I had an opportunity to drive a 2004 Prius hybrid last week. I was renting a car for my periodic commute; the staff at Enterprise surprised me by having a showroom-fresh 2004 Prius gassed up and ready. It had 00060 miles on it. The kick-panel speakers were still covered with plastic scuff guards.
The Prius is the first car I’ve ever seen that comes with a quick-start guide — a small tear-off sheet giving startup instructions. Starting the car is different enough from every other car I’ve ever seen that the clerk at Enterprise had to walk me through it.
Check out the key. It provides a subtle break with reality as you know it. This plastic, electronic key looks like the remote doorlock and trunk control of a more traditional car. In fact, the engineers at Toyota essentially built the car key into the remote control. The result says, This is not your father’s Oldsmobile. And thank goodness for that.
The key device, which is about the size of a small box of wooden matches, slides into a slot in the dashboard. The next step in starting the car, according to the quickstart guide, is to press the POWER button. I had to laugh — this car boots up. I really enjoyed pressing that button.
Startup is silent, except for a beep or two and a quiet sighing as various systems come on-line. The gasoline engine starts up five or ten seconds later, almost as an afterthought. In a few cases I’d already begun driving.
The shift mechanism has been re-imagined. There’s a short lever on the dash that provides electronic shifting between Neutral, Forward and Reverse. Putting the car into Park requires pressing a separate button, which seems clumsy but works fine.
One of the nice features of the car is the set of controls on the steering wheel. One group contains all the necessary stereo controls: volume, track, source. Within minutes I was able to manage the stereo without taking my attention away from the road. A second group provides climate controls. This is a surprisingly useful feature. The buttons are marked with slight bumps and indents, enabling blind operation.
Sitting in the middle of the dashboard is a multi-function LCD touchscreen. The default view shows the “Energy Monitor,” a representation of the powertrain. Animated lines (like Photoshop’s “marching ants”) indicate the flow of energy. For example, when driving up a steep driveway, the gas engine powers the wheels. Coming down that same driveway, the gas engine is idle (or off), and the wheels power the electric motor, which stores the surplus energy in the battery. The genius of the Prius is in efficiently switching among these various modes to conserve energy, reduce gas consumption, and reduce emissions.
At the bottom of the screen, a calculation of the vehicle’s gas mileage at the current instant is displayed; it ranges from about 7 MPG (when I floored the accelerator from a stop) to 99 MPG (on any flat or downhill road).
This “Energy Monitor” screen is fascinating. It’s a driving hazard, there’s no question. New Prius owners should have someone else drive them around until the urge to stare at the screen can be managed.
Beyond the whizzy graphics, it provides a huge benefit: it reinforces good driving habits. Because the Prius recycles momentum as electrical power, it is important to slow down gradually rather than stomp on the brakes at the last moment. Coasting is another high-MPG strategy. Accelerating gradually, ditto. The instant-mileage meter keeps a sort of score on your driving habits. If you drive senselessly, your mileage will suffer. This is of course true for every vehicle on the road; the difference here is that the Prius lets you watch it happen.
In a previous article, I mentioned that some Prius owners report mileage far below EPA estimates. I was very pleased to see that I could not reproduce those damning numbers. I drove about 150 miles, beginning on rural highways, then the interstate, then city streets, more highways, and then office park-ways — a ridiculous, life-draining commute, the sort of commute society could sentence people to for lifestyle crimes — and at the end of the day the car had averaged 53.9 MPG.
I didn’t have to calculate that figure; one of the control screens on the LCD provides a trip odometer and trip mileage calculator.
Once underway, the Prius drives like any other modern car. Acceleration is smooth. Transitioning from electric to gas power is imperceptible, although if you’re paying attention you might feel a vibration as the engine starts.
The car won’t win a street race with, say, an old Camaro, but unlike me you’ve probably outgrown your desire to do smoky burnouts at every residential intersection. Oh, OK, I have too. Really.
Braking felt slightly weird. During my commute I had three semi-emergency stops, due to insane Bay Area traffic and my unfamiliarity with the car’s brakes. I had the sense that braking pressure increases non-linearly with pedal travel. That is, I think the Prius’ braking rate accelerates as the pedal is depressed. In any case, I’m sure I could get used to it, but I’d have to recommend that new owners drive even more defensively than usual.
All in all, I enjoyed driving the Prius, and I realized an immediate financial gain, in that I spent less on gas than I normally would for such a commute.
Moreover, as I sat in stop-and-go traffic for an hour on the way home (welcome to Marin County), and the Prius’ gas engine shut itself off, I realized the promise of hybrid technology. Every car around me was spewing carbon monoxide and toxic chemicals into the air, but my Prius burned nothing and spewed nothing. Every hybrid on the road reduces rush-hour pollution. This has an immediate positive impact on the health of the people in traffic and of everyone who lives nearby. It also helps prevent, erm, going to war to secure future oil supplies. It simply makes more sense.
(Click for more of my Prius articles.)