Friday, November 30th, 2012
29

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.


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29 Comments / Post A Comment

deepomega (#1,720)

Is this part of that Content Marketing thing?

I actually drove my Prius OVER THE ROCKIES, and it was basically fine, except for the flat tire I picked up. The dream is to get it to last four or five more years, when California will presumably mandate that all vehicles be futuristic electrovehicles or whatever.

saythatscool (#101)

@deepomega A Prius tried to race me from a red light earlier today. I totally had it for the first half mile, but I can only walk so fast.

Astigmatism (#1,950)

Next article: Let's Talk About How Camels Make Our T-Zones Feel Great!

BTW, there are other hybrid options out there that are really quite good. Fords in particular: the C-Max, which is basically a European mini-minivan, and can fit your baby stroller while getting Prius mileage, and the Fusion Hybrid, which looks pretty while getting Prius mileage, and both of them drive like real, actual cars, rather than a driving simulator perched on top of a beach ball, which is how a Prius always feels to me. So there's that.

Ken Layne (#262)

@Astigmatism Hahahah, "rather than a driving simulator perched on top of a beach ball, which is how a Prius always feels to me." I think I don't notice this because I've never been inside a car that is considered "good to drive." If the car isn't making weird scraping noises and pouring black smoke, or if the taxi doesn't have a puddle of vomit and semen on the seat where I'm supposed to sit down, I'm pretty content.

Ham Snadwich (#11,842)

@Astigmatism – Eh, the C-Max has slightly more room than the Prius, and slightly less than the Prius V. I'd be more concerned with the fact that Ford has been making a hybrid for all of two years, and Toyota for about fifteen.

Astigmatism (#1,950)

@Ham Snadwich Ford started making a hybrid Escape almost nine years ago, and started making a hybrid Fusion in 2009. They seem to have done pretty well so far, even in hellish environments like NYC taxi service. I'd feel pretty comfortable buying one if I were in the market.

jfruh (#713)

We bought our Prius in '08, at the peak of the pre-economic-collapse gas spike, and I do think it's starting to show its age a little bit? Like, in the sense of needing to get things "tuned up" or whatever, which we usually never do and just complain about "why does it drive funny and not get the fantastic mileage it once did?" We took it to the dealer earlier this year and the did several hundred dollars worth of stuff (including new tires) which seemed pricey but also made things work a lot better, so.

Then like a month later our headlamp went out, and my wife said "surely replacing the headlamp is something we can do" and then I looked at "replacing your Prius headlamp" videos on the internet and it involved, like, partially disassembling your engine, because everything's packed in so tightly in there. The videos made me cry and then we took it back to the dealer and they charged us $150 for parts and $150 for labor, ugh (though they did throw in a "floor matt inspection" for free, so, uh, value?).

ON THE OTHER HAND the Prius is the only car whose tire have I have successfully changed on my own, which made me pretty proud despite the fact that they make it pretty idiot-proof. Yes, I realize this is literally the most basic thing fixy you can do to a car short of changing the wiper fluid, but I am a city boy with soft hands, give me this.

deepomega (#1,720)

@jfruh I got an explosive flat hitting a curb a few months ago, and was so proud of myself for putting on the spare and getting it to a tire center. Real grown-up shit.

melis (#1,854)

@deepomega I found out I'd been driving on a flat all day when some Russian guy pointed it out to me a few months ago and then refused to get it fixed until my friends starting yelling at me. Then while I was at the dealership I reversed into a pole and smashed up my bumper while maintaining eye contact with the car salesman out on the lot. I have let the bumper remain as it is, as a reminder.

saythatscool (#101)

@melis Never lose a stare down. It's the only way that we keep the monkeys in check and you absorb the loser's genital powers.

Ham Snadwich (#11,842)

@jfruh – Pssst. You don't actually change the wiper fluid.

jfruh (#713)

@Ham Snadwich *shame*

JennyBeans (#7,034)

We own two hybrids, a 2010 Prius and a 2012 Camry hybrid. The '10 Prius replaced the first-sold-in-my-city '01 Prius which…while nothing had died, it just kept having minor problems. So I traded it in. And OMG, the 2010 is amazing and awesome.
But when it was time for my husband to trade in his 12 year old BMW, he couldn't handle making us a two Prius family. Because we have too many NPR totebags already. The camry drives like a "real" car and looks like a real car (it also gets 10 mpg less than the Prius).
We thought about waiting for the new Fusion Hybrid, but then we'd be buying American, and that's CRAZY Talk.

