The Toyota Prius has been written off for years by enthusiasts as too slow and dull to be any fun, but thanks to a Russian lift kit and a can-do attitude, a team who goes by “The Regenerates” finally made theirs fun. They took their Prius to the Gambler 500—the insane navigational rally for cheap, impractical cars—and demonstrated once and for all that their Prius is living its best life.
If you hold an event for straight-up vehicular debauchery in the Pacific Northwest, you should expect—no, know—that someone will bring a Prius. You cannot escape them, even in the wilderness.
“I don’t know how to have more fun than to drive a lime green, sticker-covered, lifted Prius around,” Kempton said. “Seriously got way more attention, thumbs up and confused looks than any of the ‘cool’ cars I’ve driven.”
When Sarah Cooley’s beloved extremely green but “woefully practical” Prius was destined for the junkyard after a fender-bender, she and boyfriend Mark Kempton decided it was time for a proper send-off: the Gambler 500.
To do this, the Prius’ pedestrian ride height wouldn’t do. They needed a mild lift, but the problem was, no one really lifts a Prius.
“I searched all over the internet and only found a few examples of people even attempting to lift one,” Kempton told Jalopnik. “All had tried and failed, including a rather entertaining story of a bunch of high school kids sticking footballs inbetween coils on a Toyota Tacoma forum.”
Football-crammed coils wouldn’t work on the Gambler’s rough trails, though. So, Kempton started looking for parts made for other Toyotas that might fit this humble little hybrid, and his search led him all the way to Russia.
“I knew that the original Prius was Corolla-based but the dealership refused to confirm a cross reference for suspension parts,” Kempton said. “Finally, I discovered the Euro-market Toyota Auris was cross-referenced as having the same struts as a Prius. I found a Russian 4x4 supply company on eBay selling a [lift] kit for the Auris. They asked for the VIN and actually sent me a different kit that did the trick.”
The lift gave them a good extra three inches in ride height overall. Kempton also bought 29" all-terrain tires mounted on wheels bought from a lifted Subaru owner who listed them on Craigslist who was more than a little perplexed as to what vehicle they were destined for. After all these parts were on the Prius, it had a respectable nine inches of ground clearance.
To make room for the new parts, the front bumper and fenders were trimmed up with a sawzall and hammered out of the way.
The team still needed to protect the engine, transaxle and battery from getting too dinged up on the rally, so Kempton says he “sketchy fabricated” some additional protection. They started with a frame for the skid plate, and then used a jack and the weight of the car to bend the 3/16” aluminum plate around the important parts. (I wouldn’t recommend trying that method of plate bending at home.)
A light bar was also added to the roof, which Kempton described as “entirely useless,” but it made the Prius look the part of a serious off-road toy, anyway.
The real hardest part of Gambler-izing a Prius was the traction control system, however.
“It’s infamous for cutting all power at the first sign of wheel spin,” Kempton explained. “I had assumed that pulling fuses for [the] wheel speed sensors would do the trick, and while that would afford a bit of wheel spin, it would still cut power in the middle of mad Prius burnouts and had the less desirable result of disabling antilock brakes.”
When the world demands mad Prius burnouts, this is a massive problem. (I suppose ABS is useful, too.) Here’s what Kempton says they did to remedy it as much as possible:
I ended up pulling the ABS relays and one titled “dome” which was the source of a key-off battery drain. Turns out Toyota labeled a fuse, “dome” that seems to power just about all the in-car accessories - radio, nav, proximity key, and yes, the dome lights. I don’t recommend pulling ABS relays. Safety first, kids. Also, liability! That said, it strangely seemed to improve the lack of wheel spin issue - but only to a point. Too much hybrid synergy, I suppose.
Kempton said that there is a maintenance mode that involves “an extended ritual of button pushing” that will completely disable traction control, however, this has to be performed every time the car restarts. It was easier just to leave it partially disabled.
Despite this, the car ended up being a blast on the rally itself, because there are few greater joys in life than driving a car in a way it was absolutely never meant to be driven. Kempton says they even won an award for riling up the haters:
It did great! There were three levels of waypoint difficulty. We did mostly medium “Gambler” and difficult “Devil’s Butthole” waypoints. As you’ll see in the pictures, we found ourselves on 3 wheels...a lot. Though we weren’t able to stick around for the whole award ceremony, we were told we ended up winning the “hater class” award for cars people love to hate, but really liked. We ended up averaging 36 MPG for the whole trip. Not bad for a lifted Prius?
Apparently you can’t even make this thing to guzzle gas when it’s lifted up like a mini-brodozer. Thirty-six MPG is downright respectable, as that’s about what you’d get from a gas-sipping non-hybrid subcompact nowadays.
Kempton even said that the car was fairly decent off-road, and that some of the Prius’ tendency to plow forward with sad-understeer was muted somewhat by really, really big tires:
It’s actually not bad in the dirt! Still has terminal understeer, but with tires that large, getting there takes a lot more effort. We took it to a hike near Mt. Rainier as a shakedown run and pissed off/confused more than a few truck/Subaru owners with the speed we could maintain on a rough, windy forest road. The electric motor and CVT actually made crawling over larger obstacles entirely drama free.
A Prius (Prius!!!) makes a good crawler—who’d have ever expected that?
Anyway, we’re certainly glad they did, and now I desperately need to get myself to a Gambler 500 rally. What could I bring that’s more contemptible than a Prius?
Kempton says they plan to run the Gambler 500 again on July 13, of course, even though the Prius has since moved on to a new owner. Next time, it will be in a 1966 Ford Mustang that’s been sitting since 1994. I’d almost bet money (if I didn’t have my own hopeless project cars) that the Craigslist ad said “ran when parked.” You can keep up with the team’s shenanigans on Facebook here.
We’re featuring the coolest project cars from across the internet on Build of the Week. What insane build have you been wrenching on lately? Drop me a line at stef dot schrader at jalopnik dot com with “Build of the Week” somewhere in the subject line if you’d like to be featured here.