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Buy a Hybrid, Part I · 14 December 06

Prius Profile

This is the story of how Eve, our in-progress electric car conversion project, ended up being put on hold for a while, how we ended up with a brand new Hybrid Car, and what all of this might mean in the larger picture of EV design, vehicle efficiency, and the future direction of the automobile industry.

Regular readers have probably figured out that we’ve had a hectic and unusual year. Not so unusual that it hasn’t happened to millions of other folks, but our father’s passing still came as a surprise.

Word came that he was very sick and had been admitted to the hospital. I started driving to Nebraska from New Hampshire on a Saturday morning. My brother in-law was with me and shared driving shifts. I’d flown him out from Wyoming just that week to help with a bunch of house projects and with Eve, but all of that was put on hold as we pointed the truck west and started to drive. Eight hours later, somewhere between Buffalo and Cleveland, word came that Dad died.

We arrived in Nebraska early Monday morning. Memorials, paperwork, and the beginning of a long estate management followed. By the time the dust cleared I’d been out there almost three weeks before it was time to drive back home to New Hampshire. The visit was short, as I’d promised the family I’d return to Nebraska and manage the radio station and some of the estate matters for a while.

On the first trip out I drove our Toyota Tacoma, 4 cylinder 4×4. Not very efficient mileage wise, but not bad and I certainly used the extra room for hauling stuff to and from Nebraska.

For the trip back I’d been planning on taking the truck again, which was a pity because gas prices were really starting to soar. I had a week before departing and on a whim I started thinking about buying a hybrid.

Nebraska: The Good Life!

As I get older I seem to spend more time obsessing over every little detail of a purchase. Whether it’s an airplane ticket for vacation, a kitchen appliance, or a new car, I can’t seem to make a flash decision. Luckily I’d been reading about hybrids for quite a while and had a pretty good inkling of which one I’d like. Also, somewhat unfortunately, there isn’t that big of a field to choose from yet.

The choice pretty much boiled down to the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic. All of the other hybrids were mostly regular cars with a bit of magic “hybrid marketing dust” sprinkled over them, but not much in the way of hybrid benefits.

One brother in-law had purchased a Prius (happy as a clam) and the other brother in-law a Honda (happy as a clam). Not much help there. The Prius checked in with higher EPA estimates, but we all know about those, right? The Prius, admittedly, has a distant cousin of the Aztec look to it with that split back window thing but I’m not that much of a stickler on looks. The main thing that sealed it for me was that the Honda’s back seat didn’t fold down. Trading a 4×4 truck for Hybrid and not being able to fold down the back seat to haul things was out of the question.

Now for the hard part …

Buying a Prius

With gas prices above $3 a gallon a used Prius was costing more than a new one, I think that this was because, unlike the new Prius, you could actually buy a used one. All of the news outlets talked about premiums being paid and long waiting periods to get a Prius, and here I was trying to buy one in less than a week’s notice.

I checked area dealers with websites and found a few that purportedly had some in stock. Come to find out most of those that did only had the top of the line Prius, with all options, clocking in above $28k. Another dealer, down in Nashua, I emailed back and forth to figure out pricing to get a rough estimate of trade-in value for the truck. Of course if you’ve ever dealt with an auto dealer they will NOT write down anything having to do with an offer, even an estimate, and this was true with trade-ins as well.

Two days before my scheduled departure we finally drove down to Nashua to try and buy a Prius, hoping for a decent trade-in. It was an hour and half drive and when we got there the sales gal wasn’t around. I asked a sales guy where the Prius’ were and he replied, “In people’s driveways!” and stormed off. Gotcha, no business from me buddy.

Bellows Falls Vermont

We took the scenic route on the way back and swung by a small Toyota dealer a little closer to home. They weren’t open, but there on the parking lot was a brand new Prius with the shipping plastic still intact. I called them up first thing Monday morning to set up an appointment.

Long story cut short (right!) I took it for a short test drive and bought it. There was a bit of “sinking feeling” when I realized that my two year old trade-in was actually a three year old trade-in, but in the end they really gave me a great trade-in deal … which is good since there was no dickering over the price of the Prius.

As an aside, the government has tax rebates for qualifying hybrid cars and the Prius is the highest of the bunch, clocking in at a little over $3,000 if you bought it before October 2006. Between the great trade-in and the rebate the Prius will end up costing us only six thousand bucks.

Monday afternoon I bought a Prius and Tuesday morning I topped off the coffee mug, the 11 gallon gas tank, and hit the road for Nebraska. I can’t say it was any easier of a trip than the first one, especially since I was driving by myself, but it certainly was easier on the wallet and in time taken filling up the tank.

I’m not a lead-foot, but I’m also not a slow driver. My motto has always been “five-miles-over” whatever the posted interstate speed limit. When you have 2,000 miles stretched out in front of you any time saved helps. The average speed ranged from 70mph for most of the trip to 75mph once I got west of Illinois. Even so I averaged a wonderful 47mpg. Slower sections meant even better gas mileage. Compared to the aerodynamic brick that was our truck, I was easily doubling the number of miles per gallon … and some.

