I always used to be the first to arrive at a party, sometimes a few minutes before the starting time listed on the invitation. Then, at one of the first engagement parties I attended after college, a very sweet friend pulled me aside and explained the concept of being fashionably late. She explained that a slight delay of arrival was actually courteous (for a purely social gathering) so that the hostess or host can finish up their last-minute party put-together before having to entertain guests. Unfortunately, that has been the kiss of death for me in social timing ever since. Add in a husband who always wants to get "just one more thing" done before leaving the house, and three children with their own "things to do," and I end up stretching the "fashion do" into a "fashion don't."
Well, reviewing the Toyota Prius in mid-2007 feels a bit like being fashionably late to a party. Hybrids, especially the Prius, have become uber-popular and so common that while driving one I don't get second glances at stoplights or questions from those next to me at the gas pump. That really surprises me; there's so much to learn about hybrids that my head is spinning, and I guess I have a false sense that everyone else has the same questions as me. Maybe I'm the only one geeky enough to want answers.
Predictably, my gas mileage is fantastic in the Prius, but I feel even better about driving a car with a Partial Zero Emissions rating. That means the overall impact of this vehicle on the atmosphere is nearly zero. That concept leads me to think about how much that matters to my family and me, and also has me adding alternative fuels, vehicle emissions and carbon impact to my "topics for exploration" list (OK, enough with the geekery). While those thoughts bounce around in my head, I really have to force myself to concentrate on the experience of my test drive.
Slipping into the driver's seat in the Prius feels futuristic. I can easily find a comfortable seating position, as the manual controls for the seat are simple and innate. That's where the intuitive controls stop. I suddenly realize I am a huge creature of habit, and changing the way I do things is a little unnerving - probably good for me, but unnerving all the same.
First, there is no gauge cluster in front of me, only a power button, another button with a big letter "P" on it and a gearshift-looking thing sticking out of the dash. I push the power button and look up to find a little green light in the middle of the dash that reads "Ready." Thank goodness, otherwise I would have no idea the car is ready to drive because the engine is not running. I use the lever to put the car in Reverse and see the backup camera come on (love that), then simultaneously hear a steady "beep, beep, beep" while the car backs up. This is not a subtle beep that gets faster as you approach an object, just a continuous beep, like a trash truck. I actually stop and ask my son to get out of the car and listen to see if that beep is broadcast outside. "Nope," is the answer that comes back. Hmmm, that's strange. Seems like it could be useful to warn small children outside that a car is backing up - especially given how quiet the Prius is - but to annoyingly beep inside the car is almost distracting. I spend the rest of the test drive trying to find some hidden switch to stop the madness, but with no luck.
The next hurdle is trying to figure out how to park the car. I get it stopped (believe it or not, the brake pedal actually accomplishes this), but once I stop, I discover there is no Park position on the gearshift lever. Luckily, a friend had clued me in to the fact that I have to push that big square button with the P on it to put the car in Park (mind you, she had to read the owner's manual with her foot on the brake in a parking lot to figure that out in the first place). Now, depress the power button again and exit the car with your smart key in tow.
A couple other highlights in the Prius include a bigger-than-expected rear passenger area, cargo space in which I fit two child-sized bikes, and a user-friendly information display. The touch-screen display in my test vehicle includes the ability to hook up my Bluetooth phone, has a calendar/reminder section, DVD-based navigation and a hybrid system monitor. Each of these items is activated by touch or by voice. I love the idea of hands-free operation, but in reality, it usually requires me telling everyone in my car to please be quiet while I talk to the car. Yeah, I hear you laughing. That's exactly what happens in my car, too.
Acceptance - it's a beautiful thing. No longer is the hybrid the domain of only the radical environmentalist or the engineering geek, it has become mainstream, and the Toyota Prius has been the main catalyst for that shift. Toyota has defined the Prius as a family car rather than a subcompact, and I have to agree. A car that's better for the environment, easy on the fuel budget and has all the necessary features, plus a few extras? And room for five? That car's a winner in my book.
*For more information on the Toyota Prius and its safety features, visit Cars.com.
LET'S TALK NUMBERS
Latch Connectors: 2
Seating Capacity (includes driver): 5
IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT
Storage Compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Fair
Cargo/Trunk Space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample
SENSE AND STYLE
Family Friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Great
Fun Factor (None, Some, Good Times, Groove On): Good Times
Base price: $22,175
Price as tested: $26,075
Engine: 76-hp, 1.5-liter I-4 (gasoline hybrid)
Fuel: 60/51 mpg
Ground Clearance: 5.6"
Turning Radius: 17.1'
Cargo space: 14.4 cu. ft.
NHTSA Crash-Test Ratings
Driver's side: 4 Stars
Passenger's side: 4 Stars
Front occupant: 5 Stars
Rear occupant: 4 Stars
Rollover resistance: 4 Stars