Posted by: bkivey | 10 March 2011

Pri & Me

That’s ‘Pri’ as in Prius, and I got to spend a day with one yesterday. This enabled me to be as smugly self-righteous as any Portland-area hipster; if I’d bought some Starbucks the picture would have been complete. Having spent a little time with the progressive status symbol, I thought I’d share some of my impressions.

The very first thing I did was pop the hood and look at the powerplant, or more precisely, powerplants. The evil gas-burning engine is on the passenger side and the eco-friendly electric motor is mounted forward on the driver’s side with a thick power cord coming out of it. There are also some ‘black boxes’ crammed into the engine bay, and it’s apparent that for anything other than basic maintenance, something big and expensive will have to moved.

The interior is adequate for average-sized people; I didn’t sit in the rear seat so I can’t say how comfortable that is. The center console sweeps up to meet the dash, which is a bit unusual. Both the door armrest and the console are nicely placed and in a sign that Toyota does indeed know the American market, there is a large cupholder placed so that the driver’s right hand falls directly over it. There is a storage bin under the sweep of the console and a 12V outlet, but that’s placed so that the driver can’t reach it. The passenger side features upper and lower glove boxes, with generous storage space.

The shifter is placed on the center console below the radio and climate controls, and is a bit unusual. It’s smaller than normal shifter and includes a ‘B’ selection. I didn’t know what that was so I left it alone. It turns out that the ‘B’ selection is the equivalent of ‘L’ on a regular transmission and is used for long downhill grades. I did drive a road where I could have tried that, but as I said, I didn’t know what it was for at the time. The shifter also has an unusual shift pattern and after a gear is selected it springs back to the center position. Park is a button on the console, which took a little getting used to.

The Prius is all digital, and the instruments are in a center-mount pod on top of the dash, sort of like another Toyota product, the Echo. I have experience with the Echo, and never could get used to looking at the middle of the dashboard to see the instruments. This is not such a problem in the Prius, as the instruments are located in the left half of the pod. Still not directly in front of the driver, but not distractingly so.

The car starts with a pushbutton, and the only way to tell the engine has started is a chime. You also get a message in the dash display that says ‘Welcome to Prius’. Ohhkay. All of the normal controls are stalk-mounted with a couple of multi-function buttons on the steering wheel for radio, cruise control, and the right-hand display in the dash pod. There are a couple of mode control buttons labeled Eco and Pwr on the center console, and like the ‘B’ transmission selection, I left them alone.

Whatever other merits the car may have, driver visibility isn’t one of them. The design creates a rear hatch with two windows, the top one is nearly flat, and the bottom one isn’t especially large. Between the two is a thick structural member. The roofline also makes it hard to see the rear quarters on either side. There is a blind spot on the driver’s side that no amount of fiddling with the side mirror could eliminate. Backing up was a bit of an adventure because I couldn’t see well enough to be comfortable. You can see the right rear by turning your head, but the driver’s seat blocks the view on that side. When in reverse the car generates a beep much like that of heavy trucks. I don’t know if the sound is audible outside the car.

I drove around town and on the highway, and the vehicle drives like any other compact car. There’s adequate power, it handles reasonably well, and the brakes feel like they could stop a truck. If the engine starts and stops, it’s not noticeable.

The instrument cluster includes a fuel gauge, speedometer (switchable to MPH or KPH), MPG gauge with 0, 50, and 100 markings, and a gear selection display. The right-hand side of the pod features a screen with several steering wheel button selectable displays. You can look at a bar graph showing fuel usage the last 15 minutes, a linear graph depicting current drivetrain usage, and an outline of the car with both motors depicting power flow between the batteries, engine, and wheels. A clock at the top and the odometer on the bottom complete the display. I never did figure out how to activate the trip odometer.

Because the Prius uses keyless entry and starting, you have to unlock the other doors and the hatch from the driver’s door. The hatch uses a touch-sensitive strip under the handle to open, and under the floor mat is a full-size spare and jack.

So after spending the day with the Prius, would I buy one? Probably not. In mostly city driving with some highway miles I got about 30 mpg, not too shabby, but not exactly earth-shaking. The car sits low enough that if you overrun your parking space there’s a real chance you’ll scrape the bumper fascia on the curb. But the deal-killer for me is the lack of visibility. I never felt like I could see well enough to be safe , especially in passing situations. So while I enjoyed the opportunity to drive the car for a day, it’s not going to be on my short list of desirable vehicles.

Word Watch

Can we please go forward without relying exclusively on the phrase ‘going forward’? I recently read an article where that phrase was used three times in two paragraphs. Please. There are plenty of other servicable phrases that adequately convey the idea of events that are to happen. In future, I’d like to see them used more often.

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