Wednesday, October 19, 2005

DRIVEN: 2005 Toyota Prius

Story and Photo by Michael Banovksy

I just got back from the book store. Never one to pass up a good deal, I picked up arguably the most influential piece of literature published in the last 200 years or so: The Communist Manifesto.

How good of a deal, you ask? Well, considering that it gave reason to some of the bloodiest conflicts in the history of the globe, I bought it for the princely sum of $10.

Just as the Manifesto was once at the center of global conflict, so too is the 2005 Toyota Prius. Automakers around the world are weighing up the hybrid equation, with the little Toyota at the centre of the movement. Since its inception, the Prius has single-handedly taken the concept of being green out of consumers’ minds and into Toyota’s pockets.

On the surface, it’s really a case of what’s-not-to-like? Seating for five, family car dimensions – oh, and did I mention somewhere between 50 – 69 mpg?

The original Prius sold like… well… 8 track tapes next to an iPod. Now, with a little refreshing and slightly better performance (handling, horsepower, economy, you name it), it sells like hot cakes. Leonardo DiCaprio has like a half dozen of them, for Pete’s sake.

When the original debuted, consumers were like: “Oh, how cute! The Japanese turned the Playstation into a car.” The new Prius is like the Playstation 2. Good thing the Americans have their XBOX: The Ford Escape/Mercury Mariner SUV hybrids and the upcoming Ford Fusion/Mercury Milan hybrid sedans. But for now – in the eyes of most consumers and based on the pocketbooks of the filthy rich – the Japanese are still the hybrid leaders.

Anyway, save for Toyota’s decision to scale the USS Enterprise’s bridge as the Prius’ dash, the interior works extremely well. My only complaint is the screen.

It’s a full-featured touch screen, with graphs, bars, and all sorts of seemingly important numbers displayed with colourful graphics. The problem is, the important chart (which displays minute-by-minute fuel consumption) scrolls right-to-left, just like most Asian newspapers. Unfortunately Asian newspapers are by far the most confusing in the world.

Driving a Prius, though, is probably close to being in an isolation chamber. Think green thoughts, think green thoughts… It’s so quiet that after a while, you get the impression that every other car is killing the earth. Naturally, the only saviour is you, your Prius, and its Hybrid Synergy Drive.

The drivetrain alone reads like the Death Star plans. Sometimes the battery powers the car, sometimes not. Sometimes the battery helps accelerate the car, gets re-charged by braking, or allows the engine to turn off at a stop. That’s the best part, and the most useful. Not only does the car save fuel, it also lets passengers talk over the droning of a fossil-powered pollution pump.

It’s so beautifully executed that you can hear a passerby’s iPod playlist.

The handling is mushy – what would you expect? My only gripe is the steering wheel – shaped like the Oval Office, it’s horrible for tight parking-lot control.

I suppose the most remarkable thing about the Prius is that – forgetting the car’s engine auto stop function here – you’d never know it was a hybrid.

But if this exact car, powered by just a gasoline engine was say, the current Camry – would it sell? No.

My only concern is that when the hybrid hysteria dies down, will the Prius and other hybrid cars be the automotive equivalent to finding the Communist Manifesto in the bargain bin for $10? In 20 years, will the hybrids die and be relegated to dissection duties in high school shop classes?

All I know is that for now let the Big 3 tremble at a hybrid revolution.