The Pious Prius
The current Toyota Prius is in its official fourth generation, though in reality it’s actually a fifth-generation vehicle as the original petrol-electric hybrid in the line was first sold as a Japan-only model back at the end of 1997. Throughout its history the vehicle has been marketed to middle-class folk eager to do their part for the environment yet unwilling to forgo personal automotive transportation in order to do so. Thanks to misleading marketing and general consumer ignorance, such people have bought more than fifteen million Priuses to date, all under the impression that they are somehow less environmentally harmful than standard petrol or diesel powered vehicles.
Personally I don’t mind Toyota taking advantage of naïve consumers — after all, pretty much every corporation in existence does that on a daily basis. And I don’t mind that the Prius is actually a little worse for the environment than a standard small-displacement vehicle because it combines toxic (and non-recyclable) lithium batteries with the weight of a traditional engine, thus creating an overall heavier vehicle that requires more power to move its mass around than if it were either (i) purely electric, or (ii) purely fuel-powered. But who cares about Newton’s second law when Hollywood celebs were given free Priuses in order to kick-start its sales in the USA?
What I do care about is how awful the Prius is.
From the outside it’s always been a Plain Jane, though the second generation tried to be less dowdy and apologetic than its predecessor. Now, though, it’s a testimony to design by committee, a jumble of lines and shapes that make one shake one’s head at how such an awful mess could ever be approved, never mind actually roll off a production line. The only design horror the Prius doesn’t have (thankfully) is one of those oh-so-trendy-for-the-next-ten-minutes massive front grills that far too many manufacturers are using to ruin otherwise acceptable designs.
As the exterior is so appalling, you hurry to get inside so as to be spared having to look at it. In this way it’s rather reminiscent of the truly unfortunate Acura RLX which was so ugly that owners would blindfold themselves and grope their way toward it in order to avoid ever having to confront the fact they’d bought such a badly-styled vehicle. But at least once you were inside an RLX the interior was acceptable if not particularly attractive. Alas, inside the Prius you begin to wish you had stayed outside after all.
The interior is — how shall we put it? — not very reassuring. Another committee got to design the interior and clearly they didn’t play well together. Another jumble of clashing lines and materials and oddly-placed controls forces you to work out where things are before you can go anywhere. Most cars you can just climb into and drive off because things are where they are just like in every other car you’ve ever driven. But the Prius desperately wants to be trendy and with-it, like a paunchy balding uncle who dresses up in 1980s disco clothing in the belief that it makes him look young and sexy.
These days manufacturers are struggling to decide how to let drivers select the required gear. In the very old days this was easy: gears were manually shifted via a huge metal stick that you gripped with both hands and no small measure of desperation in order to grind it from one straight-cut cog to another, while pressing as hard as you could on the clutch with your left foot. Then came the epicyclic slush-o-matics and gearshifts moved to the steering column and became almost ladylike in their genteel delicacy.
Europeans, however, scorned the flabby Yankee relocation of the gear lever, not least because even today a majority of vehicles are purchased with (sigh) a manual gearbox. This is despite the fact that for more than fifteen years automatic gearboxes have shifted far faster than any human can manage and thus provide far more control and finesse than even the most skilled heel-and-toe double-declutch enthusiast. But while Europeans remain stuck in the automotive equivalent of the Bronze Age, everyone else is using automatic transmissions. Many cars have flappy paddles behind the steering wheel to facilitate manual changes, and this makes life very agreeable indeed. But the question remains: where to put the selector?
For a while the Tiptronic approach seemed to rule: make the selector resemble a gear lever, put it in the same place, and permit manual shifting between gears by means of a side-gate. Lately however this solution has fallen out of favor with the more trendy and fashion-conscious designers of automotive interiors. Some have opted for buttons while others have made gear selection dependent on rotating a large knob. In general these buttons and knobs are still located above the traditional central transmission tunnel (even for front-wheel-drive cars that don’t actually need a central transmission tunnel). But Toyota in its infinite-fashion-victim current modality has opted instead for a flimsy little lever located in the center console below the infotainment screen. You tap this plastic lever and basically hope you’ve done the right thing, because it’s like tapping a Bakelite lid on a straw attached to a spring. Get it right and the car begins to move in the direction you hoped for.
And that’s when things get worse.
The Prius has never, in any of its incarnations, aspired to be even remotely anything anyone who enjoys driving would ever want to drive. It’s always been a slow, careful, tedious car made exclusively for shopping trips, school runs, and taking granny to her incontinence therapy appointments. It’s a vehicle that delivers its greatest excitement on the day you finally trade it in for a real car.
You quickly discover that driving the Prius in a cautious half-hearted manner suits it to perfection. Attempting to corner at any speed above the walking pace of a ninety-five-year-old triple amputee results in the Prius lurching around like an inebriated duck. The steering lacks any feel whatsoever and the narrow tires (so good for fuel economy, my dear!) slip and slide on anything but the most perfectly flat and dry surfaces. In fact a Prius driver is well advised to take a portable hairdryer along on every trip in case a few specks of rain should make it nearly impossible to return home unless the road ahead is carefully prepared and toweled down after its blow-dry.
So let’s see: the Prius is ugly inside and out, dynamically atrocious, not particularly fuel efficient, and not particularly good for the environment. No wonder Toyota has shifted more than fifteen million of the beasts. The only thing left is to ask if we can say anything good about the Prius?
Well, its LED headlights are OK.
And that’s about it.
If you want to save the environment, ride a bicycle when the weather is clement. Turn off lights you’re not using. Nag your local supermarket to stop wrapping every single item in layers of plastic on top of plastic trays. Get a job where you don’t have to commute: the world would reduce consumption of over ten billion barrels of oil a day if white collar workers stopped going into the office and that’s a lot of CO2 we can stop from being pumped into the atmosphere. Insulate your house and put solar panels on the roof. Don’t buy clothes you don’t need. Replace every bulb with an LED version. Shoot people who use 2-stroke leaf blowers.
All of these things will help the environment infinitely more than buying a Prius and have the upside of not requiring you to park something irredeemably ugly and horrid in your garage or driveway.