The Toyota Prius — Is it the Ronnie James Déesse?

Illustration for article titled The Toyota Prius — Is it the Ronnie James Déesse?

When I was twenty, I studied in Germany. Bonn, to be exact. I had a friend there named Kai who loved techno and had just received his first car, some sort of Citroën hatchback. It was red, and he hoped someday to buy an Audi with an S in front of its numeral. But at that point, he had what we all ended up calling Kai's Rote Heiße Citroën des Liebes. I don't remember the model, but a couple of days before I met Kai, I'd seen a 2CV parked on the street. It was covered in bad EKG tape stripes, Laney amplifier decals and sported a giant die-cut Savatage decal across the rear window. I knew immediately and instinctively that Kai's car was not a patch on its forebear. Some may decry the Deuche as a rip of Hitler's Beetle with the drivetrain at the opposite end, but the car that debuted in 1955, spawned an obsessive geek-cult of wack-ass masochists and occupied the opposite end of the French motoring spectrum from the plebeian flip-windowed runabout was about as revolutionary as they came in those days. Having run into a DS on the street a few days ago, I got to thinking. Does the car have a modern-day equivalent anywhere in the world today? And if it does what could it be? The only answer I could come up with is the Toyota Prius.

Illustration for article titled The Toyota Prius — Is it the Ronnie James Déesse?

When the DS debuted, it was essentially from space. Sure, it carried over the prewar Traction Avant's front-drive layout. It also maintained a genuinely French sense of logical-yet-oddball style and engineering. If one is willing to adapt to the French mindset, classic French automobiles aren't particularly weird — they're uniquely French solutions to common problems. Possibly baroque and/or psychedelic, yes. After all, they did hand us a strange green femmelossus of a statue with spikes sticking out of her head. And yet, I'd venture to say that of any stable nation on the Continent, the French embody the "Fuck you, we do what we want" nature Americans prize so more than any other country.


Besides the United States, what other nation so consistently pisses off the rest of the world, yet is universally so revered and adored for its contributions to global culture? And don't argue for the UK. Just because they gave us Top Gear Life On Mars and Monty Python doesn't mean they've actually done much worthwhile since The Clash released the last album with Topper. Plus, they saddled us with the stifling cult of Jane Austen and the infuriating spectre of Joe Lucas. That, then should be reason enough to visit Westminster Abbey, read the fart-joke passage of The Canterbury Tales aloud and hop the next flight to Dubrovnik.

Which is why, possibly, the Déesse's successor had to come from another quirkily-rational, oddball land whose own bloodlusty bout with imperialism ultimately resulted in its citizenry holing up on their native soil and getting back to doing. Yes, Japan. If you can't co-prosper with Greater East Asia, why not out prosper them? And if you are a nation that depends on other countries for resources to keep its autonomous transport system running, why not maximize efficiency?

When Japan dropped the first Prius on these shores in 2001, it was largely viewed as a curio. It also had similar proportions to the unloved and unfortunately-styled Echo. I, personally, was more excited by the Honda Insight. It looked like a CRX that'd been shaped in a wind tunnel/blast furnace. It delivered superior numbers to the Toyota in a niche that — at the time — was about nothing but numbers. And it was a Honda.

I didn't care for the second-generation Prius, but it did have this going for it — it was from space. Toyota made a calculated ploy on the car. They incorporated enough JDM gee-whiz geekery to attract the attention of engineering geeks like C/D's Patrick Bedard. They even gave one to the magazine for the express purpose of running it at Bonneville. The new "Look at me! I'm driving a revolutionary vehicle!" vehicle caught on with Hollywood types. And it was useful, unlike the Insight, which was a geeks-only machine that Honda kept producing past its natural lifespan to shit in Toyota's green salad. The Prius, then, like the DS, was a proper car; a symbol that technology can lift us past conflict. Ten short years after the cessation of hostilities in Western Europe, the DS was a comfort to the French populace; a panacea. An affirmation writ large that although in fact France had been overrun by the Germans, the nation was definitely back in the business of being France.


