Thursday, July 04, 2013

Toyota Prius 2007-ish Impressions

Every now and then, my job used to require a lot of driving. I want to say that I actually "travelled" a lot, but out of dozens and dozens of trips, only one ever ended up at a hotel overnight. Regardless, this allowed me to drive a bunch of relatively new company vehicles, many of them repeatedly so that I could form a pretty solid impression.

On average, the trips I took were a minimum of 100 km or miles -- not a conversion -- in total length on a given day. A good half of them were marathons in the 400 to 500 km range over a single work day. Those days usually began at 8:00 am and lasted until the late afternoon with lunch tucked between. To get so far, I ventured into the country or rural areas regularly. I've been on single lane roads with blind corners, 16 lane wide urban freeways, and pleasant country highways where the closest car was a kilometer back. Most of this driving was done during the Summer and Fall, and I can't say I did much driving in snow.

Toyota Prius: 2006/2007 Model 

This model of vehicle shouldn't need much introduction. The Toyota Prius has been around for a while and is one of the most popular hybrid cars available. It's the topic of many conversations and should be pretty well known, so I'll skip the description. Note that the body styling changed in the past few years -- I think this was around 2010 when a new generation came out.

It's been about a year since I last drove a Prius. I probably drove two or three different cars in the company pool. One was a 2007, the other was a 2006, and the rest were probably either year. I couldn't really tell a difference between the two, so I'll draw on my experience in both cars interchangeably.

For a 5'4" person, the vehicles I drove were very roomy. The car seemed built for people of smaller stature like me (Japanese brand, after all). It had a relatively smaller steering wheel, and what felt like closer spacing of instruments, and a higher seat height or lower dash. 

My 6'3" coworker drove and sat as a passenger in car a few times. If I recall correctly, he had to put the seat all the way back when sitting in the front and still felt a bit cramped. He managed to drive it for hundreds of kilometers rather successfully though. Considering the size of the car, this shouldn't be a size surprise.

I usually travelled with at least one big backpack and a messenger bag for work in the field. These were usually stashed in the front passenger seat or the rear seats. It was never necessary to use the trunk, so I can't tell you how much stuff it could fit. The vehicles also had a few cup holders in the main divider between the front seats, which came in handy for drinks, phones, car keys, sunscreen, and pens.

Before I get into actual driving, let me go over the driving instruments. The 2007-ish models I drove had the digital shifter that I've heard many comments about. It was a simple and short knob that didn't lock into any specific gear. The knob sat in a "rest" position and was pushed to a slot to select a gear, and then the knob returned to the resting position on its own. "Park" was not on the shifter and was a separate button that was pushed to activate when the brake pedal was depressed. This was a bit weird when I first drove it, but I got used to it quickly and didn't have much trouble getting it to activate the gear I wanted.

And I completely forgot about the starter button and key. The key was a rectangular plastic block that was inserted into a slot near the regular location for the ignition. Instead of turning it though, a button was pushed -- yep, a push-start car. I liked this because I had also driven a few recent year Toyota Camry vehicles. With the Camry, the key was completely electronic and worked by proximity. This meant that I could leave, and potentially lose, the key anywhere inside the car and it would still drive. With the Prius, having to insert the key helped keep track of its location. I believe there was a back-up normal physical key in the keyset for both cars though. The doors may have unlocked by proximity for both vehicles to, but I usually obsessively mashed the unlock button, so never really tested it.

The Prius also used a digital speedometer that was placed near the front of the dash and positioned closer to the center of the car, if I recall correctly. I've driven a Yaris with a dead-center placement before and did not have the same issues with the Prius' placement -- the analog and dead-center positioning on the Yaris required me to shift my eyes and head a bit too much for comfort. Having driven a newer generation Honda Civic, I can't say that I'm a big fan of the Prius' digital speedometer. It did work and I got used to it, but the Civic that I drove had a much nicer, modern looking speedometer that was placed right in front of the driver. With the popularity of Civics, chances are that you've seen the blue glow of the Honda's digital speedometer. I have described the digital display in the Prius as a 1980's era computer. Aside from the speed, I remember the gear being displayed on the screen too, which helped with shifting.

Instead of knobs to control the ventilation and radio, the Prius used a touch screen. This screen also had an option to display fuel mileage over time. Unfortunately, the screen was the pressure-sensitive type of olden days, and not like an iPad, which is capacitive (i.e. the kind that doesn't work with gloves).

