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.

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