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Test Drove the Toyota Prius

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Toyota PriusLast weekend, on July 4th no less, my wife and I stopped by our local Toyota dealership and test drove a Prius. Fortunately for us, neither one of us drives a gas guzzler (I drive a 2003 Toyota Celica and my wife drives a 2004 Honda Civic) and neither one of will need a replacement car for quite some time but with a day off and being in the neighborhood running errands, we figured stopping by would be a fun little diversion. Our friends from New York own a Prius, which they love, and we’ve ridden in it before, but never really “test drove,” complete with salesperson pointing out every last feature. Overall, we were impressed and it certainly would be on the short list of vehicles we’d consider if we were to replace either of our cars.

What We Liked

My wife really liked the Prius and here were some of the reasons why:

  • The ability to help be a part of the solution to global warming instead of the problem.
  • Her commute will be changing to mostly city driving from highway driving. The Prius performs best in city driving conditions, with lots of stop and go, so this would be the optimal time to drive the Prius to take advantage of the 48MPG city fuel economy rating.
  • The Prius was surprisingly roomy in the back, with enough room to fit four adults comfortably (maybe five if you have three skinnier friends in the back). This is a big plus over her current 2-door Civic that doesn’t fit any adults comfortably in the back for long drives.
  • She was impressed with how quiet it was while idling because the engine shut off.

I liked the heads up display and the statistics it showed. The HUD showed your current fuel efficiency as you drove, 99.9 MPG in times when only the electric motor was engaged, and I was amazed at how low the numbers were in certain conditions. At first, I thought the efficiency was horrible. Then, I realized that I had no reference point. I saw the Prius get 2.5 MPG over a particular hill and thought that was bad, until I realized that I simply didn’t know what my car got (likely 2.5 MPG too, as I drive a 4 cylinder car) in those situations.

What We Didn’t Like

Here’s what my wife didn’t like:

  • This isn’t so much a dislike as it is a reason we shouldn’t get one. Her Civic gets ~38MPG, based on empirical data, which would only mean a fuel efficiency boost of around 8 MPG. With 15,000 miles a year @ $4.10/gal, it’s an annual savings of only $281.47. At this point it would take over five years of gas savings to even make up the 6% sales tax on the $25,000 base model car, forget the cost of the car itself. My wife suggests checking out the Fueleconomy.gov’s Side by Side Comparison tool if you’re looking to compare.
  • She also wasn’t a fan of the wait, there is roughly a 2-3 month lead time because the factory isn’t able to keep up with demand.

I didn’t like how the numbers couldn’t justify purchasing the car. While I like the idea of helping the environment by reducing our dependency on fossil fuels and I like the idea of helping America get off dependency on foreign oil, the financial figures simply don’t work. If we were driving a 10MPG Hummer, then we’d be talking an annual gas savings of $4813.40 and it starts making sense.

Things To Consider

My wife wanted to add a few additional ideas to help those who are thinking about the Prius:

  • What are the new fuel cell car going to be like? Honda already has a hundred fifty ’08 FCX Clarity vehicles on the road in South California. A zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell is a compelling offer – no oil, no emissions.
  • Chevy is pushing up the release of their Ford Chevy Volt (whoops!) to compete with all the other alternative fuel and hybrid vehicles.
  • Lastly, Toyota is reported to come out with a new model Prius with better technology… it’s like computers, technology is always improving.
  • Given all that information, is it better to just wait for new/cleaner technology, like fuel cell technology? Right now we’d be trading in a Civic, that gets 38 MPG, for a Prius, that gets 46 MPG, which is only a meager fuel savings and that would definitely preclude us from getting newer technology should it come out in the next five years.

After all that, I don’t think we’re getting a Prius but it certainly was fun driving it.

Finally, we leave you with one interesting note. Normally, heat in a car is free because it comes from the heat of the engine and air conditioning costs fuel because the compressor needs power. In the Prius, because the engine doesn’t run as often, you don’t get “free” heat. It actually costs you to turn on the heat! The trade-off then is that AC is “free.”

(Prius photo by six27)

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20 Responses to “Test Drove the Toyota Prius”

  1. A.J. says:

    I don’t like that the Prius locks you out of the GPS while the car is in motion. I don’t think my car should be telling me what I can and can’t do.

    Also, no moonroof :(

  2. David says:

    Hey Jim

    It’s the Chevy Volt, not the Ford Volt. ;-) I wish they would hurry that thing up though!

