It has long been fashionable in auto-enthusiast and auto-journalist circles to dismiss the Toyota Prius as a precious affectation of misguided Al Gore devotees, people who find automobiles something to endure - for the sake of pure transportation - rather than enjoy. According to this mind-set, Prius drivers clog the carpool lanes, dawdle in intersections lest they ignite the internal-combustion component of the Hybrid Synergy Drive powertrain too quickly, and undeservedly bask in the glow of a conviction that they are helping the planet and their fellow human beings. That Prius owners are self-satisfied idiots, hypocrites, and anticar zealots until proven otherwise is taken as writ by Prius critics, including some members of Automobile Magazine's editorial staff.
Central to the Prius critique is the notion that it, along with most vehicles with hybrid gasoline/electric powertrains, is no fun to drive and is simply not a match for a well-tuned car with a conventional internal-combustion engine, preferably one mated to a slick-shifting manual transmission. Indeed, there is more than a germ of truth to this. The outgoing, second-generation Prius suffers from an indifferent chassis; vague, lifeless steering and braking responses; weak accelerative power; and an utter lack of visceral, sensory feedback. The main fun to be had in the 2009 Prius is in monitoring the energy-consumption display and trying to increase the average miles per gallon, one tedious digit at a time.
With the new, third-generation Prius, Toyota is aiming to broaden the car's appeal beyond the green set. At the media preview in Napa Valley, Toyota laid out a prescribed route designed to highlight the car's fuel economy. I figured plenty of others would be bragging about hypermiling at that evening's dinner (and, in fact, several drivers exceeded 70 mpg), so I decided instead to drive a 2010 Prius as hard and as fast as prudence and nerve allowed along the two-lane roads in and above Napa Valley. I set off in a Prius with optional seventeen-inch wheels along Silverado Trail, which runs through some of the most valuable tracts of grapevines in North America. Turning onto Sage Canyon Road, I pushed the new-for-2010 "power" button, which provides more aggressive throttle operation, and hit the go pedal. As the road grew curvier and climbed farther up into the hills, the Prius did not stumble. The give-and-take between internal combustion and electric power was far less apparent than before, and the car actually seemed eager to gobble up the tarmac. A new, more energetic, more enthusiastic Prius was emerging.