(Part of encouraging a diverse, intelligent car community is attempting to understand those with alternative points of view. In that vein, I invited humorist, car reviewer, Prius owner, and alterna-human being Neal Pollack to write up an explanation for why anyone might love the Prius.
Specifically, I told him over drinks that he was basically a terrible person and completely wrong for enjoying a beige hybrid and he told me to go to Hell. Here's his half of the story. — Ed.)
The Toyota people emailed me the other week. They had a Prius plug-in hybrid available. This was a special deal, because the plug-in isn't on sale in Texas yet. The car was, they put it delicately, "in transit." Maybe I'd like to give it a go?
They didn't choose me for this honor because I know a lot about cars, or because I write about them with special insight. And it's not like I'm totally in Toyota's pocket. Like most car hacks, I get to drive a Camry here, a Lexus there. Toyota products range, in my opinion, from kind of good to pretty average. But when it comes to the Prius, Toyota knows it can rely on a rave from me. Because, despite all available evidence, I love the Prius.
You heard me, Sporty McSportscar. I love the Prius. Screw you.
I already had a Range Rover in my driveway that week, not to mention the two cars I actually own, one of which is, you guessed right, a Prius. But there's always room for another Prius in my life, so it became mine.
An elderly gentleman from Houston dropped off the bone-white Prius plug-in on a Thursday morning. To Chinese drivers, that color symbolizes good luck and prosperity. For five days, I'd have both in abundance. A Prius! That plugs into the wall! Or at least into an extension cord!
The electric charge was fewer than 12 miles, a third of what you get from the Chevy Volt, and a ridiculous fraction of the Nissan Leaf's range. I'm fully aware that the Prius, once the ultimate alternative-energy car, is starting to fall behind. But I love it anyway.
My fellow car writers, a fraternity to which I've not officially pledged but to which I somehow belong, mostly hate the Prius. I understand why. When they were boys reading car-porn in their basements, this little sloped-hood Tylenol on wheels, a car from the future which makes the vehicles in Sleeper seem like hot rods, isn't what filled their gear-head fantasies. As a car, the Prius kind of sucks. But it's all I've ever wanted, and all that I deserve.
By now, I've flown across Europe and America and driven BMWs and Audis and Rolls-Royces and Jaguars and Bentleys and Mustangs. I've experienced real automotive luxury, tight suspensions, and authentic German-engineered engines. How I've come to love the power, the magnificent, magnificent power.
By comparison with some of the automotive masterworks I've experienced, driving the Prius is like trying to steer a blob of uncooked pizza dough around an outdoor car park in the rain. Still, it remains my favorite.
Before the Prius brand entered my life, I didn't care about cars. Well, when I was a kid, my family had a boxy 1974 hardtop Mercedes, royal blue. That car, I kind of loved. But after it left, no more. I got a CTA bus pass and didn't think about cars at all for a long time.
In Chicago, I met my wife. We didn't have a ton of money, but we had an abundance of poor judgment. So eventually we moved to Texas. Then we made a kid, and we bought a Passat station wagon, which is what certain aging middle-class white artsy types were driving in the early aughts. How I hated that Passat. It was slow and ugly and full of gray fabric. Also, it broke down sometimes for no good reason. What a piece of crap.
Then, in another stunning life mistake, we moved to California. Not many good things came out of that decision. But we did trade in our Passat wagon for a Prius. The exterior was deep blue, just like the first car I'd cared about. Then I got behind the wheel. Suddenly, I loved driving again.
The Prius wasn't fast, but I didn't care about speed. It wasn't strong, but I didn't care about strength. Inside, there were lots of little lights and buttons and plastic doo-dads, and my yoga gear fit in the trunk. It went "beep boop beep boop" when I put it in reverse. I felt like I was driving R2D2. Here, at last, was a car that understood what I needed, even if all that I needed was a certain kind of delusional yuppie self-satisfaction.
Screw you all, I found myself thinking. I drive a Prius.
My wife and I adopted the Prius early enough so that we got the special yellow sticker on the side bumper that allowed us to drive solo in the HOV lanes, the only kind of VIP access we ever had in our six years in Los Angeles. We were grateful, but also felt entitled, which we were, dammit.
The Prius is so loaded with cultural symbolism and Red State Clooney-hatred that sometimes we forget the real reason it exists: An extraordinary hybrid drivetrain, the most significant evolution in transportation technology since the combustion engine. A car that doesn't always burn gas when you idle; it's quite a concept.
