By Derek Sanders
The Prius. Oh, the Prius. If you love this car, you love this car, but if you hate this car, oh boy, you hate this car. Not the same hate as when you hate waking up on Monday morning for class, but the kind of hate that you don’t even fully comprehend. You don’t even have a reason to hate it, you just … do. When I ask people for their opinion on the Prius, it ranges from “oh, it gets great fuel economy” or “it’s great for the environment” all the way to “it’s gay” and “hybrids are the devil’s work, BE GONE SATAN!” So I decided to do what no car guy has done before: give the Prius a fair shot. Clean slate. I ignored the facts I already knew about it as well as the stigma and just drove it.
And you know what? It’s not that bad. As a tool to get from point A to point B it’s not that bad. And exactly 100 percent of Prius owners only care about getting from point A to point B and getting reasonable fuel economy. No one buys a Prius to have fun or to be involved or to talk about its exciting driving dynamics, because you can’t have fun or be involved when driving a Prius, and it doesn’t have exciting driving dynamics. The Prius isn’t a car you can push to its limits because the tires absolutely won’t let you. It runs on low-rolling-resistance tires to save fuel and as a result has zero grip. During a simple roadholding test the Prius started losing grip at 23 mph and started understeering with massive amounts of tire squeal at 25 mph. All with the traction control turned on.
The fun factor gets even worse from there. It is possible to turn the traction control off in a Prius, but it’s a five-step process that I won’t discuss here because you can look it up if you want to be a hooligan in your grandma’s car. Once the traction control is off, the Prius becomes exactly the same as it was before. In low-speed driving on a closed course you absolutely can’t tell the difference between off and on. This brings me to everyone’s main argument against the Prius.
It’s too slow! As a car guy, I love going quickly; the primeval excitement that speed gives you is intoxicating. Most car enthusiasts can look past a lack of outright speed if a car can corner quickly, or inspire some sense of fun, but the Prius doesn’t do anything quickly. It doesn’t corner, it doesn’t accelerate and you have to bury the throttle pedal-deep into the firewall just to get to 45 on the highway on-ramp. In the tests I conducted, the Prius took 11.3 seconds to get from 0 to 60 mph. eleven seconds. I’ll just let that sink in. That makes the Prius two full seconds slower to 60 than a 1969 Volvo 164 and a second slower to a 1973 Lincoln Town Car. For a car with as many technological advancements as the Prius, this is a dreadful showing. This is all down to the 1.5-L four-cylinder engine combined with the 1.3-kWh battery making a dizzying 110 horsepower. In theory it shouldn’t be as slow as it is, as 110 hp in a fairly light car should get it under 10.5 seconds to 60, but the Achilles’ heel of the Prius is its transmission.
The Prius uses a Continuously Variable Transmission or CVT. A CVT is basically a giant rubber band wrapped around two “gears” that can change their size and ratio infinitely to suit the driving conditions. CVTs are mainly used to get better fuel economy since they can lower engine RPM by so much on the highway. But the downside to this is that the only benefit of the Prius, its instant torque, is smothered by the lack of adequate gear ratios for acceleration.
“But at least it gets good fuel economy, right?” No, it doesn’t. When it came out, the 2005 Prius was rated at 46 mpg on a combined cycle of highway and city. During my test I didn’t get close to this figure. While I did get up to 50 on the highway while cruising, that was only with the air conditioning off. Around town it got about 28 mpg, not the 48 that the EPA promised. That’s because again, you have to mash your foot down just to keep up with the flow of traffic. This is why Prii (plural of Prius for some reason) only have two speeds: 10 under the limit in the left lane with the left blinker on, or 30 over the limit in the right lane.
“But it’s great for the environment!” No, it’s not. It’s actually quite terrible for the environment. Everyone wants to believe that the Prius is the savior of all the baby seals in the world, but it’s not. The nickel for the Ni-MH batteries is mined in Canada, and nickel mining is very hazardous due to the pollution it produces. The nickel is then sent to Europe where it’s refined, then to China where it’s turned into a foam, and then to Japan where it’s sealed into the batteries and put into a car. In the long run, this car’s production does more environmental damage than your “annoying” neighbor’s racecar. If you want to save the environment, just get a used car and keep it running.
“Oh, come on, there’s gotta be something good about the Prius.” OK, it’s easy to get in and out of, and there’s an LCD screen on the dash that shows you where the power from the engine and the energy from the battery are going. That’s about it. I suppose I like the idea of driving a car as quiet as the Prius, but I’d much rather do it in the form of a Tesla or a Porsche 918. Yes, these cars are far more expensive than the Prius, but the price difference is worth it considering how much more car you get. The 918, for example, gets 67 mpg in electric-only mode and over 20 mpg from an 887-hp V8. That, my friends, is technological progression.
In examining the Prius’ merit as a car I can indeed say that if this were a car you just bought to get decent fuel economy and do nothing else, it’s fine. You have to drive like an undertaker, but it’s a fine car. It’s quiet, comfortable and has decent in-car entertainment. Honestly, if it were cheap enough I might consider having one as a daily driver to save gas for my racecar. Well, I’d be considering it, then I’d veer off at the last moment and buy a Volkswagen Jetta diesel wagon in order to get the same or better fuel economy, with a better range and a larger fuel tank. Jetta diesels are cheaper than used Prii now too thanks to diesel-gate. All in all, I want to give the Prius some credibility, but I just can’t. I won’t say it deserves all of the hate piled against it, but it does deserve most of said hate. It’s just a boring egg to have average fuel economy in while ruining everyone in the left lane’s days. It is indeed the best car for people who don’t care about cars.
Derek Sanders studies journalism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @TheNevadaSagebrush.