And finally, the emergency brake was located near the floor to the left side of the driver. 


The Good
Starting with the positive, I must admit that the Prius was and remains one of my favorite vehicles. I won't say it handled great and was a lot of fun to drive, but it performed great as a commuter vehicle that saved gas. The transparent rear trunk/hatch was very useful for backing into spots and seeing traffic behind me. This was a nice change compared to the very high rear windows that more than a few popular sedans I've driven have (e.g. Civic, Camry, Fusion).

The car accelerated consistently and was more than capable for both city and freeway driving. Only one time did I have a problem with acceleration and this was when I had to pull over on a busy freeway. There were few breaks in traffic, and once I found an opening, I just wanted to get up to speed as quickly as possible since everyone else was doing 120 km/h -- that didn't happen. Knowing the vehicles limitations, I was a bit more conservative on choosing a gap, luckily. Its performance should not have been a surprise given its engine size and "green car" status.

Braking was fine and I didn't notice any issues even when I tested with panic stops. Correction: braking was better than fine because I knew it was charging the battery rather than completely wasting perfectly good gas

Its smaller size was good for urban driving and especially good for parking in just about any type of spot. Again, the rear windows made parking and backing up a pleasure. After looking up the dimensions way back when, it looked like the Prii I drove were slightly wider than the Civic I regularly commuted with then. The funny thing is that the Civic always felt slightly larger for some reason.

Oh, and yes, gas mileage was amazing. I would come back from a 500 km drive and only fill up about $25 worth of gas. Gas was about $1.30/L then, so that'd be about 3.84 L/100 km -- total guestimate on the numbers, but that wouldn't be too unreasonable. The computer display said something around 4.0 L / 100 km most of the time. Most of my driving was freeway or rural highway though, so not as much stopping as in a city.

The Meh
Despite all the pluses, I had a few issues driving it. For example, the car felt like it had a high-center of gravity, which made quick steering adjustments stomach churning my first few times (e.g. quick lane shift at highway speeds). Another issue was the electronic steering implementation, which gave very little feedback and I felt there was too much "slack". That is, it felt like there was a bit of "dead space" in the wheel where a little adjustment didn't make a corresponding move to the vehicle. Or was it the complete opposite and every little move mad too big of a change? Either way, I wasn't too impressed.

In comparison, I would say that the Honda Civic and Ford Fusion, both which I've driven, felt good and responsive. For both of these cars, I could nudge the wheel ever so slightly to reposition myself in a lane or drift over to perform a lane change on freeways. With the Prius, it felt like I had to be jerky with the wheel to get anywhere. Google says that it may have been due to the steering ratio or sensitivity -- whatever that means.

Continuing with the steering, the most recent Prius I drove did not feel very stable once I got past 90 km/h. One time last summer, I drove this vehicle for a week straight up to another city and went from city streets to rural highways to freeways, allowing me to experience every speed band gradually. Once I left the city into the open country, the vehicle just seemed unable to stay perfectly straight. I even took my hands off the wheels a few times and had the same issue. Don' get me wrong, it was perfectly manageable, but it made me a bit nervous. This may have been an isolated case though.

I did some googling after my experience and it looked like I was not completely alone. Some others shared the experience. The culprit, apparently, may have simply been wheel alignment or even tire pressure. There were some recommendations to change from the OEM tires too. So, the blame may have likely been on maintenance and not the car.

"Flow" speed is about 120 km/h (~75 mph) on freeways in my area, which is around what I took it up to. I won't admit to what I have taken it up to, but I can say that with just my 140 lb frame and a backpack or two, the car seemed to have some trouble going past 110 km/h. I heard that 105 km/h is the optimal fuel efficiency speed, so maybe that's a good thing? Regardless, I recall hearing the engine have to really work to get past 110 km/h and finally up to 120 km/h. Again, given it's engine size, this should not have been a big surprise.

Loved this car. I live in the city, so don't need a car or want to deal with the money pit that is a personal vehicle. If I were forced to get one though, this would be my first choice. The 2006/2007 Prii that I drove were very impressive. No, they weren't sports cars, but they just felt "right". In even better news, I heard that the newer generation Prii addressed some of my concerns and provided an overall improvement on the model. And I even like the styling more.

Toyota Camry 2010-ish vs. Ford Fusion 2010-ish - Hybrid Versions Impressions