There were a number of articles earlier this year with so-called “financial analysis” of hybrids. Pundits taking the price/mileage of a hybrid and comparing it with a “comparable” gas-only car. I can’t speak for the Honda, but their comparison of a Prius with any other model Toyota car has to be taken with a large grain of salt. I’d say the Prius might be more favorably compared with a Lexus, at least more so than with a Camry. But more on this in part II.

The Looks

Let’s just get this over with. Some people don’t like the way the Prius looks. Perhaps a car is an integral part of their ego. Fine, maybe the Prius isn’t much of a chick magnet, or at least not for those who judge you by your car.

On the other hand there are only so many things you can do to improve aerodynamics and most of them don’t shout “muscle car.” Check out cars with low Cd (coefficient of drag) and you’ll find a lot of odd looking vehicles. Hey, maybe it’s a matter of acquired taste: perhaps efficiency will be sexy some day?

Naw …

The Interface

I don’t normally give my computers or cars or gadgets a name. But when you need to write articles about them and are constantly referring to them as an identifiable entity it sure helps to name them. I was thinking of calling the Prius, “Hank” not as in King of the Hill (although we do live on a big hill) but instead for “Hybrid, and nice key” but my wife has vetoed it.

For all of the great touches on the Prius the one feature outside of the excellent gas mileage that I am really struck by is the entry system. The key is electronic and unless you’ve experienced one first hand it is really difficult to realize what that means.

Prius Entry Illustration

Imagine walking up to your car and just opening the door, even though it was locked securely. No fumbling with keys, no clicking on fob buttons, it just opens when you pull a door handle. Got a hand-full of groceries? Pull up on the back hatch latch and it opens for you, no digging through pockets for keys.

Imagine sitting behind the wheel and driving away: no starting the engine, no pumping the gas, no hoping you don’t wear the battery out before it starts because it is so cold outside.

Imagine turning off the car and pressing a button to lock it as you walk away; knowing it will also check to make sure you aren’t locking a key inside.

Prius Key

I drove from New Hampshire to Nebraska, a thousand miles around Nebraska and Wyoming, and then back to New Hampshire without ever taking the car key out of my pocket. (ok, there was that one time in the parking lot when I took it out and hid it in the bushes so I could go back and ensure the car was really being locked). I know it seems like a small thing, but I have to say that it really makes sense and resonates nicely with what I’d been thinking of for Eve’s entry system.

You have no doubt driven cars for a long time, think about that earlier statement again: no need to start the car. The standard procedure for driving the Prius is to get in the car, push the ON button, pop it into reverse or forward, and drive away. Having driven an EV for almost eight years I can tell you that it is very close to the same experience: just drive.

That’s it for the basic impressions of our new Prius. In Part II I’ll delve deeper into the technical details.

Comments 7
  1. Peter    Dec 14, 2006 17:46 PM    #

    Hi Jerry,

    Again sorry about your loss. I would like to say that Hybrid part one is the best synopsis of a new car I have read. Not the cold technical facts you get in a magazine or the dealership, but the personal experience of the car owner-YOU! I was considering the Toyota Camry hybrid thats coming out myself for a second vehicle after the BEV I want to assemble. Pete
  2. jerry Halstead    Dec 18, 2006 09:44 AM    #

    Thanks, Peter. I’ll probably go all technical in part two to compensate!

    Let us know more about your BEV as you get going.

  3. — Chris Bridges    Dec 21, 2006 02:27 AM    #

    Thank you very much for doing such a fine job on this story. I have learned a great deal, one thing is that IF I go through with my own conversion, I’m going to need a lot of help, because even though I’m a pretty good helicopter mechanic, the electical problems you have talked about would drive me completly crazy. But all that aside, you have shown me some very interesting things and I really enjoyed it. Thanks and good luck with any new projects you come up with.


    Chris Bridges

  4. — Justin    Jan 01, 2007 20:10 PM    #

    So how long do you think it will be before you give in to temptation and convert it to a plug-in? :)

  5. jerry Halstead    Jan 02, 2007 13:40 PM    #

    Probably be a while, at least until the price of Lithium batteries goes down or another alternative comes out. I’d probably be better off putting the lithium batts into Eve, if I was going to sink $10k+ into something like this.

    I would like to install the EV switch mod into the prius. More on that soon…

  6. — wheelywheel    Feb 26, 2009 21:50 PM    #

    I read a blog that Prius isn’t a good hybrid in terms of fuel efficiency. They failed to get the best FE for a hybrid. But for me, I still like them.

  7. — wheelywheel    Mar 02, 2009 20:05 PM    #

    Hello. I’ve drove my friend Prius last sunday. He told me that its amazing. And I think it was.