Things to Consider when Choosing a Toyota Prius

No car can be everything to everybody.  There are a few reasons why you might not be happy with a Totota Prius.  In this topic, I will try to identify all the things you should consider before going out to look at a Prius.  I'll tell you frankly what the Prius isn't suitable for and why you might not want to waste your time considering it.  When it becomes a matter of degree (just how fast will it go? how tall is too tall? what is "steep"?) I will try to quantify and reference actual owner experience from the Yahoo! discussion groups.

Do You Have "A Need for Speed"?

The Prius is not a high performance car or a sports car.  I mean this in the same sense that a Camry or Honda Accord is not a high performance or sports car.  There is nothing wrong with the performance of the Prius (although you can find people who will say there is), but it is not designed for high acceleration or extreme speed.  If you like to squeal the tires, forget it.  If you love the sensation of being pushed deeply into the seat back under full throttle, look elsewhere.  If you want to go faster than cars that are actively racing against you, buy something else.  Engine roar?  There isn't any.  The Prius will get you there, but without show or fuss.

The Prius has the performance that will make you comfortable and keep you out of trouble.  If you like to be first off the line at the lights, that's no problem.  The 0 to 60 m.p.h. time of 12½ seconds is achieved smoothly and effortlessly.  If you like to be among the fastest cars on the freeway, the Prius will oblige.  Its top speed is 100 m.p.h. (athough acceleration falls off above 95 m.p.h.).  If you drive on congested highways, the Prius will get you from a slow lane to a fast one quickly and safely.  60 to 70 m.p.h. acceleration is less than 4 seconds.  But, there is no extra performance for display or for adrenaline.  That would be counter to the Prius philosophy of environmental consciousness without loss of convenience.

How Much "Stuff" Do You Travel With?

Towing Big Things

You can't tow anything big with the Prius.  Toyota is quite clear about this.  Because the engine is sized well below what is usual for a car of this size and gets help from the electric motor, there isn't the margin of power that lets a conventional car pull additional weight.  This is an unavoidable side-effect of efficiency.  Having a big engine and using only a small fraction of its peak power is always going to be wasteful of fuel.  The Prius engine is only big enough for loads that must be sustained for long periods of time by the basic vehicle, passengers and cargo, such as high-speed driving and moderate hill climbing.  You could probably tow a small box-on-wheels or a boat that two people can lift, but large boats and walk-in trailers are too much.

Heavy Loads and Trunk Space

The rated payload of the Prius is 800 pounds.  That is not to say that you can't carry more, but this is what the car is designed for.  If your family is large (either in numbers or individual size) or travels with a lot of baggage, you may not get on well with the Prius.  The trunk space is modest, both because the car is short and due to some space being taken up by the batteries.  [Note to self: look up Yahoo! post about 1000 pounds of rocks].

Towing the Prius

You can't dinghy tow the Prius.  That is, you can't tow it on its own wheels by just pulling it along.  Well, you can, but you'll do damage to the car so you shouldn't.  To tow the Prius, the front wheels must be lifted up off the road.  Should you need to be towed, tow trucks are equipped for this.  If you want to tow a Prius behind an RV, you will need to get an accessory on which the front wheels ride.

Toyota don't explain why you can't dinghy tow the Prius.  But, note that when the front wheels turn the whole transmission is forced to turn because there is no mechanism to disengage the transmission from the wheels.  This is not a problem for MG2 (assuming you don't exceed 100 m.p.h.) but it is a big problem for MG1 if you exceed only 42 m.p.h.  Without the hybrid system on to limit the spin rate of MG1 by allowing the ICE to turn, it will exceed 6,500 r.p.m. and suffer damage.  This may not be the only reason for not dinghy towing, but to my mind it is reason enough not to go against Toyota's advice.

Are You Particularly Big and/or Tall?

6 feet 3 inches and 200 pounds OK, #20371.

Do You Regularly Drive in Mountains?

The Prius will not climb very steep hills indefinitely.  One aspect of the vehicle's design that drastically improves economy and reduces emissions is that the engine is not sized for the peak power demand.  When heavy acceleration or steep hill climbs are called for, MG2 provides a boost to meet the performance needs using power from the battery.  Although heavy acceleration can't go on for very long and the battery gets a chance to recharge, in some parts of the world you can find steep hills long enough to drain the battery to its lower limit.  At this time, you have only the ICE power to run with and you'll be forced to slow down.  You'll still make it to the top.  People have driven to the top of Mount Washington, which averages a 12% grade for more than seven miles.  But, after the battery power is gone, the maximum speed (according to my calculations) will be about 40 m.p.h.  Not being able to climb Mount Washington at 60 m.p.h. is, of course, no reason not to choose a Prius.  But, if your daily commute happens to be over the California coastal range or some other long steep hill, joining the trucks in the extra slow lane might wear a bit thin after a while.

Hilly Towns are Nothing to Worry About

None of this should be taken to mean that the Prius has problems with short hills, however steep.  You should have no trouble (again, according to my calculations) with Filbert Street and 22nd Street in San Francisco, which both have a grade of 31.5%.  If you have to park on a steep hill, it is better to park facing up than down if there is a possibility your get away will be obstructed.  Remember that the Prius can only use the electric motor in reverse, so it has a bit more starting torque when going forward.  [Note to self: look up Yahoo! post about hill in Oregon.]

Many Prius owners live in mountainous areas.  In message #1574 on Prius_Techical_Stuff, Bob Kerns says that driving over the Grapevine in LA is not a problem.  Russ Carver in message #1576 makes it clear that living in a hilly town does not tax the Prius.

Is There a Trained Technician at Your Dealership?

Although regular maintenance can be performed by any competent mechanic who follows instructions, should your Prius need repair, you will need a technician specially trained by Toyota for the Prius.  If there is not one at your dealership and appropriate alternative arrangements cannot be made, you might want to wait or but a conventional car.

Do You Suffer From Technophobia?

Toyota have gone to great lengths to make the experience of driving the Prius as familiar as possible to people who have owned conventional automatic transmission cars.  For example, if you lift your foot off the brake when the car is stopped, it will creep forward.  A normal car does this because the idling engine exerts a small force at the wheels through the torque converter.  But the Prius engine shuts down when the car stops and there is no torque converter, so there is no reason for this to happen.  Except - you may be used to it and expect it to happen, so Toyota have made it happen.

However, there are a few things about the Prius you just have to get used to.  Braking, for example, is said to be "non-linear".  This means that you can't just set a pressure with your foot and have the car brake smoothly to a standstill.  As the regenerative braking system phases in and out, the car's deceleration will change slightly and it is necessary to adjust the pedal pressure to achieve a smooth stop.  More extreme is when a bump in the road triggers the traction control system and regenerative braking drops out suddenly.  When this happens, you need to add pressure at the pedal to restore the lost braking force.  This and other "quirks" are easy to get used to for most people.  But, you're not most people, you're you.  Will you get used to them or will you find them annoying?  Just bear in mind when you choose a Prius that you will have to read the manual and relearn new ways to do a few things you thought you'd mastered years ago.

Here is a quick bullet list of Prius features that might be troublesome for the technophobe:

Do You Smoke?

The Prius does not come equipped with an ashtray and cigarette lighter.  If you smoke, you will have to buy a cigarette lighter to plug into the power outlet and scrape the felt and no smoking sign out of the plastic tray (which apart from these features was obviously originally designed as an ashtray - the Japanese being heavy smokers).

Last edited October 15, 2001.  All material Copyright © 2001 Graham Davies.  No liability accepted.