Dan's Outside

I go, I see, I do, I walk, I think, I like…

A Car Story

Since my outdoor adventures involve a significant amount of travel, and since the price of gas and environmental concerns make it more and more necessary to think about the impacts of such travel, I thought I’d write something about the car we bought last year. Yes, a Prius.

We own two cars, the Prius and a Subaru Outback. I need the Subaru to get to certain places where a city car just won’t do – dirt and gravel roads in the eastern Sierra Nevada, snowy roads in the winter. I won’t say much more about it here, since I’ve written about it in the past.

We had thought of a hybrid car when the first version of the Prius came out, but we decided against it after calculating how long it would take to “earn back” the premium by way of lower gas costs. At that time, with gas costing a lot less than it does today, the economics just didn’t make sense and we happily used a Honda Civic. When it came time to replace that car last year we took a good hard look at the Honda Civic Hybrid and the Toyota Prius. While I’m convinced that both are really fine cars, there were some features in the Prius that sold us.

We were fortunate to make our purchase at a time when the supply of these cars had actually caught up to the demand, and we were able to pick from multiple cars on dealer’s lots and get a price that was below list. (Before that – and again today – the balance between supply and demand favored the dealers, and buyers typically have to wait and pay a premium.) With our lucky timing of the purchase and the sudden and drastic increase in the cost of fuel, it turns out that the economics now make a lot of sense – and of course the environmental benefits are also important.

So, what kind of mileage can you really get from a Prius? We consistently get better than 50 mpg. Every so often the mileage will “fall” into the 48 or 49 mpg range for a tank or two, but on other occasions we’ve gotten as much as 54 or 55 mpg. We’re fairly conservative drivers, and we now tend to put the car at the speed limit and turn on cruise control for highway driving, but that it still quite good mileage.

For example, earlier this month I drove to Tuolumne Meadows, going as far as Tioga Pass. My round trip from the Bay Area (close to 450 miles) consumed a little bit more than eight gallons of fuel. If I had taken the Subaru (or should I say when I take the Subaru, since I do from time to time) I would have used about 14-15 gallons. A few years ago – when we had three kids at home and gas was a lot less expensive – we owned a, ahem, Dodge Durango. If I still had that vehicle, fuel consumption for a trip like this would be about 30 gallons!

But one surprise about the Prius is that it isn’t just an “economy car.” Detroit, and to an extent the foreign car-makers as well, often only produce their best-equipped models with larger “engine upgrades.” For example, when we got the Subaru (which we like a lot, by the way) in order to get the model with all of the features that I would have liked we would have had to get it with a larger six cylinder engine that gets worse mileage! But the Prius gets the same mileage whether you buy the least expensive model or the completely tricked out model with leather and all the fancy extras.

Another surprise was that the interior design of the Prius is so darned smart. It seems like a much bigger car on the inside than on the outside, and I’m convinced that there is actually a bit more passenger room in it than in the larger Subaru – strange but true. And it is quiet. I can carry on a conversation in the Prius or listen to the sound system. The bottom line is that it doesn’t feel like a little econo-box in the least.

And what about power? One of my concerns was that it wouldn’t be able to get me over the Sierra passes that I frequently cross. I was wrong. This little car has plenty of power – at least as much as the other small cars I’ve owned, and it actually has more acceleration since it uses both the electric and gas engines when you push it.

I can only hope that this kind of design will make its way into more and more cars very soon.

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July 29, 2008 - Posted by | Commentary, Environment, Equipment | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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