    Also, keep in mind that the Prius spits out barely any emissions compared to most cars, so that is also something that people are paying the extra money for. It’s not just about the gas savings, even though that is what most people buy them for. Great article!

  3. Chris S says:

    As a 2007 Prius owner:

    1. The AC isn’t really “free.” The AC runs off the high-voltage battery. If you’re in motion this isn’t a problem, but if you’re stopped often the engine will end up running more so that it can recharge the battery. Naturally, this is more evident in hot weather.

    2. The front seats don’t slide back far enough for tall drivers. I’m 6’7″ and thought I would “learn to fit.” I could easily use two more inches in all directions. I wouldn’t take the car on long trips, but for commuting it’s fine. Also, my normal-sized wife has plenty of room.

    3. When I bought mine, it replaced as 12 year old Honda and the purchase still qualified for a partial tax credit.

    4. When shopping for a new car, I compared the Prius to the Honda Civi Hybrid and a few other models. The Prius had what, to me, seemed like the easiest to use control layout. Controls for almost everything are available right on the steering wheel, they are layed out logically. Once you know the basic layout, you don’t need to look – the steering wheel controls are “keyed” with bumps and divots so you can tell keys apart by touch.

    If I were truly following a blueprint for financial prosperity, I would still be driving the Honda I traded, or I’d have at least have kept the Honda! But, I fell victim to “I have extra money and I want a new car”-itis.

    Still, if you’d like to purchase my 2007 Prius with less than 16,000 miles on it, oh author, let me know.

  4. tom says:

    CNN Money Gallery

    That site lists all the upcoming plug-in hybrids. Most will be out by 2010. My personal favorite is the Sprinter! I’m also looking forward to the release of the Phoenix electric cars (2009). They are still pricey -$48-54K, but all electric. Tesla is supposed to be building the Whitestar electric sedan in New Mexico, but who knows when that’ll happen. The other electric sedan coming out is the Fisker Karma (2010).

    Lots of things are happening and unless the Big 3 + 2 (Toyota and Honda) really start advancing, they will be left in the dust of all these startups!

  5. jim says:

    Thanks tom! There appear to be a lot of options in the next few years. When I read the 2010 I thought to myself, wow that’s a long way off, until I realized 2010 is less than a year and a half away haha!

  6. Jadin says:

    I *love* our Prius. Luckly we bought a used one a few years back, when fuel was a little less crazy (the former owner was keeping his SUV for “practicality”) and got a good deal–we knew it, had the cash, grabbed it. Hubbie’s car was spitting oil at the time, so this was definitely a step up.
    Took a while to get used to the “sedany” feel since I had been driving a CRV myself, but oh do we love it now! A trip to SoCal (from Bay Area) averaged 50mpg!
    If I had the $ for a newbie, I’d want one with “stealth” mode, where a button switches you to all electric. The engine is absolutely silent when using just the battery. They’ve had them for a while in Europe, but for some reason not here. Now they’re so backed up, you have to wait for just about any of them [new].
    Glad you posted about the Prius!

  7. Madame X says:

    I recently had my first rides in two different Priuses, and at least as a passenger I was impressed! My father said he would have considered buying one but that the Prius had the worst braking distances in tests done by Consumer Reports. In any case, I think these new fuel efficient cars will be dominating the roads soon…
    But re. the Hummer comparison, of course those people are the ones who have the most to gain, but how many Hummer drivers do you think actually trade in those monstrosities for a Prius!?!

  8. mapgirl says:

    Nice icon Jim!

    My friend is a hobby goat farmer. She can pack 2-3 goats into the back of her Prius for short trips to the vet. It’s really insanely roomy. But she also uses it as her daily commuter from the exurbs of DC into the inner burbs. She idles a lot in traffic, so the Prius is perfect for her stop & go highway miles.

    But you’re analysis is spot on. If you drive a pretty fuel efficient car already in a fuel efficient manner, you aren’t really going to get a lot of cost benefit driving a Prius. I think I calculated once that it would take me over 5 years to make it worthwhile on a new Prius to replace my Altima. Or if you have a gas guzzling Jeep like my boyfriend, but drive very little (i.e. <100 miles a week), it will take 10 years!

