Is the World's Most Miraculous Car a Ho-Hum Hybrid Prius?

Just a good ol' hybrid, never meanin' no harm ....
Carrie: So Ken, I understand that you recently purchased a Prius and are pleased with your purchase! And I bought one several years ago, and am likewise very happy with it. So my first question would be: What do you think the plural of Prius is: Prius-us? Pri-i?

Ken: Well, did you know that Toyota asked Prius owners to vote for the plural form of Prius, because the actual Latin plural (priora) was already taken by a crappy Lada? I just read this on Wikipedia, so I am pretty much an “automotive journalist” now. Anyway, the plural is officially and legally prii.

Carrie: I did not know that! Very good then. So let’s discuss our “prii,” mine old, yours new. What has been the most surprising thing to you as a new Prius owner?

Ken: I HAVE NOT GONE TO THE GAS STATION. Not once. It’s incredible. How does anyone buy any other car? I mean, I knew about the “good mileage,” and that was an obvious reason to buy a hybrid when I live in the land of $4.85-per-gallon gasoline. But I was not quite prepared for going 10 days without a painful visit to the gas station. (And I still have a third of a tank, another 130 miles or so of budget cruising.)


Carrie: It’s really noticeable, yes! I thought it would be a mild difference when I got one. But I notice it, especially on long car trips. Like, on a cross-country trip that used to take, say, five tanks, I now can get there on two. The side effect of that, though, is a fixation on monitoring the dashboard statistics; has that set in for you yet? (My husband, otherwise very mellow, gets extremely focused when the mileage dips down, like he can defeat it through sheer driving wizardry /avoiding traffic/ not allowing the air conditioner to be run. It’s like a video game.)

Ken: There is so much audio-computer-maps stuff on the video screen console right now, I’m just kind of dazzled by that. Still, I’ve seen it enough to realize I’m basically looking at a perpetual motion machine… that still needs some fossil fuel, but what an incredible leap from a generation ago. (I haven’t bought a new car in eight years. Things have gotten very sci-fi out there.)

Carrie: What was your last car?

Ken: Oh god… well, the one that I traded in at 120,000 miles was a Nissan small SUV, which, I don’t know, I bought it used from a rental car yard, and I lived at the end of a dirt road at the time. And the last new one was… it’s kind of too shameful.

Carrie: Tell!

Ken: (whispers, looks down) A Chrysler Town & Country. I feel like I have to explain this now.

Carrie: Sure, but as the former owner of an Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera I’m in no position to mock you.

Ken: It was eight years ago, Choire and I were working on an exciting new web hit called “Sploid,” I had acquired a new baby and a large dog and it seemed a *minivan* was the only passenger vehicle that could hold all these creatures and their baggage.

Ken: And the “good minivans” were like $32,000, the Toyota and whatever, so I bought this horrible Chrysler, which died exactly the day after the extended warranty expired, and then Chrysler went bankrupt. Did Obama rescue Chrysler? If so, impeach him.

Anyway, so you replaced a 5mpg Oldsmobile with a sprightly and futuristic Prius. Did life seem instantly more futuristic?

Carrie: The Oldsmobile was intensely geriatric and generic to drive around (a friend then called it “the Spymobile”), but I have to say, LUXURIANT inside. Like riding around on the world’s most expansive, comfortable couch.

But I went from Oldsmobile to the other car you can own in Asheville if you vote Democrat: the Subaru Forester. Then sold that for the Prius. Next I will get an old Mercedes that runs on biodiesel and complete the odyssey.

Ken: So the Subaru is basically a gateway car to the Prius, and eventually… yes, biodisesel Mercedes with giant trailing balloon collectors for the carbon exhaust.

Carrie: I think you just rotate between these depending on your inclination. Now, if you thought your family needed a minivan to fit you all, how are you all fitting in the Prius?

Ken: The children got big enough so that they no longer require a mobile army of strollers and diaper bags and toy chests. Now they are just slightly smaller versions of humans, so they don’t need all this paraphernalia. Also I don’t take them anywhere.

