Executive wheels: Quirky — but worth it


Recently, I caught a few minutes of the goofy movie Horrible Bosses that my son was watching. Amid the hijinks, one of the stars, Jason Bateman, was being interrogated by the police and when asked what he was doing on the boulevard one night, he said “drag racing.” The police officer’s response was both hilarious and telling:

“You were drag racing. In a Prius.”

“I don’t win very much,” Bateman’s character said sheepishly. 

Such is the notoriety of the Prius. Since its debut in the U.S. in 2000 the Prius Hybrid – the first mass produced hybrid automobile on the market and widely credited with creating the eco-boom in the car marketplace – has become famous as a symbol of the so-called “green movement,” while simultaneously becoming infamous among climate change deniers as the “tree-hugger vehicle.”

As an auto reviewer, I was among the first people to drive one here in the US way back when. And I was among the first people to recognize that a) a hybrid operates for all intents and purposes just like any other car from an operator’s perspective, and b) a hybrid is not slow. In fact, while no speed demon, the Prius right from the start and to this day is a zippy, quick automobile that never leaves even the heavy-footed driver wanting. The wonder is that now, after 15 years, you still have to explain these facts to people who have never driven one, or indeed someone who would never drive one and insists on making ill-informed cracks about them. 

The Prius, now in its third generation, has really changed very little during its life. The line, however, has expanded. There’s a Prius c, a smaller, compact version with a slightly smaller engine, and a Prius v, which is really a small sport wagon Prius. And if you look on the Toyota website, they show the Prius trims in a Two, base price $24,200, a Three, at $25,765, a Four, at $28,435, this Five, at $30,005, and a Persona Series, base priced at $26,985 (the Persona, apparently, can be slightly customized to better reflect your personality, another pretension). They all are called “liftback” 5-door models by Toyota, and they have the same engine and mileage rating, so I guess the differences lie in what comes standard.  

I like driving the Prius. Once you figure out the relatively weird gearshift on this automatic-transmission car (another pretense), this car is easy to drive, quiet (low road noise and you can hear the gas engine kick in), and very comfortable – even in the roomy back seat. The size of the car is perfect for city driving – and parking! – and, of course, with an EPA mileage rating of 51 mpg city/48 mpg highway it’s very difficult to get the gas gauge to move even after days of around-town driving.

On the highway, the Prius has ample power for cruising and passing acceleration. The engine here, and in all Prii (that’s the official plural) liftbacks, is a combination of a 1.8-lter gasoline engine, putting out some 98 hp, and an electric motor rated as 36 hp, for a combination of 134 hp. It feels like much more than that because electric motors tend to have much more torque for acceleration that gasoline engines, so this car gets up to speed rapidly.

There are two things I don’t like about the Prius. Because of its funny shape and an odd aerodynamic spoiler type of thing on the back window, the view from the rearview mirror is scant. Also, I suppose in an effort to keep the gas mileage higher, the Prius is a noticeably light car and feels flimsier than on other cars (it’s made of galvanized steel and aluminum).

This Prius Five carries a base price of $30,005, which strikes me as a bit high, and then on this test-drive model they added a $4,320 Advanced Technology Package that was pretty sweet. It included premium navigation with Toyota’s Entune App suite, all operated out of an easy-to-use, split touch screen. There’s a JBL stereo, Bluetooth, voice recognition music streaming with Pandora, iHeart Radio, Bing, weather, fuel prices, a backup camera, MovieTickets.com, OpenTable, stocks, sports and traffic reports – it’s all there. They also added lane departure alerts, and a pre-collision system. With destination, the bottom line is $35,150. Pretty steep, but as I said, this is a nice car.

There are the reports of the all-new 2016 Prius that is reportedly going to debut this fall at either the Tokyo Auto show or the Los Angeles Auto Show. Toyota isn’t saying much, and they have kept the car under wraps, but the new one is supposedly to have even higher MPG – maybe up to 55 mph combine (the combined is now 51 mpg).

Then there’s the design – one of the growing problems for Prius over the years is that its venerable design isn’t sporty enough, and the new one due at the end of the year, most observers speculate, is going to be much sportier without going too far to alienate the loyal Prius following. I mention this because, if it was me that was in the market for a Prius just now, I just might wait a few months to see if I would prefer it. My hunch is that Prius sales – which have been fairly brisk – will get a little tepid for the rest of the year in anticipation of the biggest change in the car in over a decade.

In the meantime, this 2015 Prius is an excellent car with a couple of odd-ball quirks that should appeal to the eco-sensitive set.

But I wouldn’t recommend drag racing.