Prius in the Wild
by Remy Chevalier
Written back in 1998...
I’d been meaning to test drive the Prius for months, but wanted to wait for a good occasion. I was in no hurry because I’d already had a chance to take it around the block a few times at Disneyworld when Toyota brought it over for the Electric Vehicle Symposium in Orlando two years ago.
Same time in Westport, where I live, the local Toyota showroom burned down! They’ve been selling cars out of a big tent on the lot ever since. Must have been a Godsend because they ended up breaking all Toyota dealership sales records for the North East. 3600+ cars in two years!!! So, you might say this may have been a good omen.
I wanted to schedule my turn at the wheel of the Prius lent to journalists by theToyota PR office in New York to coincide with their grand re-opening. I was treated to a feast of sushi and cheesecake, while the Prius was the talk of the party. Toyota has just introduced the ECHO, an affordable little car targeted at the youth market. But once students get a load of the Prius, and take Leonardo Di Caprio’s advice now that he’s just been appointed official Earth Day 2000 celebrity spokesperson by Denis Hayes, they might spring the extra money to stop global warming. The Prius will wean kids away from oil.
But if the Prius didn’t stand on its own as a fun car to drive, it wouldn’t stand a chance in the marketplace. And trust me, the thing is a hoot! We drove it all around Fairfield County and made pit stops where we felt the car would receive the warmest welcome. Once we read through the manual a little, and after my co-pilot scared the hell out of me by pulling out something red that was sticking out from under the dash which turned out to just be a flare, we were on our way.
I decided not to take any cassette tapes with us because Danbury has a great college radio station, WXCI at 91.7 FM. But it was too late to drive back for some when we figured out in Japan FM stations only go up to 90mhz. Sigh.
Our first stop was with Mark Barnhizer at his shop. Mark is a crack shot racing mechanic and has done work on the Shrike, a 0 to 60 in 3 seconds street racer prototype. (You can check it out at www.shrikecars.com) He couldn’t wait to take the thing apart. Then we stopped at this great farm, I won’t tell you the name because they got more business than they can handle, besides I wouldn’t want to divulge my fresh eggs connection.
But the owner is a big fan of EVs and has been a faithful reader of ET ever since I brought him his first copy. He’s got lots of old friends in the automobile industry and he’s glad they’re finally coming around.
The Prius has this computer screen in the middle of the dash with really cool animation that lets you watch exactly when the gasoline engine kicks in, when the motor is either working alone or charging the battery, etc… Keeping an eye on the road and keeping an eye on the screen was like walking and chewing gum. Once we got the feel of what triggered what, you could easily cruise on just the motor at around 25/30mph before jump starting the engine. I had to look in the manual to figure what (B) meant next to (D) on the gear shift position LED read out. It stands for “braking”. When you’re going downhill, you put it in (B) and you get that much more charging from both the brakes and the engine.
The brakes are all hydraulic disks on each wheel, and each have anti-lock breaking system (ABS). You won’t get that standard on any other car in that price range. The Prius plans to start at $16.000. The Toyota ECHO for example starts at $10,000. But in the life of the car, you’ll spend that much in gas. So it’s a question of whether or not you want to spend the money up front, change the world and clean the air, or do it the old fashion way by spewing it out the exhaust. Your choice!
Both US and Japanese instruction manuals were in the glove compartment. It was interesting to compare the two. The Japanese book read like a Manga comic book. There was one really bizarre illustration demonstrating when air bags inflate, with two Priuses in a head on collision. Now I ask you, when will we see enough of them on the road for such a scenario to even be plausible? The illustrations of crash and impact had explosions, but never on the same drawings in each book. All very intriguing…
One night, driving back from the Toyota Westport reception, I noticed this strange exclamation point all lit up. Looked like this (!). for the life of me I couldn't figure out what it was. I stopped the car and cracked open the instruction manual. I’d forgotten the hand brake, actually a foot pedal. Toyota might do well to maybe draw up an icon that’s self-explanatory.
Instruction manuals are always so strange. Get a load of this sentence:
“When the brake is applied, the traction motor used as a generator converts kinetic energy into electric energy. The regenerative brake works in the following operations. 1- When the accelerator pedal is released, the reduced speed equal to engine breaking in a gasoline-fueled vehicle is obtained in accordance with the running mode position of the selector lever. 2- When the brake pedal is depressed with the selector lever in “D” or “B” the regenerative brake works.”
OK, if you say so! As long as the car stops when I put my foot on the floor, I’m happy.
Then off to Evercel in Danbury, which makes a great Nickel-Zinc battery for 2 wheelers in China. They are not ready to tackle the 4 wheeler market yet. Glen Bowling gave us the full tour. Evercel has just introduced a new shade of green for their battery casing, and you are the first ones to see it here, an Electrifying Times exclusive!
We had pizza, and then stopped by to see Chris Durante who has a pop art gallery and a great collection of table top books and toy models in his frame shop. He tells me of this yellow EV he sees driving around Danbury, which we’ve never been able to track down. Dropped in the local Danbury News-Times, who promised us a write-up and then off to Trash American Style, the local area Mecca for underground sounds and strange literature. Malcolm Tent got a kick out of the fact the Prius could spell the end of the oil baron dynasties. We parked the car in front of the other great record store in town, Volt Music. Couldn’t have missed the obvious photo-op under their neon sign.
When they came back to pick up the car from my driveway, I pointed out the car had been delivered to me without hubcaps on the left side. Seems a previous driver didn’t know how to parallel park and wore down the rims. It was like Mariah Carey’s face, I could only shoot the Prius from it’s good side. :)
But otherwise, for a car with already 28.000 km on the odometer, it ran smooth as silk, had all the power we needed to get up these infamous New England hills. Driving with the steering wheel on the right side was not a problem, except it made it a bit tricky to find the gas pedal’s sweet spot as your foot had a tendency to rest on the raised side of the cab.
The next day I stopped by Pymander Books, the best new age bookshop between New York and Boston, and Heroes Comics which takes all my money every Wednesday!
I can’t wait to get a call from Toyota letting me know the US model has landed East. I already have a dozen sold! I might even be Toyota Wesport's first Prius customer. Since my Honda CRX rusted away last year, I've been in the market for a new car. Maybe we can work something out?