I’ve admitted on these pages before to not being the World’s Greatest Hybrid Fan. Yeah, I can see their purpose, and although their net impact on global sustainability remains questionable and hotly debated, I do at least understand that a reduced dependence on fossil fuels is a goal we should all be working toward. If in the near term we accomplish that by building vehicles with battery packs that greatly reduce fuel consumption, so be it. But that still hasn’t burnished a place in my heart for the Prius as a vehicle I would recommend to my friends when they ask me, the car guy in their lives, for advice.
Tag - Prius
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The thought of hybrid loanership for a week usually fills me with the sort of dread reserved for visiting a dentist’s office with a dull ache in your jaw – the only way through the period of time ahead is to envision how much better you’ll feel when it’s behind you. It’s not that hybrids are bad cars, mind you – they certainly serve a purpose for a portion of the buying public – but very rarely are they geared toward car lovers, and instead tend to focus so single-mindedly on efficiency that the duty of actually driving becomes drudgery in their presence. Such was the case when I approached the Sonata Hybrid pictured – “here we go again”.
Around the middle of my third day driving the Prius c, I realized the car had won. It had succeeded in turning me into the equivalent of one of Pavlov’s dogs, dutifully following the throttle-based energy monitor’s screen until I had achieved sufficient “eco” status while driving. If I was really good, I’d even trigger EV-only operation. Much salivating commenced.
Since its introduction, Toyota’s Prius has strived to be many things to many drivers – from fleet workhorse for taxi operators, to buck-stretching commuter car for normal working slobs, to eco status symbol for the planet-savvy or those who just aspire to be. Now, with the Plug-in Hybrid model, the Prius aspires to be…a Chevy Volt. Well, not really, but that’s the general concept: provide a full electric option for owners that have access to a wall plug, and a gasoline motor for everyone else. I spent a week with one to see how it fared in everyday commuting and city travel, and to see whether a plug-in hybrid is any use at all to a condo/apartment dweller without regular access to a garage wall outlet.
Are Toyotas really accelerating without warning? It’s hard to say, since it’s been years since I saw any Toyota besides a Tundra even keep up with the normal flow of traffic. The Camry is the official car of the left-lane hog, the chosen transport of that woman ahead of you who ABS-locks her brakes for a yellow light and then won’t enter the intersection for a left on green. By and large, Toyotas are characterless cars purchased by fearful, fretting nebbishes. Twenty years ago, Toyota ads screamed “OH WHAT A FEELING!” but today’s Toyota ads are naked appeals to terror of the unknown. Do you clutch your organic-fiber blanket in bed at night and roll around shaking, dreading the day when your car requires service or — gasp! — maintenance? Toyota has the car for you. Corolla! It’s for cowards! Oh what a feeling!
If the average Toyota buyer is afraid of her own shadow and worries about automotive catastrophe constantly, surely the prospect of UNINTENDED ACCELERATION RIGHT INTO A FLAMING WALL OF DEATH should be enough to keep every Camry in the United States off the road, right? Well, that would certainly be the case, except for one little thing: there is a force that motivates the average Toyota fan or purchase far more than fear, and that force is pure, blinding hatred.
“…is going to buy whatever Apple unveils today, right at 5pm, no matter what it is.” — Seen on Facebook, January 27, 2010
As I write this, it has been fourteen hours since Apple’s Steve Jobs revealed the iPad to a crowd of cheering followers, er, customers, this morning. For what it’s worth, I’m in no way impressed with the new iProduct. I’ve been working with Apple systems since I hacked up a “worm race” program for the Apple ][+ back in 1982, and I am writing this column on a 24″ iMac, so I’m very far from being anti-Apple — but this new tablet doesn’t do it for me.
Not that Mr. Jobs would care. As a company, Apple is very far from being the hacker-friendly maker of expansion-slot-packed beige wedges I knew as a child. One could argue that Apple isn’t even really a computer company any more, insofar as they don’t devote a lot of attention to making computers. Instead, Apple is a producer of design-centric goods which offer little more utility than their competitors while commanding significantly higher prices. Hmm… I think that means that Apple is a luxury brand. Don’t you?
After all, “luxury” doesn’t necessarily mean Brioni suits, megayachts, or any of the verses from Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”. Rather, a luxury is simply something that one does not need, but that one wants, often for no other reason than the social standing or perceived prestige associated with the item. Luxury, in other words, is something that offers a boost in self-image and image within a community. The iPad will be a luxury item. Nobody needs an iPad. The functionality of the iPad doesn’t justify the price. There are cheaper, uglier, more drab devices that provide about the same utility for less money.
I would suggest that most iPad purchasers will be people who identify with the Apple brand and its cultural associations. If iPads were invisible, or if they looked exactly like Dell laptops, they would collect dust on the brightly lit Apple Store shelves. Instead, they will fly off those shelves and into the hands of people who want to be seen with the “right” product. Regardless of price. Regardless of function. Regardless of utility. Image is the key. And that is why the Toyota Prius is a successful luxury product. It’s also why the Honda Insight has cratered in the market, and it’s why the Prius spinoff, the hopelessly dumpy HS250h, is utterly doomed.