I love my Prius!

I’ve been driving my Prius for about six months now, and I have come to a conclusion about this hybrid vehicle: it’s fantastic.

For those who don’t know, the Prius uses two powertrains: a 1.5 litre petrol engine and an electric motor that is driven by a battery. The on-board computer switches seamlessly and automatically between these two motors, so the driver has nothing to do but steer the car and apply the brakes when necessary. The car does not need to be plugged into the mains as the battery is charged by the energy created through braking and coasting during normal driving.

Now, for some reason, many people inexplicably hate the Prius and dismiss the entire concept of a hybrid car as a useless contraption that serves only to make its drivers feel smug and superior. In fact, I am constantly amazed by the vehemence of the vitriol that pours out on any Prius-related forum, as if the mere existence of this car is a deep insult to those who drive ordinary vehicles.

Well, speaking as somebody who actually owns and drives a Prius on a daily basis, allow me to offer my two cents worth.

Firstly, it is a pleasure to drive. Yes, it is an automatic so you cannot do jack-rabbit starts with wheelspin and smoking tyres. It is also not the most exciting car in the world – it is a Toyota after all, and it’s automatic so acceleration is functional as opposed to neck-snapping. But here’s the thing: the worse the traffic gets, the better the Prius performs. Stop/start driving is a breeze and I never get annoyed or frustrated, even in the worst gridlock. Most importantly, I never dread getting into my car. In fact, I look forward to it. My only complaint is that my left foot sometimes gets bored…

Secondly, it does save fuel – no question about it. According to the on-board computer I am currently using about 6.2 litres per 100km. Now, that is much higher than the advertised consumption for the car (which is supposed to be around 5 litres/100km). There are also plenty of small diesels and even petrol vehicles that claim to have competitive fuel figures. But that is all publicity bumpf. There isn’t a car in the world that can match the manufacturer’s advertised consumption figures in real-world conditions.

So, here is a reality check. I do 95% of my driving on suburban streets, with very little highway mileage. I drive quite normally and push the accelerator hard enough to pull off at a speed that is acceptable to me and the other drivers behind me. The air-con is always on and I don’t dawdle around in order to save petrol. In other words, I am not an obsessive hyper-miler. And I’m still getting 6.2 litres per 100km in a four dour sedan with a big boot. I think that’s pretty good. My monthly petrol bill has literally halved.

When it comes to services, the Prius is a complicated piece of machinery, so it can’t be maintained by any old Joe the mechanic. But the car comes with an industry-leading 8 year / 200 000km fully inclusive service plan, so I’m covered. All I have to pay for is tyres and windscreen wipers – Toyota takes care of the rest. Sounds like a good deal to me.

Finally, the Prius comes fully loaded. I love the integrated Bluetooth kit, the Aux audio input, the multi-function steering wheel and the larney touch-screen control panel. There are airbags everywhere and the car includes just about every acronym you can think of. I’ve never driven a car with such high-specs – although that isn’t saying much considering my vehicle history.

In any case, the Prius is a good package and I’m not the only one who thinks so. Over 1.5 million Priuses, or is that Priusi?, have been sold worldwide. In South Africa, Toyota are selling 50 a month and there is a 3 month waiting list. I’ve even heard that Honda are considering whether to bring their popular hybrid into the country, and I look forward to driving that model as a comparison.

Admittedly, there are a couple of drawbacks to the Prius. As I said before, is does not make for exciting driving, so you shouldn’t even think of getting one if you want high-performance motoring. The steering’s also a bit vague, as is usually the case in Toyota’s. And the small petrol engine is a bit noisy when you’re accelerating heavily, as you need to do to get up to highway speed (but this settles down once you start cruising). If you are driver who likes control, the Prius is probably not for you because the nubby little gear lever only gives you the choice of going backwards or forwards – the rest is left up to the car’s computer.

But without doubt, the worst thing about the car is that it doesn’t shut up. When you reverse, it beeps like a frikking removal van, and if you even think about pulling off without a seatbelt, the car starts screaming at you like a hysterical mother. It’s all very American and I hate it, but Toyota assures me that there’s nothing they can do to alter the software, so I’ll just have to bear it.

I was a bit concerned to hear that next year, the new Prius model is going to be released. I hate being obsolete, but the new one looks pretty much the same as the current one and, while there will be several improvement such as a solar powered air-con system, there are not going to be any earth-shattering new innovations. The fact that Toyota do not feel the need to re-invent the hybrid wheel indicates that the product works as is, so that’s reassuring.

And that’s my take on the controversial Prius hybrid. It’s easy to drive, saves petrol and doesn’t require any driver compromises (apart from a slightly more relaxed driving style). And I haven’t even mentioned the reduced emissions and other environmental benefits that seem to infuriate so many people.

Now, I do believe that hybrid technology is a stop-gap measure. Hydrogen-powered cars are probably going to be future of automotive engineering in the long term. But that’s still many years away. Until then, I will continue to be a proud advocate of hybrid technology and damn those who try to bring it down.

I only wish that other Prius drivers were more friendly. I remember when I drove an old Landrover short wheel base Series 2A and, since it was a relatively rare car, I always exchanged a flick of the headlights with people who were driving similar vehicles. It was like belonging to a de facto club by virtue of being in a motoring minority. But even though Prius drivers are in a similar position, we never seem to flick our lights, wave or even smile at one another. That’s a pity because it’s fun to be part of a community, no matter how arbitrary it is. IMHO.

[Originally posted 17/10/2008]

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