Hello Insight fans,

Besides being an EV fanatic and happy owner of 'Sniffer' my silver Insight, I am also a staff writer for Electrifying Times (ET) magazine and am a personal friend of the editor, Bruce Meland. As such, I often find myself going on one EV-adventure after another, whether it's driving from Portland, Oregon to Phoenix, Arizona and back on an electric drag racing trip, taking a trek across the Rockies to race in Denver, hitting the Canadian Electric Vehicle show, or going to Florida to attend an EV symposium, it's always interesting, always entertaining, and always fun!

A couple of weeks ago, I displayed my electric 1/4 drag car 'White Zombie' at 'Transportation 2000' here in Portland, Oregon. It was a show that Bruce was involved with, and we had entered the race car as an example of what 'backyard EVers' are doing in contrast to what the OEMs are doing. My car was positioned right next to a silver Honda Insight...a clone of Sniffer, but right across the room was a pre-production, teal green US spec Toyota Prius. I had test driven a Japanese right hand drive Prius way back in '97 at EVS14, but this was my first up close inspection of a left hand drive US model. I had not been too impressed with the Prius back then, as I felt it was grossly underpowered, and for my taste, its styling was, well... 'frumpy'. The US spec model's styling is unchanged, but in the teal green color, it comes off a little better. The serial number of this car ends with '000000', in other words, it has no serial number!

Although Pacific Northwest Toyota dealers are clamoring to get their hands on this pre-production Prius, Toyota is more interested in making sure it gets in the hands of the press...that would be Bruce and I. Bruce arranged for the two of us to get this the car two weeks later, and we would have it for a full week of testing and evaluation.

Sunday evening, Bruce arrived in Portland via a flight from his home in Bend, Oregon in an 'RV4' experimental aircraft...things like this are typical for Bruce. I picked him up in yet another rare vehicle, my Honda Insight. We drove Honda's revolutionary hybrid vehicle down to Toyota's corporate headquarters here in Portland to pick up Toyota's revolutionary hybrid vehicle...what fun! Parked out front of the modern building, Honda's hybrid offering drew a small crowd. After a brief show and tell session, and with Bruce driving the Prius and I driving the Insight, we headed north into Washington state and up to my work location, where I parked my Honda and took the controls of the Prius. Here's a quick rundown on their differences:

4 door sedan
upright, non-flashy family car
separate trunk with no pass through steel body
can be driven as an EV at low speeds
gas engine is off until needed
4 cylinder with large electric motor
gas engine comes on to boost power
automatic transmission (CVT) only
graphics dash emphasizes powertrain mode

2 door hatchback coupe
low slung, raked windshield, low stance
no trunk, but has hatch storage area
aluminum body
cannot be driven as an EV at low speeds excluding idle stop,
gas engine always on
3 cylinder with small electric motor
electric motor comes on to boost power
manual transmission (5 speed) only digital dash emphasizes fuel economy

Getting right out of my swoopy, low-to-the-ground Honda and sliding behind the wheel of the Toyota Prius was an exercise in contrast...these two cars are very different! Once inside, it felt like I was about to pilot a school bus rather than a futuristic and advanced automobile, as the seating is very 'upright' and the uninspired steering wheel and utilitarian ergonomics of this car are completely different from the interior of Honda's be-skirted space ship car.

Starting the Prius was a big disappointment. I've gotten used to the surreal starting procedure of my Insight, with the complete absence of the stereotypical 'RRR-RRR-RRR' of a conventional 12v starter motor, the faint click of a contactor, and then just the silent spin-over of the ICE by the IMA electric motor. The Prius tells you immediately that there's nothing special about to happen as you crank it over. After that letdown, and having been reminded that I was indeed, cranking-over a 4 banger under the hood, I was prepared to experience an ICE-like ride...NOT!
Shifting the oddly-placed gear selector (it kind of grows out from the dash) into 'D' for drive, the ICE shut down and there was the silence of an EV at hand. OK, this was just Toyota's version of the idle stop thing right?...Nope, because this car can actually run on pure battery power (it has twice as many D cell NiMH batteries on board), stepping down lightly on the throttle produced a satisfying electric presence, and the Prius moved away in total silence...very EV, and very different from the Insight! Stepping down harder on the gas pedal, at around 13 mph the gas engine sprang to life and the Prius moved up to 45 mpg without any fuss. I replayed the procedure again, but stomped hard on the gas pedal from the get go. This time, the car accelerated even better, and though MUCH stronger than the Japanese version I had test driven before, it is still no match for the Insight's 0-60 time of 10.5 seconds...I'd estimate its 0-60 performance in about 12-13 seconds. Though not stellar, this is just fine for most folks.

Pulling onto the freeway, a whole new car emerged, and as the CVT told the gas motor to rev up more and with a full 30 kw of electric motor lending a hand, the Prius impressed me with its freeway prowess. Moments later and still grinning from my surprise that this Toyota indeed, had some guts, I hit it hard on an open freeway stretch...the poorly-placed, centrally located digital speedo (what was Toyota thinking?) registered an even 100 mph...and it would have ran that figure even higher if I hadn't been suspect of radar cops lurking in the bushes!

In addition to the speedo-instrument cluster at the base of the windshield, there's another poorly located information center, a small video display that while entertaining, offers none of the critical information that Insight presents to its driver. Unlike Honda, Toyota gives the driver (more appropriately, the rear seat passengers) a full color picture display demonstrating how the hybrid system is working in real time. It's pretty neat at first, but I really missed seeing the instantaneous fuel mileage readout, and I missed the three odometers at the touch of a button. I can't over stress the poor placement of the instruments in this car...their central dash location requires the driver to look completely away from the road and off to the right (or to the left if you are driving the right hand drive version) to see them. The Insight, with its pod-mounted digital dash information right in front of the driver, is way better.

Another thing I missed about the Insight, was its strong regen braking effect. In the Prius, regen braking is pretty minimal, and you can't feel any strong speed reduction when lightly touching the brake pedal. The Prius' off-throttle regen seems to be about on par with the off-throttle regen of the Insight, however.

We decided to take the car into NW Portland to my wife's work location where we would take her to lunch, and show the Prius off to her coworkers. They had already seen my Insight, so I was interested in getting their reaction to the Prius. To my surprise, most everyone liked the looks of this car, and one guy said he thought it was much better looking than the Insight. A couple of them piled into the back seat, and they gave rave reviews of the leg room back there.

We went to lunch, with four people in the car, and since we were downtown and negotiating city streets, I was able to experiment more with pure electric driving in the Prius. Using a very light throttle and trying to fool the car's drive train computer, I found I could nurse it up to 25 mph without the gas engine kicking on. Those unaccustomed to riding in an EV, were thrilled with the silent mode of cruising. Of course, I took the opportunity to sing the praises of pure electric vehicles! After lunch, I assumed the back seat position to see for myself how roomy it was. The head room wasn't the greatest, and at just 5 ft. 10, my head was rubbing the headliner a bit...on the other hand, the leg and shoulder room was impressive.

Back in Washington, my coworker Debbi took the Insight for a spin, and afterwards she was nice enough to pose with this fun car, where took some good pictures....somehow, the Prius looked better with a pretty girl standing next to it.

Overall, I liked the US version of the Prius, and Toyota has cranked up the power to make it very acceptable. I especially like the low speed 'pure EV' capability of this car...what a plus for stop and go gridlock type driving! I hope that in future models, Toyota takes this a step farther by equipping the Prius with even bigger battery packs, the ability to at least get up to 45 mph or so without using the ICE, and the ability to plug into clean electricity to charge the pack and be free from using gasoline in the city.

See Ya.........John Wayland