Autumn In The Prius
By Bill Moore
I was half way through my four week test drive, when I finally discovered the Prius' sweet spot, that magic place where the world's first production hybrid-electric car clearly, cleanly excels its gasoline-only competitors. For the last two weeks I had driven the car to work using a new four lane road and Interstate, only confronting stop-and-go traffic the last one mile of the twenty mile commute.
To be perfectly honest, up to this point I was a little disappointed with the car's mileage. I wasn't seeing anything close to the performance Toyota was claiming for the car in Japan. There the company said the car would get 66 mpg (approximately. 24 km/liter) in the city and 50 mpg in highway driving. But before I talk about my mileage numbers, let me tell you about the car first.
My Test Model
The Prius Toyota loaned me is one of their Japan-market models with right hand drive. It is a four door, five-passenger, lavender gray car. It arrived on a Sunday morning at my front door inside a huge truck van. It was the only car inside the cavernous trailer. The company, Select Transport ships show cars and prototypes for both Honda and Toyota.
The driver and his wife had picked up the car in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma where it had been on loan to the Mid-Del Community College, home of one of the first EV technician training centers in the US.
With the car safely out of the van and siting in my driveway, the truck driver's wife had us do a walk around to note an damage. Apart from a few minor little dings, the most significant being a scuffed left front hub cap (caused by mis-judging the distance to the curb from the right hand side of the car), the car was in near new condition with just over 19000 km on it.
Computer Screen Focal Point of Dash
Apart from the steering wheel being on the right hand side, the next thing people seem to notice different about Prius interior is its centerline control console, the focal point of which is a blue, LCD computer screen. Below this is the entertainment and environmental controls which are within easy reach of the driver and front seat passenger, something my wife appreciated on our trip to Kansas City the second weekend we had the car. As we paralleled the Missouri River, she discovered a whole set of features built into the computer that I might never have uncovered since the car did not come with an owner's manual in either English or Japanese. Above the distinctive computer LCD screen is the speedometer, odometer and fuel gauge, located just at the intersection of the dash and windshield. Toyota engineers claim this placement reduces eye strain by 18 percent. The driver need only glance down momentarily without ever taking his eyes off the road. I found that I liked the set up.
More problematic is the placement of the turn signal, headlight controls and side mirror remote control. While I found that I very quickly adapted to right hand drive, it took considerably longer getting used to the turn signal being oppose of my Honda. On more occasions than I care to admit, I indicated a left hand turn to on-coming drivers by waving my windshield wipers at them. The placement of the side mirror remote control is difficult to see below the roll-over lip on the right hand side of the dash. This could definitely do with some redesign. I do like, however, the automatic retraction and extension feature. Push the button and both mirrors retract. Handy for narrow Japanese streets and cluttered American garages.
Television Not Included
My Prius came equipped with AM/FM/Cassette tape deck, all controlled through a set of buttons just below the computer screen. While the AM band worked adequately (I seldom listen to AM), the Japanese FM band ends where our US frequency begins, so I could listen only to a local television station's audio signal. One of the interesting things my wife uncovered is that you can adjust the car's speaker system from the computer screen by way of high-tech, display grid. You use the row of buttons just below the computer screen to select menus and apply functions. However, one comment Toyota has consistently heard is there are too many buttons, so the company says the North American export version of the car will replace the buttons with a touch-sensitive control screen.
The car also came equipped with automatic door locks and power windows. Two things missing on the car were cruise control and television. Television? Yep. It seems in Japan, the computer screen also doubles as a television set, handy if you're stuck in Tokyo traffic. For obvious safety reasons, the television turner will not be included in the North American export model. As for cruise control, the car may actually have it built in, but it beats me where it is or how to use it. This short-coming becomes painfully obvious on a long, cross-country trip, as does the lack of adequate arm rests for the two front seat passengers. Given a choice, I'd take the arm first, cruise control second.
One last item of note is the unusual shift lever. Mounted on the dash, instead of on the steering column, it takes only a few minutes to adjust to. This configuration will remain on the export version of the car.
