Fat people in monster cars: watch out. Your time has come. In future we’ll all be driving a Honda Civic Hybrid or a Toyota Prius to work, like it or lump it.
That’s what the whale-huggers and polar bear-strokers (you know who you are) want you to think. Twenty-first century transport will consist of bubble-shaped Popemobiles, piddling along at 28km/h and won’t that serve everyone right.
Toyota wants to own this future. Its Prius has the weird shape endemic to hybrids; time will tell if this car will lodge in the public’s mind as “the car that saved the environment” or “lame-o battery-powered mistake that everyone laughed at”.
Ah, yes, the battery. The Prius is powered by a regular petrol engine, plus an electric motor and nickel-metal hydride battery. It’s back-to-the-future technology. I ask the bloke from Toyota what happens if it goes, like, flat. He looks at me like you’d look at your mum if she unplugged your PC at the wall. “This cannot go flat” he says. “Impossible.”
Naturally, I resolve to run the battery flat as soon as I can.
What the bloke at Toyota doesn’t know is that I’m going to spank the Prius to within an inch of its hybrid life. To be fair, it’s designed for, and runs best as, a car about town – but unfortunately life isn’t fair. Snowy Mountains, here we come.
It’s clear the last thing Toyota wants is for human luggage to do anything drastic. Every page of the user manual features the word “caution” in bold type. The centre console, while containing an iPod connection and storage, is also a potential death trap. “Caution,” it warns. “Do not trap your fingers in the centre console.” It even has one for the glove compartment. “Caution: the glove compartment must not be left open while you are driving along.” One cannot be too careful.
The Prius is a proper family car, despite the progressive shape. It has plenty of room in the back for a couple of environmentally conscious kids, and boot you could get a few recycled suitcases in, no problem.
The kit is decent, including sat-nav and reversing camera, but you pay for it – the Prius comes in at a rather expensive $37,400 – and if you’re going more than 40km/h, the battery doesn’t get a look-in.
Meanwhile, I’m driving the Prius up mountains roads it was never meant for. A steep, winding stretch makes it emit a strange groaning sound, like a cow stuck in a pit. The car has no gears, but “continuously variable transmission”, so maybe it’s that. Either way, it’s straining. The fuel economy drops off, too, but it’s still impressive. I never come close to Toyota’s claimed 4.4l/100km, but somewhere between five and six isn’t bad.
The Prius feels like what it wants to be: a comfortable, driveable runabout for the average family of 2.4 to go to the footy in, with a trip to Woollies on the way back. And no matter what I did, I couldn’t make the battery go flat. “Impossible.”
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