The Toyota Prius died a long time ago. It used to be the eco car, the only thing you could buy that told the world you cared about the environment. (If you weren’t willing to give up your commuter car, that is). So what is this life it leads now, dead but undying, a zombie or a ghost?
(Full Disclosure: Toyota lent me this Prius Anniversary Edition for a week of hard driving to Vermont and back via the Catskills. Toyota provided a full tank of gas, and replaced the windshield on the car after picking the car back up. The windshield picked up a stone chip on the highway, which developed into a rather long crack.)
The problem for the Prius comes at it from both sides. Now, if someone wants to really demo some eco clout, they can simply buy a fully electric car. No half measures, no hybrid needed. A Tesla has all the symbolism a Prius had, and more.
Now, too, if someone wants a hybrid, they don’t have to buy a weirdly-shaped, weirdly-styled Prius, either. There is no baggage required. Toyota will sell you a hybrid Corolla, nothing strange about it, just a totally ordinary car that gets great mileage. Hell, you can get a plug-in hybrid Jeep these days. A Prius is obsolete.
Toyota stills sells tens of thousands of Prii every year, and part of me believes that a lot of this is down to momentum alone. People buying a Prius the same way they still listen to the same music they did in their 20s.
But I just put 1,400 miles on a brand-new Prius and I think that it’s still one of the best cars you can buy today, stripped of all the symbolism, history, baggage or whatever.
Let’s cover the Prius from a strictly technical standpoint before we get to the emotional side of it.
Pull away all of the symbolism of a Prius and what do you have? Well, it’s still a weird vehicle in today’s market. It’s not a sedan but it’s also not a crossover. It’s a five-door hatchback, like a Geo Prism from the ‘90s. It’s also not giant, but it’s meaningfully larger (and wider) than compact hatchbacks. You get a lot more room in a Prius than you do in, say, a Honda Fit, not that you can buy a Honda Fit anymore. There’s more room inside than a Corolla, with less wasted space than a Camry. It’s a practical car, happy to swallow a family of five and their stuff, or two people, their gear, and some bikes, no bike rack required.
The car has also one of the most relaxing and focusing interiors on sale. It’s not the seats; they’re a little hard, and I found myself shifting around after a few hours of nonstop driving. (Again, I put 1,400 miles on this Prius over the course of a week, mostly in a handful of 300-mile stretches through the mountains.) What tones this car down is the layout of the interior. Consider it an antithesis to something like the Subaru Crosstrek. In the Crosstrek, the whole dashboard comes forward to meet you. The center stack and infotainment screen are almost inflated towards the middle of the car. Large gauges sit right in your view, as if it is critically important to know your engine’s RPM at any given time.
The Prius is the opposite. There’s no tach, no round speedo either. There’s no real gauge cluster at all, just a thin digital readout that sits slightly aside towards the center of the car. The center stack dips away, with the gear selector on the dashboard itself instead of eating up room now occupied by a place to charge your phone. That is to say, the car feels roomier and airier than other cars, and offers a clearer view of what’s in front of you, too. There’s no hood blocking your view, either. It dips out of sight just past the windshield wipers. All that stretches out in front of you is the road. If you’re curious exactly how fast you’re going, or how many miles you have until you need to get gas again, that info is there for you, you just need to glance to see it. Nothing is in your face. I found it all spectacularly comfortable to live with. Bombing mountain roads, listening to the tires squeal — it was all easier with the clearer view of the road.
This is a completely pointless comparison but it’s easier to drive a twisting country road in a Prius than it is in a Chevy SS. The SS has more grip, more power, more everything, but it also has huge a-pillars surrounding a tight windshield. It’s hard to look through a corner at all. The Prius’ visibility is so very much better it makes driving hard feel more approachable. I found myself wanting to cane the Prius more than I ever thought. I tried and tried and tried to get the Prius’ little eco driving score as low as possible (I think I got down to 11 or 13 out of 100) in part out of perverse joy and in part because it was just a fun car up and down a mountain.
This is where the Prius still endures, the one place its original charm endures.
You see, the Prius is a lie. It’s always been. Do you think all those people buying Prii actually did anything to save the world? As much as you can say about the Prius’ hybrid drive offering a stepping stone to full electric cars, each Prius sold represents a new car built, still burning fossil fuels through its entire manufacturing process and its entire operating life. There was never any real change that came from the Prius because there was never any real sacrifice. That’s the whole reason the Prius took off; it offered you better gas mileage (enough to say that you were making a real difference compared to the 14 MPG Ford Expeditions and whatever else was clogging the roads back in the Bush Years) but you didn’t have to hypermile it like the little Geo Metros that skyrocketed in price after the Recession. The Prius wasn’t electric; you didn’t have to charge it overnight or re-think your road trip plans. It wasn’t underpowered, with a tiny engine offering great MPG if you stayed away from the accelerator. The Prius, as a hybrid, gave you as good mileage anywhere, no matter how hard you drove it. There’s a real appeal there. It works on the same level as how Tesla finally offered people an electric car with so much range and power that they didn’t have to think about how it’d fit into their life.
The appeal is still there. The Prius still works. Compared to a regular car I had driven just a week before, a Mitsubishi Outlander, the Prius returned literally twice the fuel economy of that thing. It is still leagues better than normal, non-hybrid cars on sale today, even decades into its tenure.
The world has moved on from the Prius as a symbol. What remains is the Prius as a car. Remarkably, it’s still as good as it ever was.