A few weeks ago, I was able to spend about 900 miles behind the wheel of a third-generation Toyota Prius. To be honest, I always thought the Hybrid car was equipped with an underpowered engine that would automatically default the car to right-lane driving experiences. After 900 miles on highways, city and extreme desert climates, it’s evident this car can satisfy the most demanding of circumstances.
Now, now, I didn’t do any donuts or burnouts in it, but I was able to legitimately drive the car and get comfortable with it. The premise behind my critical views was that nearly every Prius I pass on the highways (in my fourth-generation Camaro) always appears to be traveling at or under the speed limit. It couldn’t be possible that all Prius owners are that obedient of the law, could they?
For the vacation, we loaded up the car. Three total occupants, a full ice cooler, two luggage bags, two beach umbrellas and a full-size duffel bag. Not bad. Comparatively, it is at least as roomy as the much-loved fifth-generation Camaro. (Have you seen how small those trunks are?)
So, we got out onto the road. For a first-timer, I struggled to figure out how the shifter worked. In fact, the “Park” button was something I just couldn’t adapt to. It wasn’t terrible though, as I had two Prius veterans in the car with me, they pointed out how to distinguish between Domestic norms to the like of a Japanese-designed car. The car defaults to an Eco-mode, which takes some getting used-to because of the sensitivity to the accelerator pedal. It’s a drive-by-wire system, so you don’t feel the typical resistance felt from a throttle plate, but after a few miles, you figure it out.
The Prius’ braking felt smooth, direct and balanced. Not much else to say about it other than that the brakes didn’t feel too grippy despite what I was expecting from the regenerative braking. Similarly, the vehicle likes to coast. Compared to other cars, you feel less wind resistance and drag against the car as your driving. Drafting larger vehicles is easier for those who are addicts to hypermiling. In a nutshell, the physics of soap-box derby are at play with the car.
Alright, I know you’re dying to know the highlights from driving a Prius. After about a hundred miles using the car, I was ready to find out how fast the car could go. I was unimpressed with the rate of acceleration, but was content with the consistency at how the car climbed the digits on the speedometer. From about 80 MPH, I went full-throttle, nothing immediate happened, but it did increase speed. After about 45 seconds, we were able to to max it out at 117 MPH. This must have been some sort of land-speed record for Hybrids, since this Yahoo Answers thread indicates that most Prius owners have topped out their car between 104 – 109 MPH.
For a a few portions of the trip, I was able to calmly and easily maintain in excess of 100 MPH in a Prius. In fact, the ride was so smooth, passengers were dozing asleep. Head to head, the experience in my 15-year-old Camaro would be met with some shakiness of the rear-end and wobble from the driveshaft, the plastic creaking, increased cabin noise and the rushing sound of wind against all the baffles around the vehicle body. Thrilling and not sleep-inducing by any means.
It was fun to break triple digits on the speedometer — the “1″ illuminated brighter than the other numbers. It was probably the first time it turned on in the car’s lifetime. I thought it was a good time to ask the owner of the car, “Hey, you have Z-rated tires, right?”
I was in complete surprise: How is it possible that this car can keep up (and more accurately, pass) other cars? Something’s gotta give, right? Why was it that only people like Woz could peg a triple-digit speeding ticket in a Prius?
And now you want to know the gas-mileage. I don’t have graphs or charts, but I can reliably report that while sustaining 100 MPH across the Arizona and California deserts, the vehicle averaged about 32 MPG. I’ll reiterate– 100+ MPH, 32 MPG, 87 octane. While not the flashiest, sexiest or most thrilling of rides, it certainly earns high marks for fuel efficiency and overall throughput.
Throughout the duration of this trip, I was able to safely, reasonably and prudently operate the Prius, I did think through the inevitable situation of getting a speeding ticket. I don’t think that any officer would truly believe the accuracy of their speed measurement equipment when they saw a Prius posting a triple-digit speed. In fact, the car, its reputation and modest size lends to its stealthiness. Don’t worry, I don’t have any tickets to show for it.
Where the car does show its limits is when climbing aggressive inclines greater than 6 percent. Within moments, you will feel that the load on the engine is brutal when it struggles to maintain 65 MPH. The fears of needing to push the car or having to wire up a sack of potatoes in series to generate electricity to get the car to re-charge the batteries never came true — but don’t plan on flying through the mountains, either.
As a new driver to a Prius, I quickly got on board with the perception that driving is free. In my Camaro, I typically have 350-mile range on my 15-gallon 91-octane tank. Looking at my gas gauge is about as frequent as I check my mirrors. The 30-50 MPG performance of the Prius leaves you forgetful of looking at the gas gauge. I think we only filled up the 12-gallon 87-octane tank twice for a 900-mile trip bearing in mind some “spirited” driving to say the least.
My other comments about the car is that the firmware for the car’s radio/on-screen display appears rushed and incomplete. Evidence of this is seen when you make volume adjustments and it echoes back the variable on the screen: “VOL_09″. Would it have killed them to translate this simple text-string? The sheer fact that you can’t change the GPS or Bluetooth settings despite having a passenger triggering the “Air Bag On” control, is frustrating. In fact, someone trying to fight with the computer has probably led to more accidents alone. Additionally, the steering felt incredibly responsive. I credit that to the smaller wheelbase and the more modern hydraulics of the steering system.
Maybe if Toyota made a “sport” model, offer insertable tuning modules that adjust the engine more favorably for full-throttle excitement, I might be interested in owning one. Considering how many models of the Prius are on the road, it would be in their best interest to adopt the Android OS. It needs it. Toss in cloud-based apps, tethering with mobile phones and wifi, it would rival the on-screen-display experience of the big bad electric bully, Tesla.
Overall, the Prius is a fun car to drive. I wouldn’t judge a Prius solely on the fact that many of their drivers tend to dominate the right lane like a boss. Give it a shot and drive it for several hours to form a more educated opinion on it.