Carrie: And the dog?

Ken: I put the dog to sleep.

Carrie:[Pause while Carrie feels TERRIBLE]

Ken: Kidding! The dog fits. We actually waited for Prius to put out the little hatchback model—it’s like a little Euro rental car minivan, small but kind of like the Tardis inside—so now the dog can have his spot in the back.

It’s the kind of “family car” that civilized European people have been driving for a decade or more, tiny little cars that are completely functional and also fit in half of an American parking space.

Carrie: And roughly 500 cars fit on a city block.

Ken: It’s interesting, and shallow, that the Prius in America is seen more as a cultural marker for environmentally-minded upper-class people and not as the biggest technological advance in mass-produced affordable passenger cars.

Carrie: Well, yes. It is hard to walk up to yours in public without feeling like you should be swinging a NPR tote bag.

Ken: I’ve heard a little about the Prius as some kind of liberal elite-mobile, which is mostly surprising to me because they’re cheap cars. I mean, it’s about the cheapest new car you can get that will fit four people.

When I see a Tesla, I think, “eh, showoff Brad Pitt” or whatever, but a Prius?

Carrie: Plus the saving-money-on gas part.

Ken: Yes. The money I’m saving on gasoline alone is enough to make the car payment. Financially, that’s remarkable.

Carrie: And they’re pretty reliable. (Spits on ground superstitiously.)

Ken: So, when I was looking around for evidence of the apparent Culture Wars involving an inexpensive and safe car that gets really good mileage, I found this interview with James Woolsey, the hard-ass hawk former CIA chief. It’s from Motor Trend, which I assume is a magazine about trends in motor development, which would definitely cover the Prius hybrid drive:

[Woolsey] become one of Washington’s most hawkish hawks, agitating early for the removal of Saddam Hussein, pointing a finger at Iraq in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, and calling for the bombing of Syria. By rights, Woolsey ought to drive a big, bad Hummer. Instead, he drives a Prius, and he says that if you live in a country dependent on imported oil, it’s your patriotic duty to do the same. His argument is simple: It’s a bad thing for transport to depend on oil when the great majority of that oil lies in volatile parts of the world whose governments are hostile to the West. Moreover, he argues that, by making the Middle East so wealthy, we’re indirectly subsidizing terror. For Woolsey, the cash register at your local gas station is a collection box for Al Qaeda.

Carrie: This is why you’re the automotive journalist of the two of us.

Ken: I take my beat very seriously, Carrie.

And thinking of my local redneck gas station / sub shop / Bud Lite outlet / American flag t-shirt minimart as a “collection box for Al Qaeda” is one of the more enjoyable mental images I’ve had in a while.

Carrie: It’s nice to imagine Woolsey stalking the parking lot… and I dunno, tearing off an American flag sticker from some giant golden SUV bumper. “I deem this vehicle unpatriotic.”

Ken: And yet, the hybrid market is 3% of the new passenger-car market in the United States.

Carrie: Only 3%????? The Asheville bubble gives me an inflated view of how many drive them.

Ken: I know the sales were relatively huge during California’s last gasoline price spike, but it’s still such a tiny part of the market. I can’t imagine willingly buying a car that gets less than 40mpg when they’re cheap and available and proven.

Carrie: Why do think more people haven’t bought?

Ken: Well, when you have voices of reason like Rush Limbaugh on the radio to a couple million people telling them *not* to buy a hybrid or an electric car because it makes them look like an effete liberal, that sort of has an effect. Although it seems to be fading a bit; most of the “culture war” stuff about the Prius dates back to 2007 or so, the end of the Bush era and the beginning of our new permanent semi-liberal African-American government.

Carrie: I also think bigger still equals safety for a lot of people, so SUVs. My major fear about buying one was that while it was very affordable, I worried that if it ever needed repairs, it was going to cost lots of $$ to replace the battery.

