Friday, 18 May 2012

Toyota Prius

As part of the New Job, I do quite a lot of travelling. The majority of which is abroad, but some is domestic. The nature of the job requires a car, so we hire them. It's great as I get to sample a nice range of cars (as a passenger or a driver), but these are rather far removed from anything that could be branded as exotic - in fact, they are mostly in the cheapest/smallest group.

Last Wednesday, I was booked into a training course in Newcastle (St. James' Park, got a tour too - it was great!). The hire car? A gen 3 Toyota Prius. At 4:30 am before a three-hour drive it was not what I wanted to be greeted with.

As an avid reader/watcher of automotive media, I had my preconceptions of what it was going to be like (read "I already disliked it"). Was I surprised? Yes. In a good way? Nope.

I accepted that it was awful compared to what a car should be, but I never thought it could be as bad as the hacks made it out to be. I was wrong. So very wrong.

Let's leave the hybrid aspect aside for now and concentrate solely on the experience for the occupant. Every single tactile surface felt like it was made of material that was on it's third life via the wonders of recycling. The dashboard surface was particularly appalling, it's nastiness will not be forgotten for some time.

PST. Power Sharing Transmission. It's effectively a Continually Variable Transmission (CVT), but with two inputs (in this case an electric motor and IC engine). I won't get into the details (for more see here), but suffice to say that it eerie. To cut a long story short, it allows a continuous range of gear ratios (unlike traditional ones which offer discrete rations: 1st, 2nd, 3rd etc). This is of interest to the boys and girls who developed the Prius because it allows the engine to operate at a RPM which is of optimal fuel efficiency, or where peak power is produced. This means that when you go to overtake on the motorway, you mash the accelerator pedal into the footwell carpet and the engine zips to it's peak power zone straight away (which is alarmingly high, and doesn't sound pleasant at all).... and stays their for the duration of the accelerator pedals stay in the carpet. All the while the car is speeding up!

A few other things that are worth a mention:

  1. Steering. It's like those old steering wheels for Playstations from 7 or 8 years ago: total feeling of disconnection; in terms of steering feel, and that it simply feels like there is no mechanical connection between the steering wheel and the front wheels you are supposed to be controlling. Deeply unnerving.
  2. Cabin noise. It's loud, even by my standards (I own a 20-year-old Golf GTI, and have owned a straight-piped Corolla). For a new car (with such a hefty price tag) it's just not good enough
  3. Ride comfort. There is no need for it to be that harsh. The excuse of the extra battery weight is invalid, F10 BMW 5-series is minimum 1700kg and rides much better (price differential doesn't excuse the Prius either, it has a mass of just over 1300 kg)
  4. Drive train couldn't make up it's mind. It was constantly switching between combinations of electric and petrol power: surely that's inefficient (not to mention jerky and irritating)

On a good note, it masked the sensation of speed remarkably well: a motorway cruise, although noisy, didn't seem to stress it out overly. Also, the dashboard, nasty as it may be, was a great companion for KFC-feasting.

It has been widely commentated in the media that the Prius has become a fashion statement. I disagree whole-heartily: it has become a lifestyle statement, and said lifestyle has become fashionable. I fear that the shortcomings that upset me will be glossed over as quirks that arise from its goodness to the environment, but they are not. The Prius (now in it's third generation, remember) has put "greenness" above fundamental vehicle development. For example, earlier today I had another hire car, a 2012 Nissan Micra 1.2. That was a surprisingly pleasant place to be and an involving drive. But best of all, it's three-pot power-plant sounded genuinely terrific! 

My point is that the majority of buyers purchase a Prius as a lifestyle vehicle, to be trendy and keep with the times. That is OK, but I fear they are being ripped of; it has so many flaws for what it's supposed to be that it is just a bad car, not a car that is not-as-bad for the environment as others. It's a shame, because I really want to see a good alternative fuel car. The best so far is the Honda FCX Clarity, that's the way forward (imho).

(Written while listening to Damnation by Opeth)

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