Friday, June 29, 2007

Prius Turns 15

Very close to the Georgia-Florida border on I-75 last night, my Prius hit 15,000 miles. Its only been six months and two weeks since I bought it, which extrapolates out to almost 30K this year, or junk status sometime in 2009. Fortunately, the next 6 months (and beyond) should be significantly more stationary than the last 6 have been. I'd like to think the odometer still has a chance to close out the decade under six-figures, but you never know.

But reaching that mark, I think, is reason enough to put up a semi-serious review.

Since reviews of the Prius tend to gush with superlatives - and I intend to join the flood - I'll first swim upstream and complain about a few things first.

What sucks:

1 - this is the only "how could they?" mistake about the car: driving at night, a REALLY obvious and annoying line of light appears on the windshield, at the center of the driver's view. It's the result of a complicated, 2-bounce reflection from the dashboard/readout. The Prius offers no dials or gauges, only a digital speedometer and line of warning lights lined up DEEP in the dash. That display glows out onto the dashboard. It is the reflection of that glow that you see in the windshield. It would not be visible on most cars, but since the Prius windshield is very long, the angle is just right to reflect into your eyes. Its not blinding but its WAY annoying and over a long trip could turn semi dangerous. The ONLY solution is to turn down the dash intensity on a dial next to the steering wheel. That means you have to turn it back up the next day.
I can think of like 6 ways to fix this in the design process, but none now. How could Toyota have missed this?

2 - My gas gauge isn't very good. It "sticks" on full for at least 150 miles, then plummets, and hits the "add fuel" blinking line at inconsistent levels. Not a design flaw, but a bigger glitch than I experienced in any of my three previous cars (two Subarus and a Honda).

3 - The computer is pretty boring. The Prius comes with a big screen and obviously lots of brains. Yet its system of displaying current MPG and energy usage is dull and mostly lame. If I had GPS or sat radio or whatever, i'd keep it on that, but I don't so i'm stuck with the lame computer readout.

4 - Spare tire is one of those horrible mini-tires. Found out the hard way.

5 - Design is absolutely, totally incompatible with a dog gate/fence. In my previous cars (a Subaru Forester and WRX wagon and, briefly, a Mazda3 hatchback), you could easily wedge a dog guard up against the rear seats in the back compartment. In both cars, I pinned it in place with the "cargo cover" attachment (that's the stange bar that a cover rolls out of like a window shade). This concern - keeping my dog in the back, off the seats - was a MAJOR reason why I bought consecutive wagon-models.
In the Prius, the hatchback door attaches to the roof foward of the rear seats. Therefore, any fence/rails cannot be attached or even wedged against the roof. Very disappointing, and Toyota offers no installable dog gate. The only upside is that the Prius cieling is so low that my dog has trouble jumping over the seats.
If anyone has figured out how to keep a dog in the rear area, let me know.

Short of those complaints, the car is what it should be: a small, simple, trouble free car that gets 45 MPG. And that's a legit 45 - I track my mileage and fuel consumption. THe car's computer always comes out 1-2 MPG better than what the number say.
Underpowered? A bit. I cruise easily at 70-75, even 80. Beyond that, you can feel and hear the engine pushing.

The best part of the Prius is not any feature. The radio is adequate, the features well thought out but basic, and the interior is sharp but unremarkable. I don't take any satisfaction from its "green" side, which is hardly appreciable. After driving the car for 15K, its clear that all cars will soon be like this. You get the same car at twice the mileage - how could they not? But I don't really take satisfaction from the "drive The Future" aspect, either. If anything, its just embarrassing that its 2007 and this is still new ground.

What is REALLY great about the Prius is the psychological freedom you get that I'd lost in my last few cars. My WRX got, at best, 25 MPG. The forester, only slightly better. Even the Mazda3, which I drove gingerly to milk some effieincy out of it, topped out at 29.
As gas prices exploded in the last 3 years, that tacked on more and more weight to every trip, from days-long roadies to trips to the 7-11. The value of every ounce double, then almost doubled again, in less than 2 years.
First, I stopped driving too fast, ever (a shame when you own a WRX, or even a 3). Then I found myself focusing on which stretches of road I could put the gear into neutral to coast. A red light, with its minute of idling and then gas-guzzling acceleration, ruined my mood.
I'm not sure I skipped any driving to save gas, but I never drove anywhere without resenting the need to. Blockbuster, huh? How far is that? Anything else we can do on the way there or back to save a trip later?
Gas prices became The Next Creeping Thing, like too much sun or teenagers hanging out on your street.

And then I bought the Prius, and set my mind at ease. Driving no longer feels like paying interest on your life. If I get to work and realize I left something at home, I turn around and drive home, just as I always would have. What I don't do is bitterly compute the gas money I'm spending all the way there and back.
Its a peace of mind I compare to the ignition and starting process. In the Prius, there is no key. The key sits in your pocket, communicating electronically with the car, telling it you are there. You sit down, put your foot on the brake and hit the well-placed power button. Silently, the dashboard lights up and almost immediatly displays the word 'ready.' No coughing explosion of an engine turning over, no twisting of keys. Click. Ready. And, silently, drive.
That's a perfect analogy to the Prius peace of mind. I don't drive more than I used to. I just drive easier.