Test-driving cars teaches you some lessons you wouldn't expect.
That brings us to the curious case of the Toyota Prius. As I headed off to pick up the Toyota hybrid for an extended test, I felt like a Punjabi groom being pushed into an arranged marriage with an unattractive woman. I'd just finished driving three Mercedes and a Porsche - the idea of a two-week trip in a Prius was a serious comedown.
Now it was in our garage. And I didn't like it. The Prius looked like an over-styled cheese wedge. And it didn't sound like a car - when I pressed the Start button, it remained silent. The only sign of life was a "ready" sign that flashed up on a screen.
My wife and I headed south, toward Lookout Mountain, Ga. This was a trip we've done dozens of times over the past 25 years, but in the Prius, it was an alien experience. There were no gears to shift, and no tachometer to tell me how fast the engine was turning. The Prius's propulsion system was hidden and mysterious, controlled by microchips. As a former mechanic and dedicated car guy, this offended my instincts. I felt like sticking a sign in the window that said, "This isn't our car."
Seven hundred kilometres later, we made our first gas stop. We were somewhere in Ohio. This was weird. In our Honda, we'd be lucky if we make it to the Canadian border without a fill-up. And the tank on the Prius was clearly smaller than the Honda's - I filled it for less than $30 (U.S.).
This second fill-up took us almost all the way to Lookout. At first, we thought there must be a mistake. Countless people had told me that the fuel economy of the Prius was a myth. "Not much better than any other car," one friend declared. They were wrong. We had gone more than 1,400 kilometres on just over 70 litres of fuel. Bargain!
And I had to admit that the Prius was starting to grow on me. I liked the way it glided silently down the highway, as if propelled by an invisible hand. And I was obsessed with the digital fuel-consumption displays. Getting 5.5 L/100 km was easy. When I tried, I could get it down to 3.5.
When we glided down a hill or put on the brakes, the display showed energy flowing back into the Prius battery. We were getting something for nothing!
Now we were at Lookout Mountain, hang-gliding capital of eastern America, and home of my friend Matt Taber, free-flight entrepreneur and gear head supreme. Matt has owned everything from super-bikes to hot-rod Mustangs and a BMW M3. For him, there's no such thing as a car with too much power. Now his buddy had arrived in a Prius, a car that many deride as an emasculating tree-hugger status symbol. I knew that Matt wouldn't like it.
That night, we cruised down the mountain with our wives for dinner in Chattanooga. The Prius carved silently through the incredible curves that Matt and I have driven so many times in high-performance vehicles like Corvettes, SVT Mustangs, and a Lotus Exige.
But the Prius had its own allure. In a high-performance car, this road was like a flight in an F16. Now we were in an Airbus, gliding along together. We talked, and we listened to the radio. The lights of Chattanooga glittered far below us, like diamonds spilled out onto a square of black velvet. I could see that Matt was watching the Prius's economy gauge. Going down the mountain was like pulling into a free gas station - the regenerative brakes were pouring a flood of electrons into the battery. I wondered how much we'd saved: the price of half an enchilada, maybe? Whatever it was, I liked the idea.
At dinner, Matt delivered his verdict: "This is a great car," he decreed.
So it wasn't just me. After a week with the Prius, I realized that it represented a new driving paradigm.
In many cars, I drive fast, enjoying the thrust of the engine and the way the G-forces push me against the doors in a hard corner. But I drove the Prius the way I fly gliders, striving for smoothness and efficiency.
Gliding is about getting energy from rising air, then using it wisely, minimizing drag and going as far as you can with your altitude. An instrument called a variometer tells you if you're going up or down, measuring your progress with little digital bars - the Prius's energy meter was a ground-bound version.
This imposed new discipline. The price of every accelerative burst was there to see. So was the payback from each downhill glide.
A week later, I was back in Toronto with a new test car, a luxurious German sedan that cost nearly $100,000. Like the Prius, it had an instant-read consumption gauge. I choked when I saw the numbers. In the Prius, I had typically hovered around 5.5 L/100 km. But in the German luxury sled, I was looking at 30 much of the time.
This struck me as insane. And it is.
Last week, the Canadian and U.S. governments announced that they will adopt tough new fuel economy standards that will force 40 per cent improvements by 2016. Driving a Prius back to back with a gas guzzler made me realize that change can't come soon enough. I've heard arguments about hybrid efficiency for years. But now I'd seen the difference firsthand.
The numbers spoke for themselves.