Thursday, February 14, 2013

Test Drive: 2011 Toyota Prius

The Prius looking at home at a beautiful house on Oahu
My wife and I had the good fortune to travel to Hawaii a while back for a friend's wedding. We were going to spend our entire time on Oahu so we took the opportunity to rent a car and drive around the island. Of course, being the gearhead that I am, I wanted to rent something fun and impractical, but unfortunately, since we had a decent amount of luggage and would be traveling with a few friends, we needed something practical and at least somewhat spacious. In looking down the line at the rental car location, I first spotted a 2011 Jetta among the various GM detritus littering the lot. Rushing over to it before anyone spotted it, I found that it was locked, indicating that someone had beat me to the punch. Damn....

Beautiful scenery abounds throughout the island
Looking down the line again at the sad collection of GM products, I spotted a 2011 Toyota Prius. Figuring that since the fuel was expensive ($3.73 a gallon for regular was the norm on the island) and that we needed some practicality, the fuel sipping hybrid with its hatchback shape might just do the trick. So we quickly rushed over and claimed this one, before anyone else could beat us to it.

Getting into to Prius, the layout of the interior felt odd and somewhat disconcerting, with the instruments way out towards the base of the windshield and centered in the car, rather than in front of the driver. While I had driven with this layout before, it is something that I have never really been 100% comfortable with. After getting situated in the seat, my hand fell to the nub of a shifter that looked like some sort of candy colored vestigial limb. I am still not quite sure why Toyota bothered with keeping this feature. Perhaps it was to make people feel like they were in a car and not some spaceship?

Foot on the brake, push the start button, and the dash begins its dance, but not a peep to be heard. It is an odd sensation getting nearly no aural feedback when starting a car. Looking up at the dash and checking to make sure that we were "Ready" to go, I slide the shifter into reverse and am greeted by the shrill cry of annoyance that I would be intimately acquainted with during the next week. Yes, the Prius beeps every time you put it in reverse. That sound made me want to crash the thing every time I heard it just so I would not have to hear it again.

Out on the road, I began playing around with the different buttons on the console and steering wheel, quickly discovering the 3-D overlay effect used for every press of a button on the wheel. It is mesmerizing and a totally unnecessary distraction to the driver. Maybe if Toyota would take some of that engineering time to sort out the rest of the rather blah interior, all might be forgiven. Getting onto the highway, with the car set in Eco mode, I ever so slowly managed to crawl up to the 50 MPH speed limit. Holy crap this thing is slow. I swear there were bicyclists passing us by accelerating up to 25. As much as I wanted to squeeze the entire trip in on a single tank of fuel, I knew I could not tolerate using this mode the entire time.

Weather was highly unpredictable,  but added to the
character of the island
Hit the button and switch off Eco mode and get on the throttle again. Hmm....better. Ever so slightly more responsive to throttle inputs, less resistance to additional throttle pressure, and we were getting going at slightly better than the glacial pace while in Eco mode. Let's try the PWR mode. Another slight bump in responsiveness and the damn thing finally was starting to pick up speed like a slightly anemic Toyota Corolla. I guess there would not be much in terms of tire spinning antics on this trip...

 Over the course of the next several days, I got to acquaint myself with the characteristics of the Prius even more, playing with the different settings and learning a sense of the chassis. Oahu is a driver's dream during the off-peak hours. There are miles and miles of windy twisty roads for one to explore and are lined by lush green vegetation on one side and sparkling blue oceans on the other. Driving around in this environment makes even the Prius tolerable.

Windmills are present throughout the island
To be honest, the Prius actually tracks surprisingly well, despite the skinny tires and tiny wheels. While the steering is clearly overboosted, there is adequate feedback for the amount of speed that can be attained. There is certainly little engagement for the driver, but as an appliance for getting from A to B, it really is quite easy to get comfortable with. In fact, it is almost relaxing since without even the capability to compete with most cars on the road for position, it is easy to just stay in the middle lanes and cruise.

So while over the course of week, where we saw a wide variety of weather conditions and enjoyed the fantastic scenery, I gradually began to understand why people like the fuel sipping hybrids. Even with driving around the island and traveling over 400 miles, we averaged close to 50 mpg driving normally. And while I still would never purchase a hybrid for myself, I have finally come to realize why there are people who like these contraptions and why they drive the way that they do. Definitely not an experience I plan on repeating anytime soon. The next trip we have lined up, I am looking to work a proper sports car into the plans.