I recently committed automotive heresy for a car guy: I bought a Toyota Prius.
In the world of auto enthusiasts, few vehicles have been viewed with as much scorn.
The innovative gas-electric hybrid is considered a high-tech transportation appliance, designed to deliver miles per gallon rather than visceral thrills. You don’t feel the Prius in your loins — you feel it in your brain, conscience, and guiltless superego rather than your rubber-burning id.
It’s a do-gooder mobile. And while do-gooding is great, everything about the Prius compromises the passion we have long held for cars in order to pollute less and squeeze more miles out of every gallon of dinosaur juice.
The Prius isn’t fast. It doesn’t handle well. It engenders a technological isolation from the road. It lacks almost any signifiers of luxury. Above all, it’s devoid of style — designed, in fact, to self-consciously advertise its denial of automotive exuberance.
But I bought one anyway, a certified, pre-owned 2011 model in blue with leather seats, navigation, and SiriusXM satellite radio. It was the obvious and natural thing to do, because if you think about buying a car for more than 12 seconds, the Prius pops up. I would wager that even if you’re someone who bleeds Ferrari red and has bones made from old Chevrolet Camaros, you would consider buying a Prius, if you honestly considered the decision.
And you’ll have the opportunity now to undertake this calculation with an all-new Prius, the fourth generation of a groundbreaking car that first landed on US shores in 2000 and has, to date, sold almost 5 million examples. Toyota revealed the 2016 edition in the unlikely environs of Las Vegas this week.
For the Prius haters, we’re in a grimly-welcome crunch time for the hybrid. Sales are down in 2015, amid gas prices that have dipped to $US2 and lower in some parts of the US. The third-generation Prius has been around for a while, so some of the Prius buyer fatigue is understandable.
But in the US, we’re currently in the throes of a massive truck-and-SUV revival. The big gas guzzlers are practical, or at least defensible, again. The Tesla Model X is about to be the coolest car on the road.
The Prius is so 2007.
An easy decision
I haven’t bought a car for a while. My daily driver/fallback ride before I moved from Los Angeles to New York in 2014 with my family was a 1998 Saab 90 0S. I sold it to a junkyard for about $US300 by the time it was all over: the shouting and shedding of tears over its balky idle, busted bumper, flaky electronics, funky Saab-ness, and bulletproof motor. We also said goodbye to a 2007 Honda Odyssey minivan, a fine vehicle that was for us state of the art for people-hauling.
In New York, I test a lot of cars, so we didn’t need to own a set of wheels for the year we lived in Manhattan. We had Ferraris one week and Chevys the next, but variety is fun. Then we moved to the suburbs: We needed a car. We thought about an SUV, but then, as I have described above, we thought about a Prius.
And the decision came easy and quick. It was a simple transaction. I had the new car in the driveway in a day and a half.
I’ve driven plenty of hybrids, but when it came to the granddaddy of them all, I actually didn’t have that much seat time. I’ve been in every Prius since the original, which I derisively characterised as a “tricked-up Toyota Echo” (car guy!) But I never paid any meaningful attention to it.
And as it turns out, I didn’t need to pay any attention to my own Prius. The thing commands no attention. It … just exists.
You buckle up and push a button. It turns on. You place your hands on the wheel and feet on the pedals. It hums along silently until the engine kicks in. You can induce some pep by putting it into “Power Mode,” but you can also creep along under 15 mph for a bit in battery-powered “EV Mode.” It resembles driving all the other cars you’ve driven … except that it doesn’t.
The Prius is, at the 55,000-foot level of analysis, a monumentally important car, as influential as the Model T. Few cars have been true game changers. The Prius was a game changer. At the 3-foot level, from the driver’s seat, the Prius is the best bad car I’ve ever experienced.
And it’s objectively bad, by all the usual car-critical criteria: It lacks power (because it doesn’t need it), style (because is doesn’t want it), handling (because you don’t need to be doing that kind of thing anyway), and engine sounds (because you aren’t supposed to want those).
The core of its Prius-ness
What it doesn’t lack is the core of its vehicular being: fuel economy. There I was one day, tooling around in the Prius in the Jersey ‘burbs and enjoying/questioning their weird car that made me feel absolutely nothing when I realised that I needed to get gas.
I prepared a couple of $US20s (cash discount), based on force of habits developed in California. About 9 gallons later, I was parting with $US18. And given our driving patterns, I figured that we’d do this once a month.
Do the maths. My wife and I were almost gibbering with high-mpg glee. Bleak memories of spending $US77 to gas up the Honda Odyssey still echoed in our minds.
It’s nothing to entertain this reaction in the abstract. A car that can get 50 mpg makes tons of sense if you care about your budget. Getting back change from a $US20 bill at the pump, on the other hand, is life-altering. Factor in the Prius’ rather well-noted reliability and all kinds of saving-for-college scenarios enter the mind, particularly if you’ve bought used and aren’t up against of the premiums of owning a new Prius, which starts at about $US24,000 and can go up to $US30,000, depending on the trim level.
Seeing it actually happen in reality is another story. What a glorious car. I don’t care if it’s the automotive equivalent of eating low-fat plain yogurt. I’m happy to suffer that pain. Besides, it’s a comfortable car. The seats aren’t benches of wood. You can make the AC blow as hard as you want. It can play classic rock, and play it sort of loud.
Since buying the Prius, I’ve taken it on many short jaunts and one long drive. Flip on cruise control and you have to be careful about switching off your brain: The machine floats along on a cushion of steady-state virtue. It’s the opposite of driving, say, the Chevy Corvette Z06, a supercar that requires constant, obsessive monitoring as it reaches into your chest and rips your heart out with horsepower.
The Prius cultivates in the driver the closest thing to a condition of peace I’ve ever experienced behind the wheel. It also makes you a better citizen: You embrace the speed limit.
It was destiny
One of my kids asked me why we got the Prius — they know the vehicle well, after a decade in LA, where everyone we knew except us owned one — and I said that it was just gonna happen.
I don’t even think this is demographic destiny. The Prius isn’t really an expensive car. You can be a tree-hugging liberal and get one and that makes sense. But I don’t know why someone who leans rights and wants to chop down a lot of trees wouldn’t want to spend less than $US250 a year on gas.
In fact, there’s a strong case that if you’re tempted to get a low-mpg SUV due to gas prices, you should consider the Prius. It doesn’t make gas free, but it comes close.
There are some cars you can’t avoid. For a time, it was the Volkswagen Beetle, and maybe the Volvo 240. I had a Honda Accord for about a year. In a life with cars, a few characters are destined to appear. I knew there would be a Prius in the garage at some point, as surely as I could predict death and taxes.
And in that there was a reassuring inevitability. It’s nice to know what the future holds.
Beyond that, all the Prius haters are completely misguided in their hatred — but not because the Prius is a magnificent car deceptively cloaked in sheets of boring. Rather, because the Prius is the first successful car that isn’t trying to be a car.
The distance between a Prius and one of these:
Is measured in light-years.
It took me 16 years to buy the paradigm shift, but I finally did.