Suddenly, the act of sitting in traffic, one of life's most maddening activities, had become a source of self-satisfaction. From such transformations, revolutions are born.
The Prius is the most important car brand since the Model T. Most car nuts, focused on its incredibly bland transmission and mediocre steering, miss the whole point. Before the Prius, no one honestly believed that a slow car that didn't run entirely on gas could be popular. The car makers continue to churn out thousands of shitty crossover SUVs with 20 MPG combined, but does anyone really believe that's the future? Of course not. We all know that they're the last dinosaurs wandering the roads before Peak Oil's comet hits.
Alternative-energy cars are the future. The Prius is the third best-selling car in the U.S. for a reason. It has to be, or we're going to die.
There have been and will be less expensive cars than the Prius. There will be more fuel-efficient cars. There will be ones that perform better. It's even possible that a car will appear that does all three. But we'll always remember the Prius, which eased us into the concept of the car as energy-saving household appliance, something as utilitarian as a low-flow dishwasher. It gets you where you need to go without using excessive fossil fuels, always did, and always will. For that, I'll always be grateful.
I am a robot. I am only programmed to serve humans. Beep boop beep boop. Screw you.
Prius stories. I've got a million of ‘em, because I'm a Prius expert. I've driven a Series One, a Series 2, and a Series 3. None of them ever gave me a squeak of trouble. For a week in Austin, I had a Prius C. Driving that, admittedly, felt like I was rolling down the street in a beach ball, with about as much protection from the elements. When I sat behind a Ford F-150 at a stoplight, it looked like the truck had shat out my car during its lunch break. The seats were made out of cheaper material than my son's backpack. But it was a super-cute turquoise color and it averaged, in the time I had it, about 62 mpg. Fuck to the you.
Then came the V, which my wife and I were very excited to drive. It would be like our old Passat, we thought, but not shitty. I'll admit that it disappointed a little, though I don't really think it was the car's fault. The V drove the same as any other Prius, got the same gas mileage, and had a little extra trunk space. But it smelled funny inside, as though it were a hotel lobby that used to allow smoking but had never quite gotten rid of the residue. It made me feel moldy and sad, like an elderly widower.
But my depressive tendencies aren't the point here. I essentially got the V so I could take my friends Ben and Katie for a ride. They recently had a baby. As such, they remind my wife and I of ourselves ten years ago, when our lives still contained a shred of promise and hope. Ben needed a new car. His 2004 VW Goat, or whatever the hell it's called, had begun making strange noises. Plus, the ceiling liner had become unstuck and it hung down in his face while he drove. They coveted the V.
I went to their house on a Sunday. They spent 15 minutes trying to figure out how to buckle the baby seat into the back. Ben sat in the front seat and twitched around like I'd just put catnip in front of his face. Optimal ergonomics are important to him. Then he turned on the car and spent several minutes pressing buttons. Like many Prius drivers, he likes technology but doesn't care about engines. He almost seemed relieved when, halfway through our 30 minute test-drive, Katie took the wheel. He then tried out the rest of the awesome buttons.
I asked them how they liked it. Ben nodded his approval. Katie said, "It's good. There's enough legroom." They seemed about as excited as if I'd given them each a glass of lukewarm water.
Attention Gearheads: Ben, Katie, and I think how most drivers think. We like the shiny buttons and the legroom. Driving is just something we do on errands. And we don't like to spend all our money on gas. This is the mentality of the Prius customer, screw you.
A few weeks later, I caught up with Ben on gmail.
"Did you get the V?" I asked.
"We got it!" he typed back. "Driving back now from Houston, it is great. Not as nice as the one you had tho!"
Keep in mind that mine smelled like cigarettes, had 10,000 miles on it already, and really wasn't all that nice. When it comes to Prius owners, standards are low, as they should be. Expect more than a car can deliver, and you'll just be disappointed.
Meanwhile, my wife and I just had a few nice days with the Prius plug-in. But she didn't want to actually plug it in when we got home. "What's the point"? she said.
The point, I said, was that it's a first step toward a fully electric Prius, a product sure to arrive by the end of the decade, if not much sooner. If we, the world's most passionate Prius lovers, don't support such a project, then who will?
She assented, so we stuck the big plug in the socket and then the smaller plug in the smaller socket. Three and a half hours later, the Prius could go nearly 12 miles gas-free.
How did it drive? It drove like a Prius, of course, same as any other Prius. By now, you all know what that means. If you want it to do anything else, you're being greedy.
The Prius is awesome.