As we drove one of the first new Priuses in New York City, people treated us differently, as if we were the very sunshine supermen who'd invented recycling or solar energy or something worthwhile like that. Although this sensation diminished, the Jesus halo hadn't worn off by the time we said good-bye to the car, the whole thing of its newfound emotional strength having been put in stark relief a few weeks earlier when we were also driving the equally iconic Hummer H2 around the city. The Hummer attracted more discourtesy, rudeness, nasty looks, and obscene hand gestures from New York motorists and ped-estrians than we'd ever been witness to, and we hadn't even told anybody we were getting only 9 mpg. But it was thumbs-up for the hybrid-which scored 52 mpg in our city-driving run-and big smiles in the Big Apple.
OK, you say, so that's New York, a town of taxi-riding gaylords and pinko swells who wouldn't know a spark-plug wrench if it hit them in the head. Now, we don't suppose for a moment a single one of the displays of affection we witnessed came from someone who actually knew what he was talking about. Some of the euphoria surely reflected as well on this particular hybrid's determinedly wacky demeanor. The Prius is hyper-modern chic viewed from some angles, clown-mobile gawky from others, but a full-time fashion statement above all else.
Like its scuttling-beetle look or not, when you're driving the new Prius, the ability to generate endless good vibes outside the Starbucks is palpable. Optimal fuel efficiency is achieved with an attitude adjustment. Since the key mileage boosters-regenerative braking and engine shutdown-don't occur on the highway, stick to urban environments to rack up the most impressive mpg numbers. Caress the throttle just so, and you can maximize the number of blocks covered with pure electric propulsion. Working together, the tag team 76-horsepower gasoline engine and 67-horsepower electric motor will pull the Prius from 0 to 60 mph in 10.7 seconds, not enough to take your breath away but a full second quicker than the Jetta.
Think the hybrid is a fad? Consider that the 2004 Prius, the first of Toyota's second-generation gas-electric hybrids, is on pace to sell 47,000 units in this, its debut year, almost double what the first-generation Prius, introduced in 2000, managed in its final and bestselling year, 2003. For its part, Volkswagen hopes to sell a total of 34,000 diesels in America this year, across a diesel model range that includes the Golf, the Jetta, the New Beetle, the Passat, and the Touareg. Surely, VW could sell more, but then it would have to charge less (you pay a $1240 premium for the diesel Jetta), and that doesn't seem to be part of the master plan for VW, which has a long-standing bond with long-suffering American dieselers, dating back to the diesel Rabbits and Dashers of the 1970s and 1980s. Who can forget what fog machines they were?
The modern Toyota hybrid is an amazing technological feat. Lexus and Toyota SUVs are up next and are all but ensured commercial success. There are, to be certain, several drawbacks to the hybrid, chief among them that it uses two separate powerplants, which is duplicative and inelegant to the engineer's minimalist sensibility, not to mention expensive, complicated, and heavy. Batteries are costly to replace-though they're warranted for eight years or 100,000 miles-and pose significant, if not insurmountable, environmental issues in their manufacture and end-of-life disposal. On the bright side, with two power contributors, gasoline engines can be smaller and optimized for fuel efficiency instead of power output. Zero emissions are generated in electric mode, and propulsion is near silent. To make it all possible, the Prius must be a wonder of modern electronics, with exotic computer microprocessors harnessed in the name of significant energy savings, such as allowing momentum to be recouped continually in the form of electrical power during coasting and braking, energy that would be lost in nonhybrid vehicles. The Prius's planetary transmission and electronic controls keep its gasoline engine in the most efficient part of its operating range and permit smooth, stepless cruising and acceleration. Drivability is not an issue.
Which is why it's time to take a step back. There's a good reason for the Prius and this being its moment in time. Whether or not Toyota can build hybrids profitably, as Detroit sniffs it can't (nervously, it seems to us), the Prius is unassailable as a consumer proposition. From a clean-air perspective, it's the best thing ever, and, unlike hydrogen fuel cells, it's here right now. Although diesel engines are not without environmental merit, they're not in the same ballpark. So the scenesters of New York, London, Hollywood, and Ann Arbor have got something right. Hybrids aren't going away. Something has changed.