Prius, Week One

I’ve put about 300 miles so far on what is supposedly my wife’s new Toyota Prius. She’s driven about 30. 🙂 Okay, so we’re a little late to the game here. These things are all over the place, and I know many people who own them, some for two years. But there are some interesting things about the car that compel me to blog about them.

First, of course, are the powerplant and fuel mileage. Thursday I drove to Palo Alto (74 miles each way) and used less than three gallons of gas for the entire trip. 52.2mpg average. How cool is that? And I wasn’t holding back. 75mph on highway 280, air conditioner and headlights on.

I’m pretty geeky, but even for me the systems take some time to learn. For example, I’m used to reaching into my pocket for the car keys while walking to the car. Wrong! Just leave them in your pocket or purse. You don’t need to handle them to get into the car or even to start it. It’s all some RFID thing or similar.

Turn it on and nothing happens. Stop at a signal or stop sign, and the car makes zero sound. Nothing. Almost spooky. I’ve heard that one problem is when people park, they forget to turn off the car. You can set the parking brake, put the transmission into Park, and forget that the systems are still powered up.

Here’s one item that fascinates me. You know how a car with an automatic transmission (torque converter) will creep forwards if you release the brake from a stop on a level surface? This was unavoidable with the first automatic transmissions, and that may still be the case. Now think about a hybrid: The gas engine is off. There’s no need to creep. But sure enough, take your foot off the brake pedal and the Prius silently inches forward. And then you realize that this effect is entirely simulated. It must have come from usability testing, since there’s no mechanical reason for it.

The car is a great showcase for all of Toyota’s cool technologies. The GPS is nicely integrated, although I’m disappointed that the dashboard clock isn’t driven by the GPS. The audio switching and silencing (including good Bluetooth integration) work very well. A nice mini jack for the iPod and a dedicated 12vdc outlet. The one luxury I miss is powered seats with two-person memory. My wife and I are trying to use the Prius as much as possible. My 10-year-old Lexus hasn’t run all week. But with two people sharing a car, it’s a pain to readjust the seat and mirrors all the time, particularly after getting used to that nice feature in the Lexus.

The carrying capacity is terrific, too. I was worried that by selling my wife’s 13-year-old Jeep Cherokee we wouldn’t be able to haul around large things, but this car can carry a lot.

Turns out that here (Marin County, California), we have the most Toyota Priuses (sp?) of any county in the U.S. No surprise, perhaps. Affluent, liberal, and politically correct to a fault.

Overall: I’m very impressed. The Prius actually exceeds my expectations. And as far as I can tell, delivered with zero defects of any kind. Given the relative volumes of production, the complexity, the cost and the profit margins, I’d say the computer industry still has a lot to learn from Toyota.

And Tim Bray is right: Detroit is doomed.

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