Ken: Right, the battery fear. That’s what people talked about, 10 years ago. “Oh well it’s all fine and good to save the environment, but that battery pack costs $10,000 and will die in five years.” Which… never happened?

Carrie: Exactly.

Ken: And all the hybrid components, including the battery, are covered for 10 years. (I think it’s 8 years/100,000 miles in the non-California markets.)

Carrie: My model’s a 2002 with 100,000-plus miles on it now, but I found a mechanic who collects the batteries from wrecked… prii (vocabulary!) and he can replace individual cells if your battery dies so you don’t have to buy an entire new one.

Ken: Wow! This is very Blade Runner to me, somehow. I envision a guy in overalls in back of some rusted and kudzu-covered 1940s gas station, extracting battery pods with his robot helper, named for a state college sports mascot.

Carrie: That image… is not entirely off!

Ken: My Prius has sort of boosted my psychic abilities, I’ve noticed.

Carrie: This mechanic, he’s just very fascinated by the technology. Which goes back to your point: That it’s amazing.

Ken: NOW, importantly, what has failed on your Prius?

Carrie: I’ve had mine six years, and so far it’s needed only routine-type maintenance, like a fuel filter cleaning, etc. I bought it from a friend who was moving to Colorado and thought the Prius would burn out on the mountains there (which are obviously more radical than the mountains here). Which I mention because while not exactly a failure, uh, I would not describe the Prius as a car with a lot of pick up. So I’ve had to stop challenging people to drag races on any sort of even gently ascending hills… which, there goes a hobby.

Ken: Sometimes I wonder if you are truly in North Carolina. (Also a Prius with a General Lee custom paint job would be kind of awesome, no?)

Carrie: Mildlythunderousroad. And with the doors sealed shut so you have to leap in and out.

Ken: So that this doesn’t read like a Toyota sponsored post (which costs money, please contact the publisher, etc.!), let’s briefly talk about why the Prius and not whatever other hybrid or EV currently on the market, the Volt and the Leaf and such.

Carrie: My Prius purchase was based completely on the opportunity of my friend selling hers. What tilted you toward it?

Ken: $75 per fill-up, that’s what settled it for me, a year before the Nissan died.

Carrie: And by comparison a Prius costs, what, $40 to fill up?

Ken: Oh, it’s almost comical. You can pay cash to fill up, with the change you dropped on the floor in the taco shop’s drive-thru lane.

Carrie: But why the Prius and not another hybrid?

Ken: The Prius is everywhere in California, even out here in the Mojave Desert, hours from Hollywood and its limousine liberals in… a compact hybrid car. It’s even the standard car for county government out here, which makes sense because this county is the size of Ireland, stretching from the edge of L.A. to Death Valley and the Nevada state line. So we see this car everywhere, and never see it on the side of the road with the hood up.

And because of the vast distances one must travel when living in the vast Mojave Desert, plug-ins just wouldn’t work. I did check out the prices on some other hybrids, though, and they were just way too expensive, even with the incentives. The Prius was priced just right for someone who didn’t have any money to spend on a car.

Had my old car lasted until my move back to San Francisco in a few months, I would’ve considered a plug-in EV. But, it didn’t, so the Prius was it. Plus, I do like to take 500-mile drives alone every few months, to get out of the house.

Carrie: The other vehicle in our household is a ’66 Chevy pickup, which gets 12mpg—maybe, if it has a good wind behind it. So the Prius evens out the balance.

Ken: What will you get next, assuming your Prius ever dies? (And I have read that 98% of Prii were still on the road a decade later.) Maybe a *bigger* pickup, to carry your old pickup?

Carrie: God, let it be a motorcycle with a sidecar for the dog.

Ken: Hahahahah that is the New Smug Environmentalist Vehicle, I hope. With both driver and dog wearing those leather biplane caps and goggles.

Excuse me, pleather biplane and goggles.

You might also enjoy: Is It Acceptable To Have Children