I spent the weekend at a conference near the mountains. The conference was a mixed experience for me. I'll write about that under different head, though.
Here, I'm jonesing to write about 4 days in a Toyota Prius.
Driving a Prius is almost like driving a car, but enough little habits were different to throw me off. The cliches of driving failed me often enough in the Prius, especially at the beginning, to keep me unsettled and happy. It was like having that new-car smell in my brain. It kept reminding me that I was playing with a new toy.
You know how to start driving. We all do. You get in, turn the key, and go. Well, not so with the Prius. There is no key. And there's no real shift lever, either. There's a funky little joystick like an old arcade game, and a button like you'd expect to find on a senior citizen's TV with the big word, "Power."
I've still never owned a car with a remote locking system, so it's all odd to me. I pulled the fob out and clicked it to unlock the car - just like all my rentals. Then everything changed. There's no key, but the fob plugs in to the dash. You plug the unlocky-fobby-thingy into the dash, and hit the senior citizen power button to "start" the car. You can tell the car is started because the dash lights up and the computer screen in the center of the dash boots up. There are no sounds or sensations to go along with the lights.
Sometimes the dash did not light up. I have no idea what that was about. Sometimes, I had to hit power twice, and when I did it would turn yellow instead of green. Whatever. I've been an IT geek too long to try to figure everything out about a rental car, and not long enough to just automatically know.
I'm also one of the last 3 people in the world who uses the park break every time he parks. The Prius park break was odd to me, but only because all my cars are 15 years old or older. Push the brake to set it. Push it again to release it. No big.
So, joystick "up" to go into reverse and back out of your parking spot.
At this point, the dash shows R so you know you're in reverse, and the disgusting engineers' built-in reverse beeper starts bleeping in your ear. The morons put a backup beeper on the inside of the car so that I would know I was going backwards! I wonder how many people really, truly don't know that they're moving backwards after they've put the car in reverse? Pffft. Worst design decision ever.
At this point, the only noise the car has made is that infernal beeping. The engine has not started, the transmission has not dropped into gear, the starter motor has not whirred itself to silence. You are simply rolling backwards, seemingly propelled by your mere desire to be headed backwards. It's a sweet, sweet feeling. After you get used to it, it's what driving was meant to feel like. You let off the brake, and just start going where you wanted to go. If only I could have driven an ice-pick through the cold heart of the backup beeper.
Going forward was just like going backward, except there were no noises to make me want to kill anything. Eventually, of course, the motor does start and it begins to feel like a car again. The motor dies again as you approach a stop sign, or shortly after arriving, which is way too cool. It even dies when driving normally downhill, but that's harder to hear. It seemed early on like the engine dying at stop signs was a transparent affair. After a while, I began to distinctly notice the engine dying with a sad little cough. I don't know whether the poor car was feeling its miles, or whether I was getting more used to it's noises. Either way, it made it back to the rental place, and we all know that's what really matters.
Then we get to the real experience of driving a Prius. I promise I did watch the road from time to time, but watching the little bugger interpret it's own feelings about my driving was irresistible. They put a computer screen the size of a small paperback right where the heater controls go in older cars, and it gives you constant feedback about how deeply the Prius is feeling your fuel-saving love. If it approves of your degree of haste, the little lines will go green, and if you're making it drink too fast, the lines will be be yellow or amber.
Sometimes it would give me a little peck on the cheek by regenerating electricity from the tires to the battery for later conspicuous consumption, and sometimes it would wag its finger at me when I was consuming a gallon of gas in a mere 8 miles. I watched as the little power lines went green and yellow and amber, and the battery filled in drained. I also watched the road mock me. The road would rise above me in some gravity empowering display of mountainousness then chuckle in the sadistic knowledge that I could never climb it at better than 20mpg. Each dotted line giggled as I passed, knowing my Prius would blame me when it was all gravity's fault!
Going up into the mountains, I would average - average, mind you - some ridiculously low mileage like 35 mpg. Falling back down down the mountain, I had one 5 minute stretch (the Prius bundles its feelings about you into nice, little 5 minute averages) in which I averaged 100mpg, and the 20 minute segment of which that was a part never averaged less than 65 mpg.
And that was what I suspected and found. The Prius does not like mountains. It's a lowlander's rig. If you're stopping and going in rush hour, the Prius is right at home. If you're ascending a half-mile vertically over fifty horizontal miles, the Prius is going to be baffled. It doesn't know how to cope with the kind of flagrant waste of energy it takes to ascend a purple mountain majesty, and it's even less at home with falling back off that mountain. Within 30 seconds, it's filled it's batteries back up to "warm and fuzzy" and has to waste the gravitational energy it's being handed just like any other merely mortal gas hog.
Driving within the mountains reveals the Prius's weakness most completely. The Prius is afraid to let its batteries go below 75% full, and therefore it cannot slurp down the kind of energy a typical mountain valley has to offer. It's too bad, but it's optimized for city driving. Such is life.
One more random thing to mention is its constant velocity transmission. Entering a freeway at 70% throttle from a dead stop and continuing to 70 mph results in the engine singing exactly one song for 20-30 seconds (I did not time its acceleration). There is no pleasant shifting of gears, no rise of the engine speed with the passing seconds, and no settling in just at a given rpm when you hit 70.
The Prius says, "Hmmm. 70% throttle. That means 4500 rpm and 80% gas." at 5 mph and 35 mph and 55 mph and 75 mph, the engine smoothly turns 4500 rpm. The gears never shift, and the engine never goes faster. It's a very smooth, nice feeling; again, almost exactly what driving should feel like. It takes almost no time to get used to. The only problem is that you cannot check your speed by listening to the engine. The engine is going exactly as fast as you tell it to go with your foot, with utter disregard for how fast the car is going. If it takes 30% throttle to maintain your speed, and you are holding 35% throttle, your Prius will steadily gain speed without any audible clue. You'll look down to see you're doing 75, but the engine is singing the same song it sang at 65. Or just as easily, you can find yourself doing 55, and still hear the same song as at 65. It's not such a big deal to me, because I use the cruise control religiously, but it's noticable.
Anyway, it was a fun four days.
My final fillup summed up the story. In 240 miles, I consumed 6.13 gallons of gas. $21 was mighty reasonable for all the driving I'd done. I guess that's 39 or so mpg. The Prius told me I averaged 44 mpg. Not a bad estimate considering how I'd made a mountain goat of a city turtle, even if it was a "But, you said!" moment.
I got over it. :-)
I made it home, and turned the key on my '91 Mercedes diesel. It fired to life and took me home, weird noises, abrupt shifts, rain dripping onto my thigh, and all. It made me happy to be back in my car. In the end, I'm too Scottish to spend $20k+ plus interest to save $15 on every tank of gas, but I'm spend-thrift enough to try it out for a weekend. I'm glad I did, and now I'm sure I won't be leveraging any credit to shoehorn myself into one any time soon.