Also, this crazy hawk http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C._Boyden_Gray drove an electric car for the same reason Woolsey has a Prius. The extreme right and left really CAN be friends (at least if they are in the same socio-economic stratum!)

melis (#1,854)

CARRIE you missed a real opportunity to deploy the newly-minted WIZARDS tag here. Just saying.

Lockheed Ventura (#5,536)

The Prius still runs almost completely on EVIL fossil fuels, the energy is delivered in another format. The majority of the gas you buy is not going to support the dirty ay-rabs, unless you think the Al Quaeda boogie man is operating out of Alberta these days.

But don't let a few facts get in the way of Liberal smugness.

saythatscool (#101)

@Lockheed Ventura My Liberal smugness tastes like pralines!

saythatscool (#101)

@Lockheed Ventura …and dick.

Astigmatism (#1,950)

@Lockheed Ventura The Prius hybrid runs completely on fossil fuels, nothing "almost" about it. It just uses less of them. Electric cars, plug-in hybrids and the like have energy delivered in another format, but not pure hybrids.

Jared (#1,227)

Can one of you automotive journalists tell us how much the Prius recalls are evidence of manufacturing problems we should be worried about, versus how much Toyota was forced into it by Congressmen who are in Detroit's pocket?

churlishgreen (#49,256)

I just traded in my 10-year-old Prius for a new Prius "C" (the little one, the opposite of Ken's). It is great and gets even better mileage (in the 50s per gallon) and cost less than $20K with trade-in.

The original served us well, we only had one minor issue until recent steering problems appeared that even a couple of trips to the dealer did not fully solve. I'm a total convert even though I get Fords at a discount (owing to family connections); as a Detroit native I hate to say it but I have had much better reliability from Japanese cars.

KenWheaton (#401)

I drove the Prius once, an Avis rental from New York to Louisiana. My only problem? Figuring out how to start the damn thing. Got out of the car and asked for help and the rental lady rolled her eyes and was like, "It's on already," and I'm like, "I don't hear anything" and she's like, "DUH!"

Anyway, I thought my relatives back home would all point and laugh but they were much more interested in the gas mileage. (Like Carrie, I was amazed at how little I had to fill up on a cross-country trip). Were I in the market for a car, definitely would be a top-three option.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

Thankfully, the US is fully grain independent so grain farmers don't have to worry for one minute about the harvest in other countries and consumers are never affected by price shocks due to international events.

Otherwise the Prius-driving hawk would also switch to a gluten-free diet, right?

darklingplain (#236,804)

Ugh, couldn't they have just pretended it was a fourth declension noun and had the plural be "Prius?" They're already playing fast and loose with Latin, and "Prii" sounds ridiculous.

Bittersweet (#765)

@darklingplain "The other day we were driving through Maine and saw a herd of moose…or maybe it was just a few Prius."

PoignancySelz (#238,693)

Ken, FWIW. We bought a 2011 Town and Country last year and the vehicle is incredibly reliable, efficient and modern. My wife needs the space and is willing to put up with the "minivan" stigma. This is our third geekmobile and by far the best. I too was leery about the Chrysler brand, but was pleasantly proved wrong. The sucker gets 28 mpg on the highway and has all the creature comforts. So yes, there is hope for this bloated country yet.

jfruh (#713)

@PoignancySelz The sad thing is that Chrysler has been improved by Italian engineering prowess.

KenWheaton (#401)

@jfruh It's been improved by Italian MARKETING prowess — it takes foreigners to really distill that American spirit.* They just changed the names of the cars and made the commercials not entirely awful. GO TEAM! The 200 is still a Stratus or whatever that was. The new Dart is just a gussied-up Neon. (The minivans, though, have always had a decent reputation I think.)

*Oddly, the biggest marketing flub was the Fiat fiasco with J-Lo.

Ken Layne (#262)

@PoignancySelz The space is exactly why we bought one in 2005. And for a while, it was great. All the robot doors and hatches opening, not-terrible mileage for a big box of metal, etc. And then on its first birthday it "began having problems," and never stopped. I am glad the 2011 version is much better, so far! And yeah, I don't have any good ideas besides a bulky-ass minivan for how to get around with strollers and pack 'n plays and ice chests of milk bottles and toy/diaper sacks and giant dogs and other surivalist supplies needed to even travel somewhere for the weekend with babies.

danielobvt (#239,836)

My '04 Prius is the rebel of the bunch. NRA, tons of Army stickers and a McCain bumper sticker (since I somehow never ran into a place handing out Romney stickers). I live in the Peoples Republic of Arlington (VA)…

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