My complicated feelings about the Toyota Prius

As an object, I think that I might dislike the Toyota Prius.  But why?

Let’s face it right up front: my favorite cars have the subtlety of paint fumes and the delicacy of a tire fire.  But this alone should not dictate why I dislike another car.

It’s a fine car, and people love their Priuses (more on this below).  I don’t fault anyone for buying one, really, but in the combat theater of Los Angeles traffic, the Prius draws my ire.

It’s a strange process that goes into “deciding” if we like something.  The fact is, we tend to feel first and think second; things tend to have an emotional meaning before they have a thinking meaning.  If that seems backwards, it is probably due to the fact that emotions are so beautifully woven into your thinking and “reasoning” that it is hard to properly identify where one starts and the other ends. It is difficult to know the exact reason why I yell “F-you Prius!!”  at the nonchalant texting/lane changing/npr-ing driver cutting me off on his way to the farmer’s market freeway exit with the tote bag handle dangling out of its hatch.  I am also going to the farmer’s market in this scenario. Would I yell this at a Camry in the same way?

A case in contrast: the old Montero which I loved beyond reason.
A case in contrast: the old Montero which I loved beyond reason.

We are actually quite poor at knowing why we do all the things we do.  Without consideration, I have probably made 500 “decisions” today.  I know that I decided on an outfit, what I ate for breakfast, whether to check my email or facebook first, and how I chose to commute to work. Some decisions are more guided by logical feelings, such as how I chose between a car or the train to come to work today.  I drove, but the train in many ways makes more “sense”–it uses less gas, is less stressful and does not take that much longer.  Think about these tiny decisions, do I really know WHY I decided to check facebook before checking twitter or your email or in some other order? When we examine our behavior under the strongest microscope, it is random looking like the motion of subatomic particles. I know that today I have made a series of gut decisions–which is what all decisions are.

Emotion and feeling are not direct consequences of my mind’s rational and separate interpretation of the world (a la Rene Descartes, philosophy’s dickhead).  The view that emotion cycles with reason puts the nervous system in its correct place as a gooey machine for maintaining the health of the body.  It means that how we think about something like the Toyota Prius is inherently driven by emotion and feeling, with some input and backfilling done by “rational” thought.

Okay so why do I dislike the Prius?  The correct answer is that I don’t totally know, but I DO know that some reasons for disliking it are not rooted in fact.

Case in point, people like me often cite the following untrue reasons for disliking the Toyota Prius:

1. The Prius, because of its manufacturing process requiring a lot of batteries, and extra transport of parts across the oceans, actually uses more fuel to build than it saves with its hybrid drive system.

The root of this myth is a study done by lobbying group that picked datapoints with the purpose to denigrate the Prius.  It has been debunked.  A Prius uses more energy to be built compared to other cars, but the offset is paid for by its improved mileage.  The Prius uses many additional parts, but these parts are found on normal cars, and it is not special for the fact that its parts must be mined or shipped around the world. Please stop saying that the Prius is worse for the environment than a Hummer.  Sorry folks, the Prius is a net positive for environmental impact compared to a conventional car over the course of its lifetime (comprehensive source).

2. The hybrid system in the Prius is complicated and prone to breaking early.

Consumer Reports consistently ranks the Prius among the top-most reliable cars on the market.  They are probably awful to work on, and the hybrid system requires new skills, tools and knowledge for mechanics to repair.  Sorry, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for mechanics that discount and complain about new technology out of hand; our jobs change, we must learn new things, that’s the way it is.  For the Prius, I’m sure the repairs can be costly when needed and difficult to perform.  Overall though, it’s a well made car (limited source).

3. Prius drivers are smug idiots who hate cars

In my office, literally 75% of my coworkers drive Priuses. And I mean Literally literally. So here I am going to disabuse this notion in a rather unscientific manner: with anecdote.  I have found that the people who own Priuses are MUCH more enthusiastic about their cars than nearly any other comparable car owner of your standard Camry or Accord.  I have found that  Prius drivers are also respectably knowledgeable about their Priuses. I emphasize this point beyond what I can reasonably say with such speculation. Prius owners are some of the most dedicated and knowledgable car owners out there.  (Imagine if they learned about real cars how excited they’d be!)

Leaving behind the presupposed and now disabused “reasons” why I am not a fan of the Prius, what is left to consider of my feelings?

I aim to recognize that most of Prius drivers I know speak of their own form of mindfulness while driving.  They talk about the challenge of netting the best gas mileage possible, seeing which habits waste the most gas, and detecting subtle driving situations that are most detrimental to consumption.  This mindfulness is mediated through the center screen delivering constant animated feedback from the car to the driver.  Most of the Prius owners I know say that driving is like playing a video game. Wait a minute.  Aha! The Toyota Prius is not meant to be Driven, it is meant to be used, like a computer!

If the most common comparison to driving a Prius is to playing a computer game, maybe we can think of operating a Prius as Using the Prius, not Driving it.  Here I define Driving as the process of intentionally pushing a car, feeling its limits, connecting with its abilities–“one-ness.”  People aren’t enthusiastic about Driving the Prius, they’re enthusiastic about Using a Prius. There’s really nothing wrong with that in my mind. (Prius owners: do not tell me your car is fun to Drive. Your car is, by comparison to most modern vehicles at a similar price point, pretty slow with poor throttle response and lethargic handling. This is a problem endemic to Toyota cars in general but I hope you enjoy it I really do).  I love using computers, they can definitely be fun.  Call it a relativistic bargaining reduction, but I can feel my own tension reducing.

If there is a “logical” reason for how I should feel about the Prius, it is probably that I should love it.  This comes from the fact that because a Prius uses less gasoline, there will be more gasoline for fun purposes.  I honestly believe, and I will say as much in a future post, that electricity is for commuting, and gasoline is for Driving.  If you love the hobby of hot rodding and cars, you should thank the Prius for the gasoline it has saved for you to use for fun.  Thanks Prius; I will be grateful for the gasoline you leave for Driving.


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