The high Prius of living

Oddly enough, I bought a new car last month. By the look of things, I was the only one in the country crazy enough to do so, but my trusty 13-year old Audi was on its last legs and the time had come.

So, what to buy, and where? The second-hand market is in freefall and the numerous car repossession auctions are good places for people with a bit of liquidity to get great deals at the expense of those who have fallen on hard times. Sounds perfect! Why then, oh why, did I go and buy a new car from a dealer? Well, you see, I wanted a Prius.

For those who don’t know, the Prius is the world’s best-selling hybrid car. Made by Toyota for more than 10 years, this nifty little feat of automotive engineering has two engines; one petrol and one electric. When you are travelling at low speeds, the electric motor drives the car and when you need some speed, the petrol engine automatically kicks in.

And no, you don’t have to plug it in – the battery is charged through something called ‘regenerative braking’ so it’s all self-contained. The engines also switch over automatically, so it’s a pretty standard driving experience. Four doors, a boot, one steering wheel, a brake pedal, an accelerator and a nubby little gear lever that offers you the choice of forwards or backwards are all you get.

The benefits of hybrid technology are two-fold: reduced fuel consumption and fewer emissions. So, now I get to save money and feel morally superior at the same time. I should also confess that I even get a guilty little shiver of glee every time the petrol price goes up, because that means I’ll be saving even more. Sorry for you!

The car also comes with an 8-year comprehensive maintenance plan so, according to the dealer, all I have to worry about is new tyres and fresh wiper blades. And, since South Africa is only getting the top-of-the-range Prius, it comes fully equipped with all manner of airbags, a Bluetooth kit, satnav, aircon, leather seats, futuristic styling, a touch-screen control panel, multi-function controls on the steering wheel and voice recognition.

True, it isn’t the nippiest motor on four wheels. In fact, the Prius rewards a more conservative driving experience, in which you accelerate and decelerate as gradually as possible. The power is there, if you want to overtake on the highway for example, but this dents the average fuel consumption, which I now watch like a hawk. So, no more gunning the motor and racing to the next robot for me. Nice and slow keeps fuel costs low.

In exchange for neck-snapping acceleration, the Prius offers a simple, pleasant and comfortable urban driving experience. And it’s really easy. The hybrid system is so effective, Toyota is talking about introducing a hybrid version of each of their car models within a couple of years. Other motor manufacturers, such as Honda and Ford, are also experimenting with hybrids. So, with oil prices going up like a helium balloon, it really is the way forward, at least until hydrogen power becomes a reality.

But what is the bottom line? How much petrol am I saving? Well, it’s a little bit early to tell. So far, I’m averaging around 6 litres per 100km. That’s about 750km per 45 litre tank, which should cut my fuel bill in half. The official consumption figures are closer to 5 litres per 100km, but I’m not yet ready to drive like a pensioner on the way home from Bingo.

So, will I make up the rather hefty purchase price of the Prius in fuel savings? I don’t think so. But who cares. I’m driving a car of the future and, for those in the know, I’m a trend-setting eco-warrior. That’s right. I’m cool, bru, even if most petrol-headed South African speed freaks think I’m nuts. And being cool is what owning a car is all about. IMHO.

[Originally posted 07/06/2008]

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