TCS Daily

Gentlemen, Start Your Batteries

By Brock Yates - October 6, 2003 12:00 AM

I have seen the future. More correctly, I've driven the future, and it carries a Toyota badge on its slippery little hood.


I speak about the Prius, the company's second generation super-mileage gas/electric hybrid that will reach dealer showrooms in a few weeks.


Unlike the first efforts by Toyota with its initial Pruis compact or Honda's slick but cramped Insight two-seater, Prius II is a full-sized, five-passenger, five-door hatchback. With the rear seat folded flat, interior room blossoms to an impressive 112.4 cubic feet.


But passenger and cargo capacity are hardly the Prius' strong suit. After all, this is a hybrid intended to consume gasoline in eye-drop quantities and help save the earth from the ravages of global warming and Dick Cheney.


In seeking a mileage rating of 60 mpg urban and 50 mpg highway, Toyota has rigged the new Prius with an insanely complex power train consisting of a computer controlled 1.5 liter, four-cylinder, 76 horsepower gas engine and 202 volt, nickel metal-hydride battery. The car essentially operates on electric power in urban driving, with the engine only silently joining the party when the brain says the battery needs a shot of juice.


Oh yes, Toyota has also added a small 12-volt battery in the trunk to keep the computer powered up while the Prius is parked or at home in the garage. And believe me, if it goes flat, call NASA. Without the computer operating the gas-electric grid (that is so complicated that Toyota doesn't attempt to explain it even to the automotive press, much less laymen), the Prius is as dead as Carol Moseley Braun's Presidential campaign.


The car will be priced at $20,480, a number that is surely a loss leader, considering the mind-numbing power system and its variable-ratio automatic transmission (no manual is available). Toyota has sold over 150,000 hybrid Prius' worldwide, and is now claiming that as small profit has been made on the first edition. But the Prius is not about big numbers on the sales ledger. It is instead a serious investment in technology that, like it or not, lies ahead in the Brave New World of automobiles.


In the event you seek passion in your vehicles and a dollop of excitement on the way to work, you may find the Prius a disappointment. Punching up the spin cycle on your dryer will deliver about the same adrenaline rush.


The Prius is activated not by a key but rather by a button on the dash labeled "Power". A large CRT screen will then announce "Ready". You pop a stubby lever next to the steering wheel into "D" and off you go -- in dead silence. The electric motor will propel you along at sedate speeds unless you seek more power. At that point the gas engine will offer help. On hot days the engine works harder, keeping extra volts ready to operate the air conditioning.


With its jelly-bean body styling, the Prius has an impressive 0.26 coefficient of drag, making it one of the most aerodynamic shapes in the industry. This helps, if one tries hard enough, to get the little miracle machine from zero to sixty in about 12.5 seconds. At steady 65-70 mph Interstate cruising, the Prius will register (through constant readouts from the CRT screen) miles-per-gallon in the 40-50 range. Impressive, to be sure, but when one recalls that a conventional gas-powered compact from Toyota or Honda will get 30 mpg at the same velocities with much better performance, the advantage becomes questionable. On a 500 mile round-trip to see grandma, the Prius will consume perhaps 12 gallons of regular, depending on road conditions. A normal high-mileage compact might eat up an extra 4-5 gallons on the same trip. Is saving seven or eight bucks worth the Prius' latent boredom and its feeble power?


The answer is surely yes if you intend to save the planet or wish to avoid your neighbor's fate when his Hummer H2 is burned up by eco-terrorists.


But if you crave a bit of excitement behind the wheel, the Prius is hardly a viable alternative. The only thrill to be obtained while driving his technological miracle comes in watching your mpg jiggle up and down like a heart monitor on your CRT screen. Much the same kick can be gained from watching the time-clock on your micro-wave oven.


That said, the Neanderthals in the grip of cubic inches and brain-frying performance best take heed. The Prius is the wave of the future and only the beginning of the hybrid revolution. Gentlemen, start your batteries!


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