After having the misfortune of selecting a (2009) Toyota Prius when I needed to rent a vehicle for three weeks, I have come to the conclusion that the Prius is the single worst vehicle ever inﬂicted on mankind. This vehicle — and no other — provided me with the most horrible driving experience I’ve ever had… and I’ve owned a 1992 Saturn SL1. If you want to know my opinion of what was wrong with this car, dive in and ﬁnd out!
To know the Prius — I mean to truly know the Prius — you must (of course) drive the thing around for a while. When you do, it will soon become stomach-churningly obvious to you how unstable this vehicle is while cruising down the road. Perhaps I’m biased by my own car (or simply wishing I didn’t have to bring it to the body shop), the Mazda RX-8, with its tight cornering and smooth ride. I don’t know. What I do know is that in the Prius, I feel as though the whole car leans so far to one side while I turn that if I changed directions, the thing would go up on two wheels. I’m probably expecting too much, but I hate the car already. Making a simple left turn at an intersection while going 15mph makes me feel like I’m going to burn rubber. A car shouldn’t lean this much, especially considering how lite the Prius is. There’s really no excuse for it. It’s not as if this car is cheap, either. For the money they charge, they really can afford to put a decent suspension on this beauty.
Since these shocks are so squishy, and so non-responsive, I would at least expect the car to coast right over large bumps and pot-holes as I drive. This is not so. I can only surmise that “normal” shocks have been replaced with some kind of fuel-saving ﬂubber-like technology. You feel every single tiny pebble in the road. I hate this car. On more than one occasion, I’ve had a passenger get carsick while taking them someplace. Message received, Toyota — this is not a performance automobile. Does it have to be so unpleasant, though?
Moving this vehicle down the road is a chore — not only because of the suspension issues, but because the steering is just horribly… ﬂaccid. I can’t think of a better word. There is probably about 2″ of play in either direction. Hold your arm out straight, and frantically wave at someone who is watching you read this article. That’s the kind of movement you can expect to make without even a hint of redirecting the vehicle from its current path. This, of course, only adds to the nauseating experience for you and your passengers as you weave down the highway in a naïve effort to ﬁnd the threshold of steering sensitivity to make small course corrections.
Not surprisingly, if small movements in the car take a large movement in your arm, you can imagine what large course corrections require. It’s a lot of work to make left or right turns at an intersection: you have to turn the wheel almost a full 360° over to make turns. I wish they had just put a knob on the damn thing — or perhaps a series of posts, like the steering wheel on a big ocean-liner. At least with that, I could just sit back and spin the wheel with a shove. Sweet. Instead, I’m subjected to this exercise of spinning my whole arm around and around, and back again. On city streets, this is actually quite exhausting. I didn’t count (because I was too busy complaining), but I’m pretty sure you have to make 7 full rotations of the steering wheel to get from all the way left to all the way right. Flaccid. Flaccid steering for a ﬂaccid car — like driving around, holding onto a limp carrot for controls.
Even though this car sees its best gas mileage in the city streets and back roads, it doesn’t actually seem to have been designed for those situations in the least. Its aircraft carrier steering and pothole-ﬁnding suspension seem to bare this out. Beside this, however, this car is surprisingly low to the ground, and consequently it seems to scrape bottom on all sorts of obstacles from sticks in the road to sloping parking garage entrances and high speed-bumps. If I actually cared about my little rental Prius, I would have been quite upset at the prospect of scraping up the undercarriage on the rather high curb caused by recent construction at the entrance to my street. As this car offers many intriguing contradictions to its drivers, it is as excessively tall as it is low to the ground. While providing really decent head-room, the high roof, along with thin stance and lightweight design make this car an easy target for stiff cross-breezes. It provides an opportunity for a really exciting trifecta of danger. Imagine: you see an obstacle in the ground — one of those Russian recursively nesting wooden toy person-shaped things — on a windy day. You swerve to avoid it because your Prius is so low that you’re sure to hit it, but the car doesn’t respond to your efforts because of the lose steering! Suddenly, a strong gust of wind blows you right out of the way, and you’re saved! You could never do that in a normal car. You’d just have to do it the old-fashioned way and move the car slightly to get out of the way of the obstacle. How boring.
“This car must do something right,” you might ask. Well, sure… but I don’t really want to talk about that right now, so let’s talk about visibility in this vehicle. This is another one of those things that this car does not do well. Non sequitur… Anyway, as you probably wouldn’t expect from looking at the car, visibility is astonishingly poor. “Surely,” you’d think, “because the front of the car is so short, and the slope so great, you must be able to see the road in front of you quite well.” Unfortunately, the designers of this car thought to place an obstacle so huge between you and the road that you’d think it was intended for a much larger vehicle — a Mack truck perhaps… or maybe one of those house-sized bulldozers like the one Jackie Chan battles around in the movie Mr. Nice Guy. This item, friends, is (you guessed it) a dashboard — a dashboard no less than 2′ in depth. Why? What’s in there? Is it a present? Possibly it’s the console to a James Bond style missle launcher system? You can’t see the font of this (very short) car. You can not see it.