Bigger Than It Looks Inside
In addition to the distinctive dashboard, I liked the interior roominess of the car, especially its upright stance. I did a little crude measuring with a tape measure and carpenter's level and discovered the Prius is about 3 inches higher than my Honda Accord. I figure I am siting about 21 inches off the ground as opposed to about 18 inches in the Accord. This translates into slightly better visibility as well as a car that is a little easier to get into and out of. The Prius is also a lot shorter than the Accord, nearly two feet shorter, letting my family recapture some of our garage space. You do, however, pay a modest penalty for such compactness in the way of smaller trunk space relevant to the Accord and the lack of a fold-down rear seat for carrying an extra long load. The trunk measures a mere 24 inches in depth compared to the Honda's over 40 inches. Width and height-wise they're about the same. The Prius' battery pack sits immediately behind the rear passenger seat, eliminating the option of fold-down storage. So, plan to carry the family Christmas tree on top of the car, keeps the needles out of the car that way.
While I am on the subject of the rear seat, even with the fronts seats all the way back for a six foot two driver, an adult would still have at least three fingers (two inches) of knee room. Also, the Prius is the first car I can remember that has a lap belt and shoulder harness for all three passengers, not just the outer two. Front passengers are also protected by air bags.
Everyone wants know what it's like to drive a hybrid-electric and I've learned to tell them it is no different from any other car, except it's quieter, quicker, and gets better gas mileage.
My Gas Mileage Numbers
Let's get the mileage question out of the way. Will the car get the claimed 66 mpg in city driving? Yes, but you have to drive it more carefully than you might a gasoline-only car. I admit I am a lead-footed driver who wants to get there in the shortest amount of time. That's why I take the long way around to work. It's probably 8 miles further, but it takes saves me 5-10 minutes travel time. My route involves a new four lane connector road to interstate where the posted limited is 45 but everyone does 55. The interstate is posted 60, but figure doing 65 to keep up. Under these conditions, the Prius turns in sub-40 mpg. Others have confirmed similar numbers in US driving conditions. This is nothing to sneeze at, certainly, but not the promised 50-66 mpg. I confirmed this mileage twice, never getting over 40 mpg between fill-ups. I began suspecting that driving cycles in Japan are different from those in the US and that might account for the difference. My suspicion was confirmed when I decided to take a different way home one afternoon, going the more direct, but equally time consuming way through rush hour traffic. What the computer performance chart displayed proved a revelation. (
One of the things that intrigue Prius drivers and passengers is the animated display of motor systems showing where car's energy is going and coming from. It's fascinating watching the computer constantly manipulating all the systems, gasoline engine, electric motor, electric generator and battery pack. One moment the car is running on battery power, the next only gasoline while the generator is recharging the battery. The entire operation is totally automatic and transparent to the driver.
Driving For Maximum Efficiency
What you learn by the second week, however, is to switch from the energy path display to the energy utilization graph which is the next computer screen. This graph tells you exactly how efficiently you're driving the car at the moment, as well as over the last 30 minutes, blocked off in five minute increments. The more efficiently you drive the car, the more white bars appear on the graph with the best performance being 30 km/liter or approxmately 68 mpg. In one five minute increment I actually did achieve the equivalent of 30 km/liter. It took me slightly longer to get home, but I had finally discovered the Prius "sweet spot" of stop-and-go, bumper-to-bumper urban congested driving. Under these conditions, with careful, patient driving, 60+ mpg is certainly possible.
As for highway driving, I found during our weekend trip to Kansas City, a distance of 200 Interstate miles, that there is almost no difference in gas mileage between driving the car in town or on the highway if you drive both on fast, open expressways such I did for two weeks.
Officially, my mileage for the first week of driving the car in city was 36.5 mpg. The mileage for the KC trip was 37.36 mpg.
NOTE: A correspondent in Japan completed an extended trip in Japan the same weekend my wife and I drove to Kansas City. His average highway speed was 60 mph. Under these conditions, he reported getting 48 mpg.
