On Sunday, June 17, for the first time in its 80-year history the punishing 24 Hours of Le Mans race was won by a gas-electric hybrid car—an Audi. In fact, the R18 e-tron quattros took first and second place.
Now Toyota is preparing to assault the Pikes Peak Hillclimb, on July 8, with an all-electric race car.
Toyota already grabbed the battery-powered record at the Nürburgring in Germany more than a year ago, when its P001 racer ate up the legendary course in well under eight minutes. (The video is eerie—no Ferrari shriek or Porsche howl, just squalling tires and an intense whine like a pump pulling a cosmic-grade vacuum. On YouTube, it looks more like a video game than most video games.)
A month ago scientists at MIT announced a breakthrough in cheap battery technology that will go straight into electric cars. Also in May, the Environmental Protection Agency agreed to help NASCAR “go green.” (The mind boggles.) A shop that rents out electric buggies opened in my home town. And Toyota announced it has sold more than four million hybrid vehicles around the world, a million of them in America. The future is here, and it hums and sparks.
Today there’s a Prius in my drive—a third-generation Liftback Three, one of what’s now a stable of four Prius models: A downsized city car called the Prius c, an upsized wagonette dubbed the Prius v, and two versions of the established Prius, now known as Gen-3 or the Liftback. One is a Plug-in Liftback, which can be recharged off a wall socket, and the other uses primarily its gas engine to recharge the batteries that power the electric assist.
This one, the “normal” Prius, now comes in four grades, called Two, Three, Four and Five, that start at $24,000 to $29,805. (The Prius c starts at just $18,950; the v at $26,550; and the Plug-in at $32,000.) All Priuses are front-wheel-drive, four-door hatchbacks, and they share the brand’s distinctive silhouette and styling.
With the possible exception of the Prius c, they also all still share the original’s daffy driving dynamics. (Reportedly, the much smaller and lighter city model handles better.) The steering, for example, is simply dead. The brakes aren’t, though; in the last third of their action, they come to life and clamp down all by themselves, for jerky stops. The accelerator pedal seems to be connected to the squirrel cage by a hefty rubber band. Cornering at speed leads to massive plow-ahead understeer. The digital instrument displays are either irrelevant or unfathomable, and take too much of our attention. Asking for lots of power (well . . .) brings the motors and the continuously variable transmission to a droning boil that’s quite unpleasant. Visibility to the rear is poor, as the otherwise large windows are bisected by that horizontal Prius bar. And what use is a backup alarm that only people inside the car can hear?
Hybrid cars don’t have to handle badly—you can’t win at Le Mans, tackle Pikes Peak or set the Nürburgring ablaze by being dynamically incompetent—but Toyota has a secret plan. I reckon Prius owners either hate driving or feel some deep, probably subconscious need to do penance for Western Society’s rape of the earth. Or some such. And Toyota, in its penetratingly Oriental way, seems to understand this and builds the Prius to suit: Round-eyes must drive; but we will make them suffer while doing so, to help wash away their petroleum-based sins. Evidently, it’s working; each year since the Prius went on sale here in 2000, it’s been the best-selling hybrid vehicle in the US.
There’s only one reason to own a Prius: After 192 miles on the interstate, the computer recorded an average speed of 74 MPH and an average efficiency of 44.9 MPG. Since then, my average velocity has dropped to 46 MPH and the MPG has risen to 47.7. Not bad, but a small turbodiesel engine could achieve the same or better results with less complexity and cost.