Our president has a back-asswards approval rating. After the Good War Where Nobody Died on Our End, our nation is caught in a morass in the Middle East. A three-dollar bill spent on a gallon of refined sweet, light crude is bringing back cultural memories of the Malaise Era. A Prius then, is an investment in America; in being chuffed that we're recognizing inconvenient truths. Slap on your yellow-ribbon magnet with pride, Bunky, because by driving a Prius, you're helping to bring our boys home. And you stand as an iconoclast. If you bought early and often, you could even run solely on internal combustion in California's carpool lanes!

In 1979, Ozzy Osbourne — depending on which side of the story you believe — was either booted from Black Sabbath or left of his own accord. To replace him, the band recruited the diminutive Ronnie James Dio, late of Ronnie and the Rumblers, Ronnie and the Red Caps, Elf and Richie Blackmore's Rainbow. The result was Heaven and Hell, the best album Sabbath had dropped since 1973's Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. Coincidentally, the D-series Citroëns died at the same time thoroughly-brilliant Ozzy-inclusive Sabs records did.


The Prius, however revolutionary, is not the gut-punch the DS was at the time. It is a global phenomenon, alternately adored and reviled, much like heavy metal. It is a harbinger of possibilities to come, but it's not an out-and-out fuck you in your fucking face. It is polite, even if its drivers are often not. Its electronics are elegant, but it is ultimately a very impressive and polarizing shade of beige.

Japan has given the world mecha and tentacle rape, dekotora, giant rubber monsters, futomaki, affordable, reliable digital watches, Starlets, Starions and dorifto. They also insist on pixelating genitals in pornography, although the uncensored workarounds include some acts highly unlikely to be found in American smut. Meanwhile, American Marines rape women on Okinawa on occasion, Roosevelt signed off on Executive Order 9066, we stuck 'em with a Disneyland and there's that little issue of Hiroshima, Enola Gay, Nagasaki and Bock's Car. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Nihon and the complex, symbiotic relationship America has with that particular island nation has been one of the foremost axes of socioeconomic/cultural thought over the last seven decades.


Since Admiral Perry forced open the gates of trade with Japan over a century ago, we've liberated France twice. The DS, however, didn't allow a broad swath of Americans to feel that they were somehow unfettering themselves from something they hated. It was a quirky, personal decision that made no rational sense in an era of cheap gas. The Prius may not simplicate. It may not add lightness. It may well oversell itself. But it is a cultural boot up the jacksie that's palatable to the average schmoe. It's alternative rock radio to people who call conglomerate-owned stations and lament "People who don't know what music's about have no business listening to the radio." It is the car from space that finally seduced the populi and their attendant vox. So no, it is not the Ronnie James Dio of cars. It is not brash, ridiculously willful or flat-out silly enough. The DS was a perfect Hail Mary in a small stadium. The Prius is a calculated punt that put the Super Bowl into overtime. In concise, proto-metal-type terms, Toyota's look-at-me hybrid is yet another unfortuate Black Sabbath reunion now that we're likely to see "Paranoid" on The Singing Bee any week now. After all, we've all got something to safely define ourselves as rebellious with these days.

Joey Fatone, your roadborne spacecraft is here. And yes, we've burned you a Loudness/Serge Gainsbourg mix CD. Thank us later.


"Fast as a Shark" is a weekly electronic broadside aimed at what has been historically right and terribly wrong with the autmotive industry and culture. We would be surprised if Udo Dirkschneider ever owned a DS or a Prius.

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Brilliant Davey, brilliant.

Quirky cars tend to get a love-it or hate-it reaction and most automakers aren't willing to go there. Toyota banked on the quirkiness of the Prius in their marketing and it hits a rather narrow segment with little competition so they can get away with it. If the Camry or the Accord could post similar numbers where it counts, the Prius design wouldn't exist.

Other than the Prius, I can only think of a handful of quirky cars within fiscal reach of the common human in the last decade and most of them are universally hated. The Aztek? The Tribeca? You hit it on the head - they aren't from space and they aren't leaping ahead of current technology or designs.

I suppose the New Beetle and the PT Cruiser could be considered successfully quirky mmass-market cars, but they aren't so much as quirky as they are modern adaptations of a classic and proven design. While the New Beetle kinda has a "space" look to it (thanks Roswell), it isn't from space. The last "good" space car I can think of was the Subaru SVX and it wasn't remotely popular outside of the Subie cult.

Truth be told, I believe Americans are so set in what they expect from a vehicle that no car with a radical design or experimental hydro-pneumatic components would fly. Beige is the new black.