ASSOCIATE EDITOR GRAHAM KOZAK: Toyota makes a lot of cars that are extremely competent without being particularly exciting. That is what the median buyer wants, and that is why Toyota is one of the largest automakers in the world. The Prius isn’t just a run-of-the-mill boring-but-competent car, though. It’s often held to be the anti-car, the sort of infuriatingly bland transportation device that has the power to destroy automotive passion forever.
Maybe that’s unfair -- I’m sure early Honda Civics took a lot of flack for being soulless, and now they seem kind of funky and cool (at least to us dedicated retronauts). Perhaps the future will be kind to Toyota’s pioneering hybrid, and it will develop a cult following.
Yet while today’s Prius owners might well be passionate people, it’s hard to believe they’re passionate about what they drive. At best, the Prius is a pod that gets you from home to work and back without treading too lightly upon the earth (or your wallet). It is fuel efficient and roomy, and in some configurations, surprisingly affordable.
But it’s not just boring to drive -- it’s genuinely un-fun and frankly a little unsettling above 75 mph. That suppository shape, so slippery in a wind tunnel, is buffeted by sidelong gusts of wind. It never feels planted; downforce of any sort would probably ding fuel economy, and stickier tires would suck gas as well.
Lots of people think this is OK, which is honestly not a problem to me. If I could make some kind of bargain where I’d get a Prius for my commute and drive nothing but uncatalyzed hot rods on the weekends, I think I’d sign on the dotted line.
Yet the whole package could definitely be improved, and I’m not really talking about making it more appealing to enthusiasts -- a Prius without that special numbness, that desire to take all of the joy one might find in driving and crush it into oblivion? Why, it would cease to be a Prius at that point; might as well buy a Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat or a Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat.
Here are a few things that could be altered here and there that might make the act of getting from point A to point B more bearable.
First and foremost: That stupid reverse gear beeper. It’s inexcusable and, from what I can tell, doesn’t really do much to help anyone outside of the car -- the beeping is only audible in the cabin, and if the person driving needs a cue to know that he’s got the car in gear he probably shouldn’t be driving a car at all. Or, it’s a concession that the Prius’ toy-like gear selector knob is less-than-intuitive to use.
Either way, it’s got to go. Every time I had to throw ’er into reverse and that stupid beeper kicked in, I felt like I was creeping down grocery store isles on a Rascal. Backwards. Which, come to think of it, would probably be more fun than driving the Prius.
Second: Interior material quality. Each time I hop into a Prius I feel like it gets cheaper and cheaper inside, though perhaps this is only because other automakers are pushing to improve material quality.
I’m all for using new materials in unconventional ways: I don’t even mind the Prius’ weird latex-y faux-leather seats. It’s the dashboard, center console and all-around touchpoint crudeness that get me. Interior plastic components have the hard roughness of 3D-printed objects, which is sort of hot right now, but come on -- it’s a mass-produced dashboard we’re talking about, not some cutting edge just-out-of-the-hackerspace Kickstarter prototype. Everything seems well-assembled but material quality is crap. Interiors that are eco-friendly, or at least seem to be, can be really cool if done right (take a look at the BMW i3). Buyers of $37,000 cars, even $37,000 Toyotas, should demand better.
Third, I guess: What in the heck is the point of the “EV Mode”? There was no method of driving that would allow me to remain in electric-only drive mode for longer than 0.3 second, no matter how gingerly I applied my foot to the accelerator. Looking it up online, it seems like EV mode gives you a sub-1.5 mile range tops. Is it there to game some sort of emissions regulation? Is it there to taunt us? Why, Toyota?
Anyway, that’s the 2014 Toyota Prius Five. Buy it if you don’t particularly care about cars, or just take public transportation until a self-driving one comes out in a few years. The addition of an autonomous-drive mode can only improve the personal transportation experience here.
It is fuel efficient and roomy, and in some configurations, surprisingly affordable.
DIGITAL EDITOR ANDREW STOY: Eureka! I finally discovered the Prius’ killer app, the car's raison d’etre -- what it’s actually good at besides posting stellar fuel economy numbers: Sitting in soul-crushing traffic. Well, not sitting exactly; the Prius is truly in its prime when inching along in EV mode at between 1-10 mph. Under 1 mph is basically sitting still, and my living room sofa is better for that. Over 10 mph and the Prius driving experience deteriorates in a hurry. But at 7 mph, this thing’s pretty damn good. This characteristic also explains why Toyota sells so many Priuses in California and New York, given that’s the average velocity in most gridlocked major coastal cities.
Our 2014 Toyota Prius Five tester also made a pretty good snow car; eco mode results in lazy acceleration not unlike the snow mode of a regular vehicle, all but eliminating the chance of wheelspin. Given that traffic generally crawls along on snowy days even in the Motor City, the Prius was again in its element cycling between EV and gas mode with remarkable smoothness. I was also able to keep the car in all-electric mode far longer than I expected as long as speed and acceleration were both kept to a minimum -- even on a single-digit morning, the Prius was happy to motor along on batteries once the rest of the car had warmed up.
Those who do significant amounts of open freeway travel will find the Prius less accommodating. Not only are the fuel economy benefits of they hybrid powertrain minimized at higher speeds, but the hard, narrow tires result in squirmy handling, and the entire car is loud and resonant.
The Toyota Prius is a clinically engineered mobility solution, and a good one at that; it’s what hundreds of thousands of Americans want in a car, evidenced by Toyota’s sales figures. There’s simply nothing here for the auto enthusiast, even those of us who get excited about good fuel economy. Given that Autoweek editors, as a rule, are as interested in the means of travel from point A to point B as they are in the actual destination -- and we suspect most of our readers are of a similar mindset -- it’s folly to expect the Prius to gain many accolades among our staff.
We’re not who this car is designed for -- Volkswagen makes the Golf TDI with a stick shift for us. For those who simply want to get where they’re going and use a minimal amount of fuel in the process, there’s the Prius.
There was no method of driving that would allow me to remain in electric-only drive mode for longer than 0.3 second, no matter how gingerly I applied my foot to the accelerator.
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