How Far Would You Go for the Planet? Part Two: Prius Number Crunchers

The Prius Number Crunchers

How Far Would You Go For the Planet? Part Two

Toyota Prius owners like numbers. They rattle off details about their fuel economy as if they were quoting batting averages for the all-star team. Their pride is rooted in statistics. If you want to drive an environmentally friendly car (and see immediate results at the gas pump), the current-generation Prius is one of the easiest ways to do it. In fact, the proposition of owning a Prius was so attractive to so many Americans that Toyota initially couldn't build enough of them to meet demand in the U.S. Now that Toyota has increased the allocation of Priuses coming to the U.S. market, more and more buyers are getting in on hybrid ownership.

In exchange for attractive fuel economy, Prius owners, particularly of the first-generation model, had to put a little extra thought and effort into their car purchase. They sacrificed acceleration and size for the eco-benefits. The second generation, introduced in 2004, wooed new customers for both its environmental smarts and additional features — larger interior, roomy hatchback and automatic climate control. Many buyers have been willing to spend a little extra in order to get a little extra for their environmental consciousness. They often waited for months to take delivery, but now speak about their car as if they've picked a winner. (In fact, consumers have rated their Prius an average 9.4 out of 10.)

With passenger room on par with the Camry and a convenient hatchback for loading up cargo, the current-generation Prius backs up its high-tech mechanicals with day-to-day practicality.

We talked to women who own them about the advantages and disadvantages of owning the country's most popular hybrid.

Reformed Gas Guzzler Amy Krivis of Tarzana, California, raves about her Prius and its 50-mpg average fuel economy. Though she has previously owned three luxury SUVs, she doesn't miss the amenities lost in downsizing.

"I knew exactly what I wanted — the color tan and top of the line," she said. "It's as luxurious as I would need. It has GPS and all the cupholders."

She paid $2,500 over the sticker price to get it from a local Toyota dealer last November. She does have a few gripes — like the bar that runs across the back window.

"When you look in the rear window there's a bar. It doesn't obstruct, but it's annoying," she said.

She also could do without the car beeping every time she shifts into reverse. While this feature can be disabled, Toyota doesn't include a how-to in the owner's manual because the company considers it an important safety feature.

Krivis stresses that her criticisms are minimal in exchange for the environmental and political benefits of owning a Prius.

"When you see what you can get with so little gas," she said, "I can't imagine guzzling all that gas anymore."

Down-Home Prius Country Jean Godwin of Franklin, Tennessee, a town about 15 miles south of Nashville, lives on a small farm. She has a teenager who needs to be driven to school, but spends the remainder of the time driving alone on rolling country roads. "I was feeling guilty driving around getting 8 to 10 miles per gallon with only me as a passenger," she said. "I felt I was being wasteful."

Godwin decided to make the switch from minivan to a hybrid in 2004. "I was very into the environmental aspects of the car," she said. "I don't want to waste oil reserves. I want to be a cleaner driver."

She looked at the Honda Civic hybrid first, but wanted something that was distinctive from an all-gas model.

"If you're going to make that kind of leap, you want it to feel different, too. The Honda Civic felt like any other Honda Civic," she said. She opted for a silver Toyota Prius with basic equipment, selecting only side curtain airbags as an option. She hunted the car down at a local dealer in August 2004, before it became a common sight in Tennessee.

She has driven it more than 14,000 miles and proudly claims to get between 49 and 55 mpg.

"It's a wonderful way to learn how to drive conservatively and more safely," she said. "I will always choose a route to give me the best gas mileage if I have time, a thought that would never have crossed my mind in a car without a fuel consumption screen."

Although the Prius encourages exceptional gas mileage, Godwin doesn't like her husband to drive it because he has a bit of a lead foot. "He doesn't get good gas mileage," she said.

Making Hybrids High Priority Laura Adams of Bowie, Maryland, a neighborhood outside of Washington, D.C., bought her first-generation Prius in January 2002. "I've always been interested in finding alternate methods of fuel," she said. "I would love to have an electric vehicle, but this is the next best thing."

Adams drives about 50 miles a day to take her children to school and run errands. She wants the world to know that the idea that hybrids are slow is a misconception.

"Our traffic is No. 3 in the nation. I have no trouble merging into lanes and keeping up with traffic," she said. "That bothers me that people think I have to give something up to own this car. [Compared to other compact cars], I don't give up anything in terms of space or in terms of power."

What Adams has given up is high gasoline bills. Her average fuel economy from spring through fall is 48 miles per gallon. In the winter she averages 39 miles per gallon because it takes longer for the engine to warm and to work efficiently. Her all-time best is 57 miles per gallon.

Although Adams says that being able to see at a glance exactly how much fuel she's consuming has influenced the way she handles driving, her commonsense approach would improve fuel economy in any car.

"I'm not as assertive in traffic, and I haven't found it's added any time to the trip. I'm calmer in the car and more relaxed," she said.

In order to afford the difference between the Prius and a less expensive all-gas car, Adams had to forego some options she would have liked. Toyota has addressed this issue on the second-generation Prius, which can be had with many more upscale amenities, but the price has gone up even more.

"My Prius was made just for me," Adams said. "[But, financially], it was a stretch for us. [My car] is bare-bones, and there was no negotiating on the price."

Adams has no regrets, though. "After three and a half years, it's still like a brand-new car," she said. "I've had zero problems, only regular maintenance."

Where It's Easier Being Green Marcia Morrison of Lafayette, Colorado, looked around for environmentally friendly cars before settling on the Prius.

"I care very much about sustainability. I care very much about clean air," she said. "I considered the [Honda] Insight, but it's only a two-seater. At the time I had a kid who was a teenager. I've got a house, and sometimes I go to the hardware store and have stuff to bring home. I needed a family car."

It wasn't just the hybrid drivetrain that sold Morrison.

"I like the way the Prius looks. When I saw it, I thought it was a cute little car," she said. "I love gizmos. It's got all kinds of new technology." Owning a hybrid in environmentally friendly Colorado would have another benefit Morrison liked: It's got very low emissions. So low, in fact, that she wouldn't have to take the car in for state emissions tests.

Today her car has more than 40,000 miles on it, including many long road trips. "Getting good gas mileage is like playing a video game," she said. "Right now I get 45 to 46 miles per gallon average, because it's been really hot and I've been running the air conditioner. Normally I get closer to 47."

She insists, though, that she hasn't lost the thrill of acceleration.

"I tend to find myself going too fast and not knowing it," she said. Morrison chalks up this tendency to the smooth operation of the car's standard continuously variable transmission, which doesn't have the usual shift points of a conventional automatic transmission. She often uses cruise control to guard against speeding and to optimize her fuel economy.

What all the numbers come down to for Morrison is gas savings — and that's where Prius owners like Morrison excel. "I like the idea of spending less at the gas station." she said.

With $3 per gallon now a reality, it's hard to argue with that logic.

Greening the Road For many, a gas-electric hybrid drivetrain is the best of both worlds. Some of the 2006 vehicles below, like the Prius, are offered exclusively with hybrid power plants, while others offer it as an option.

Ford Escape Hybrid Honda Accord Hybrid Honda Civic Hybrid Honda Insight Lexus RX 400h Mercury Mariner Hybrid Toyota Prius Toyota Highlander Hybrid

See also: Introduction — How Far Would You Go for the Planet? Part One — Going "Au Naturel" With Honda's Civic GX Part Three — Diesel's Greener Bill of Health More Articles on Hybrids: Hybrid and Diesel SUV RoundupThe Real Costs of Owning a HybridHow a Hybrid WorksSpecial Report: Hybrid Popularity Skyrockets

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