Now let me lay to rest any apprehensions you might have about the Prius' ability to handle extended high-speed, Interstate travel. I deliberately, but cautiously pushed the Prius over the speed limit all the way to Kansas City and back. I was passed by only a handful of aggressive sport utes who were even more flagrant in their breaking of the law than I was. The Prius will easily keep up with interstate traffic, though I kept wishing for an "overdrive" gear.
No Turtle Here
I have heard some US drivers have gotten the "Turtle," a small display icon on the instrument panel that warns you to slow down since you're beginning to drain the battery pack. In our 400 mile excursion to the city of the Chiefs, the Royals and some of the world's best barbecue sauce, I never saw the little critter. This might be in part because of terrain. The first 100 miles of the trip is down the billiard table-flat Missouri River Valley, which certainly wouldn't over-tax the engine. The last half consists of a series of long, rolling hills that give the engine a breather on the downside. Taking the Prius up Interstate 15 from Phoenix to Flagstaff on a hot summer day with the air conditioner running could be a bit of a load for the 1.5 liter, 4 lunger. But for a good share of America, even this engine would be sufficient. However, Toyota plans to introduce a more powerful version of the same engine.
Speaking of the air conditioner. I did try it out briefly one afternoon on my way home from work and it seemed to work adequately. I can't say I really put it to the test since the weather over the test period was very mild. We even had frost one morning. I can tell you that I do like the the heater/defroster. On the near-freezing morning, the car was warm and the windows defrosted within 3 blocks of the house. I've never owned a car that worked that effectively.
Ride and handling of the Prius is acceptable. It's no Lexus, of course. The car does have a short wheel base which tends to make it a little more jittery than a longer wheel-based vehicle. But Toyota's engineers have done a wonderful job with the suspension. I couldn't really detect much difference between the ride of the Prius and my '95 Accord. Interior noise levels in the two cars are about the same, as well.
Because the test car's steering wheel was on the right hand side, it took a little getting used to and yes, I added my own small scuff to that left front hub cap. Once I'd gotten the knack of it, I actually grew quite fond of driving on the right side. It did, however make appreciation of the handling of the car little more difficult. I noticed no glaring short-comings in the steering. The car can "zag" with the best of them.
Better Acceleration Than Camry V-6?
The most surprising and pleasing part of the car's handling is its pep. In my mind, if Toyota and the other car markers are looking for a way to sell hybrids to Americans, sell them the pep. Every single person I have had in the car has been surprised by how fast and how smoothly this car accelerates. You simply don't expect it out of that little engine hidden under that stubby nose. The local Toyota dealer told me, though I haven't verified it, that the Prius will out accelerate a V6 cylinder Camry. It wouldn't surprise me.
Mark Amstock reports the Prius' 0-60 acceleration is about 12 seconds, slower he believes than the V6 Camry.
My overall impression of the car is quite favorable, despite my disappointment with its gas mileage, at least under my driving conditions and habits. The car is roomy, comfortable for four adults, quite peppy and gets remarkably good gas mileage. It also can contribute to dramatically lower emissions. Toyota has worked hard to have the car qualify as a Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (SULEV) under California's tough emission standards.
Only One Major Reservation
My only reservation, and others have expressed a similar concern, is the cost of replacing the NiMH battery pack. The car simply hasn't been in service long enough for anyone to know how long the pack will last before it needs replacement and how much that will cost. Bench tests of the battery have now passed the equivalent of 150,000 miles, reports Mark Amstock. Toyota and the other companies introducing hybrids will need to address this legitimate concern possibly in the form of an extended power train warranty.
Toyota reports the Prius will sell for about $20,000 msrp starting mid Summer, 2000. The car will be available nationwide from Toyota dealerships.
The Prius is a wonderful urban vehicle. It is stingy on fuel while generous in cabin space. What it lacks in trunk space, it more than makes up for in acceleration. But perhaps the best payoff of owning a Prius is when you pull up to a stop light and sit there in splendid, vibration free, silence, the gasoline engine stopped, the electric motor on ready standby. Now you are in the emission free zone.
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