he's saying that he likes being able to fire someone "who provides services to me," as in, he has the right to choose service providers if the service they provide isn't acceptable.  All of that said, it makes for one hell of a sound bite, Mitt.  It makes you sound like a serious jerk.

Fast Food Might Not Be Food
A nutritionist in - where else? - California bought and left a McD's cheeseburger on a shelf for an entire year.  Guess what happened?


Now I'll be the first to admit that I've got some low standards about food.  My mom has a couple of horror stories, one of which involves discovering all the bacon that had been disappearing from the refrigerator never encountered a frying pan or stove on its path to my belly.  I'll eat some things that others might consider dodgy.  And I'll also confess that yesterday's McDonald's cheeseburger, sitting in a sack in the car overnight, is perfectly good the next day.  Maybe even the day after that.  But according to this researcher, her burger on the shelf experiment yielded no results of any kind - the burger still looks, feels and smells like a burger.

My guess is that it just got dried out and doesn't hold enough moisture to support life, but I wouldn't bite into it to test the no-life theory, either.  Whip out the microscope lady, and tell us what's going on.

That's it for now.