Glossing over the lack of visibility out the sides to the rear (they call it a “blind spot” for a reason, you know), would someone from Toyota please explain the rear window in this car? It sits at so sharp an angle that it appears to be about 1′ in height. Mercifully, they have made the trunk out of clear plastic. This increases the view from something that might cause you to run over a 10 year-old child without knowing it to something that might cause you to run over a 7 year old child without realizing. Of course, the rear window has to be held in place by something, so between the tiny rear window and the (mostly) transparent trunk is an opaque structural component of the car that blocks your view behind you right where it is most annoying — the center. The best part of this whole situation is that the rear window (area) is so small that if you adjust the rear-view mirror so that it shows the entire window with you sitting with your head on the head-rest of the seat, you can no longer see out the window if you then sit forward a bit (and vice-versa).
Focus on Driving!
The road is not the main focus of this vehicle. In fact, its main focus has very little to do with the road at all. Frankly, I’m surprised that they even included a windshield on the Prius. The real focus in this car is the tiny little graph it makes, plotting your miles-per-gallon in the center console. This is truly a marvel of distracted-driving engineering (or DDE, as I call it). The more obsessive-compulsive you are, the more of your focus this little screen takes from driving, and boy am I in trouble. The job of squeezing every ounce of mileage out of my 5-minute MPG averages consumed so much of my concentration, that it completely ruined my driving experience. Try as I might to hide the screen away behind something like the climate-settings screen, I knew the mileage screen was there… mocking… waiting. If a car is going to save me mileage, just do it, don’t make it seem like I’m trying to keep my head above water. It’s very stressful.
OK Toyota, so I see what you were trying to do on this one… In front of the gas pedal, there is a 1″ tall bump. Presumably this bump was meant to provide a place to rest your foot and press on the gas. Maybe they’ve even done research and determined that people who rest their foot here use less gas or something. I don’t know. What I do know is that everybody’s feet and driving styles are different. Now, I’m not a particularly large fellow — about 5’10″ — but this nub is placed in such a way that whenever I step on the gas, this damned annoying bump hits me right in the arch of my foot. It’s a bit like having a rock in your shoe the entire time you’re driving. Toyota, if you’re listening, get rid of this.
Why should something as simple as changing the fan speed or the temperature of the heater be so difﬁcult??? There is just no reason that Toyota has put these basic controls onto a computerized touch-screen far, far from the driver. I’m told that in the army, they have a saying, “Keep It Simple, Stupid,” or KISS. Well, Toyota certainly went with the stupid option because without any textured buttons or knobs, the driver must completely take his eyes off the road to accomplish these simple (and common) tasks. Not only that, it’s far. It’s a bit like trying to drive while you read a magazine that your passenger is holding. KISS.
Turning a car on and off with the push of a button seems like a neat idea. This novelty wears off fairly quickly, though. It especially wears off when you cannot hear the engine going. A friend of mine has a button to turn on his (non-electric) car; when he does something wrong, you can tell because the engine doesn’t start. On the Prius, the engine doesn’t technically “start” until you put the car into gear. If you’re like me, and you expect to put your left foot down on the clutch to start the vehicle, you will not ﬁnd any such pedal to press. Instead, the car expects you to press the brake. Without the brake depressed, the car starts the accessories, etc., but does not start the engine. This is almost indistinguishable from the engine being started. Next, you put that annoying little joystick into “D” and it goes into Neutral. Dangerous! Now, even if you put the annoying little joystick back into “P,” step on the brake, and put it back into “D,” you still cannot move the car. You must turn the car “off,” step on the brake, and then turn it back on again. Additionally, a button has the disadvantage of requiring you to press it multiple times to go from one engine state to another. With a key, you can directly turn the car to “START,” “ACC,” “LOCK,” or whatever.
Hopefully, the Prius manual outlines some method to resolve this next issue I have (I have to confess that I didn’t check), but I really prefer that pressing the lock button multiple times on the key fob should honk the horn. Every so often, I forget to lock the car when I’m right next to it, and I lock it as I walk away. I’m too far to hear the door locks engage, but I want to have some conﬁrmation that my lock signal even reached the car. This is where a nice toot of the horn comes in handy. In my case, especially — the auto rental — I need to use it to ﬁnd my car in a crowded parking lot. Every other car in the suburbs of Boston is a Prius it seems, and I want to know where my car is when I lose it in a parking lot.
Listen Up, Toyota
If anyone’s paying attention out there, they will correct the issues highlighted in my own sufferings with this automobile. If we’re all to get along, hug trees, and clean up the environment, we shouldn’t have to be punished with the pile of dog shit that is the 2009 Toyota Prius. I hope that other automakers move in the opposite direction from Toyota’s lead and make a pleasant driving experience for those who want to purchase hybrid / electric vehicles. There’s no reason that the good deed of driving environmentally-friendly vehicles needs to go punished.