Tell someone you drive a Toyota Prius, and they might conclude you also enjoy tofu scramble and "West Wing" reruns. Rest assured, I have no idea how tofu ever got scrambled, and I’m no "Wing"-man either. But I did get considerable seat time in a 2007 Prius Touring Edition last week.
The Prius has been praised for bringing hybrid technology to the masses, but many have criticized its real-world gas mileage, which is nowhere near EPA estimates. I averaged just 34 mpg in a 104-mile week of frugal, A/C-free driving. That’s a far cry from the car’s window sticker, which reads a lofty 60 mpg in city driving and 51 mpg on the highway. New EPA regulations for the 2008 model year are reportedly going to lower mileage estimates on hybrids by roughly 30%.
The engine switches on and off almost seamlessly, and it takes an alert driver to detect it. The only indications are the noise level, which goes from eerie silence to a light drone, and the fuel consumption gauge, which drops from 99.9 mpg to a more believable 25 or 30 mpg.
I found enough electric propulsion to accelerate to about 10 mph. The Prius can do 20 or 30 mph on battery juice alone, but that requires lots of patience — and a complete disregard for the cars behind you because you have to milk the accelerator. For all intents and purposes, meaningful oomph beyond 15 mph requires the engine.
Returning to electric mode is tricky. Oftentimes the engine shuts off on its own during deceleration, when the vehicle’s braking friction recharges its battery. With a light foot and low enough speed, I found it possible to pick back up in electric mode afterward. But other times — especially in cold temperatures, when the car’s heater was active — the engine remained on after deceleration. It took a complete stop and a few seconds of waiting for the Prius to transition back to electric mode, if it ever did. Try doing that in heavy traffic.
Over time, I found that city driving did not give me the best gas mileage. As careful as I was noting the traffic around me and planning my acceleration to stay as long as possible in electric mode, my hard-earned mileage gains were quickly erased every time I needed to make a yellow light or merge with faster traffic.
If you get a Prius, drive it lightly — but don’t become obsessed with the electric motor. Clock lots of time on the highway at 55 mph, and the engine will yield gas mileage in the mid-40s. Around town, a prudent stretch or two in electric mode will balance out the times you need to accelerate quickly. And with any luck, you’ll achieve respectable gas mileage — not 50 or 60 mpg, but something you still couldn’t dream of in another car.
Update: Over the course of the week I commuted 4.5 miles to work — in downtown Chicago, from Lincoln Park to the Loop — and drove a mix of short (less than a mile) and medium (12-15 mile) distances at mostly sub-highway speeds in varying traffic conditions. Weather ranged from the mid-30s to mid-50s, and apart from a few parking garages, elevation changes throughout the week were minimal. The air conditioning remained off almost all week. The Prius Touring Edition I tested features 16-inch wheels and tires, compared to the standard model’s 15-inch combination.