    I thought the other key factor in getting a Prius was if you are driving mostly highway vs city. The greatest gains I thought were at speeds less than 45 mph when it barely used the gas engine and ran off the electricity generated? Is that right? Because that would mean that for speeds regularly over 45, it’s not really saving gas, is it? (I say this because I see a lot of speeding Priuses around the DC beltway.)

  9. dieselboi says:

    What about changing the lifestyle to minimize the commute? Maybe think about a bike or walking or public transportation. Until our society starts to realize that urban sprawl and the car culture is the real culprit here, we won’t separate ourselves from the dependency of foreign fuel.

  10. Ben says:

    How about a 2009 Jetta TDI diesel? or any diesel. I just chose the 2009 because it’s the cleanest diesel to date.

    Pros:
    Diesel technology has been around for ages.
    Engines are robust (300,000 miles is not uncommon for diesels)
    Very powerful engine
    40-50 MPG depending on how you drive it
    Some have manual shift for those who prefer it

    Con’s:
    TDI/Diesel emissions will not be as low as the Prius, but how does one dispose of the prius battery when the car is totalled, or at the end of it’s useful life?
    MPG not as good as the Prius when you’re in stop and go traffic

    I know I’m going to get a few people that will complain about the high diesel costs but you have an option to run the car on veggie oil with no ill effects for half the cost of pump diesel, or you could collect your own veggie oil for less.

    If I really wanted to be really frugal/cheap then I would buy a used diesel Golf, Jetta or maybe even an old Mercedes and convert it to use veggie oil. Under $10k for the car and maybe under $2k for the conversion, that leaves me with a lot of extra money for fuel.

  11. Rachel says:

    My husband and I both drive Honda’s. Like you said there really isn’t enough of a savings yet to push us to buy a Prius. I also wonder what the upkeep costs would end up being on the car in the long run. I really don’t think in our case we would end up saving any money.

  12. jim says:

    dieselboi: Yes, very true. We live in suburbia and so it’s difficult for us to escape it. I personally drive very infrequently because I work from home and I’ll be buying a bike soon (within a month I hope) so that I can rely on that to ride to the gym and other local areas I need to get to. Fortunately I can walk to the grocery store, library, and local farmers market so my driving is limited. My wife works 35 minutes away, which forces a drive, but her office will be moving closer which will result in a shorter commute.

    Ben: Thanks for sharing the diesel, I think that our fuel efficiency is high enough that it wouldn’t make much sense to change vehicles. I feel for the folks driving sub-20MPG cars though.

  13. Llama Money says:

    Don’t forget, you’re comparing your wife’s current highway MPG in her Civic, to the city MPG in the Prius. What would your wife’s Civic get in an all-city scenario? Not sure, but nowhere near 38 MPG. Something to think about.

  14. Posco says:

    Like Chris S pointed out, I don’t see in what sense the AC would be “free” in the hybrid. The heat in a combustion engine is free because it’s wasted heat. The AC would be free if something in the hybrid drive ABSORBED heat as part of its energy exchanges.

  15. jim says:

    Haha, by “free” I meant that it wouldn’t cost you gas in the manner AC costs you gas in a conventional car.

  16. CK says:

    Jim-

    This “free” AC comment may cost you your CMU degree. Running the AC in a Prius will effect your mileage. It takes energy to run AC and the energy has to come from somewhere. Since the only way to add energy to the Prius is to fill the gas tank it’s coming out of your gas mileage. Unless of course you’re pushing it to the top of a hill and using the regenerative braking but I think not.

  17. jim says:

    That’s it I quit, I’ve turned in my degree and CMU gladly accepted it back. :)

    Haha, you’re right CK and others, I put the “free” in quotes because ultimately power comes from somewhere and batteries don’t spontaneously get power.

  18. Greg says:

    Check how often the batteries need to be replaced. That part is an expensive proposition.

  19. Lisa says:

    Another plus to consider. A Toyota Prius has held its value WONDERFULLY. I bought a new 2004 model (fully loaded at the time) for about $25K and took possession of it in late 2003. So, the car is almost 5 years old and has about 60k miles on it. KBB indicates that it is still worth about $15K. I have paid off the car and it is great to know that it is actually worth a good amount!

  20. Another reason to hold off buying for a while: your independent mechanic probably can’t work on it yet. My guys haven’t had the opportunity to take the classes, and they don’t evince much enthusiasm to do so.

    This leaves you trapped in Toyota’s service department. Eeeek!


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