New used car: 2008 Toyota Prius

I had a little burr up my ass it appears, and started looking for a Jeep Wrangler to replace my GMC Jimmy so I can articulate my A-arms better and be more sure-footed.  The prices are a shocker though… $25-28k for a new Jeep Wrangler (6 cylinder, 6-speed manual).  Considering I’m going to be beating it up, I want something a little older.  Around Arizona it seems they are a hot commodity right now.  The guy at the dealership (Earnhardt Dodge in Mesa, AZ) listened to me tell him 6-cylinder manual, so he steers me over to a jeep and after a while asks if I want to test drive it.  I said yes… which made me shiver.  It was a 4-cylinder 6-speed manual, and with that engine it’s so tightly winded up (wound?)  that it was difficult to drive it with any comfort.  I’m not putting out 16k on a used 4-cylinder with 6-speed manual when it acts like that on the road… imagine how it’ll act when your at 45+ degrees tilt on 2 axis and your locked in 4-wheel lo.

I figured I’ll wait until the spring/summer fad is over and get one later… but I figured I’d look to see if they had a used Prius since I’ve never really seen one as anything more than a passenger.  I was impressed, actually.  I was introduced to my 2008 Toyota Prius 4-door hybrid and it took a little getting used to since the transmission has no gears to walk through (it’s CVT… continuously variable transmission) turning it on/shifting to drive, etc are different.  I was hooked though… the rear camera when going in reverse is amazingly helpful and accurate, the placement of the front wheels for turning makes it almost spin on a dime, and there’s something relaxing about knowing your getting between 40-50 mpg.  Since I’m a little OCD when it comes to statistics and computer diagnostics screens, this car drives my brain constantly while on… which is a good thing.  I’m calculating averages and mean coefficients with what-if scenarios while going down the road…

The biggest thing for me was the fact that when you have your windows down and you come to a red light/stop sign, you hear nothing.  Now, I realize most people would go, “well duh… it’s hybrid dumbass” but when you’ve grown up with gasoline engines and the sound of them running is what you listen for when you stop and listen to how they’re running for maintenance in the near future, etc… it can be frightening until you’re used to it.  So many times tonight I’d stop at a light and not hear anything, only to have a brief ‘oh shit’ episode while looking at the gauges and other things only to feel like a jackass when my eyes glance over the graph of the engine/electric motor/battery on the dash.

The speed of a Prius is impressive to me since it’s a hybrid and thought of as ecological and economical fuel-wise.  If you take off lightly, it’s all electric, and I’ve pulled that approach tonight while stealthfully slllliiiiiddddingg through the apartment complex parking lot tonight while playing around.  If you press your foot down on the accelerator a bit more though, the engine kicks up and starts to assist the electric engine in the moment of power need.  Of course, it’s a dynamic thing with both the gas and electric motors power distribution changing as needs change.

Reverse camera while backing into mall garage parking
Picture of the distance between rear and retainer that the camera took a picture of.

The dash is a very deep one, with the speedometer/odometer/trip gauges all at the back.  I like it like that, as it makes the area feel roomier and not cramped up against the driver.  That being said, it made it a little trying to find a spot for my GPS to mount on the window.  I opted for the left side all the way towards the bottom but I need to work on cord placement.

After driving 30-40 miles and barely seeing any impact on the fuel gauge, I figure I’d start brand new and fill the tank up to start my counts.  6 gallons… that’s all I had to fill it up with a quarter of a tank left.  I reset the trip odometer at 509 miles, but that was before I got it so I’m not sure how accurate that is.  Since I travel 50-60 miles a day round trip to work and home, this should be an interesting test.  Having a hybrid and being able to hop on the HOV lane will make it more fun, as well 😉

EDIT 05/02/2011:
Wouldn’t it figure, Arizona stopped the hybrid HOV usage abilities and left it with the first 10,000 that applied and have their special “cloud” colored plates.  Considering 2/3 of the cars in the HOV lane are one person SUVs with no HOV plate, I’m really wondering why I give a damned LOL.  I took the time to run through one tank of fuel on the Prius since I picked it up and I have to say it takes a bit to get used to the engine power curve to get the most fuel economy on the mountainous terrain.  I pushed up through I think 1,000 or so foot elevation in a 30 mile range (not too bad, but a decent test) going 65-75 MPH (the speed limit is 75 MPH).  Going uphill was about 25 MPH at 75 MPH and about 30 or so at 65 MPH.    The engine wasn’t screaming like some 4-cylinders do because they’re in a lower gear constantly.  Really, it was the same sound as if I was driving on a flat surface, just more throttle.  I would have used cruise control but the people around me were driving rather erratic and speeds constantly changed to avoid those constant lane shifters who just have to prove their manhood by going 10 MPH faster than everyone.
Coming back was the complete opposite in fuel economy since it was a declination of elevation.  My trip back was about 75-85 MPG the entire way.  My thought immediately was that it equaled out on average.
My next test will be the trip from Phoenix, AZ to San Diego, CA through the mountain pass.  This will be later in the year though, but would be interesting to see the MPG and power transfer through that territory.

Interestingly enough, there’s a ~40 mile electric-only battery system available that can be dropped into the Prius which is charged within 5 hours.  It’s sold by a company named hymotion (well, distributed, since it’s sold by companies that install it).  The downside is it’s like $10K, but at least the option is out there for those that drive less than 20 miles to work and drive less than 40 MPH. (the going rate that electric-only works within)

EDIT 05/2/2011 (again):
After a brief run-in with some ricers from Nevada on the road tonight in Scottsdale, I have more faith in the Prius.  A couple of kids with a Nevada plate were trying to pull the whole “fast and the furious” thing going down Scottsdale Rd tonight getting right up on people’s ass and flickering their lights, then when an opening came, they’d boost the turbo charger to goose it around someone real quick. (around, being into the same lane like a half circle)
Minding my own business, I pulled down Shea Blvd and about a minute into the drive the WRX pulls the whole half-circle pass on me.  I’m fine with that, so be it… until the driving becomes erratic, dancing over the lane line, shifting from one lane to the other and tapping the brake light until I notice my speedometer at 32 and slowing down on a 45 MPH road.  It was getting a little silly so I waited til there was an opening and swooped to the right and around them to get some open space.  That brings the whole “driving up the persons ass” thing, which is where I’m proud of my little car and the tech underneath.  I heard the turbo pull down and knew there’d be a 1-2 second lag before the turbo was spooled back up, so I pulsed the throttle with both electric engines and the gas engine pushing.  I pushed clear around three cars (zig zag) and backed down then flew through a yellow light that turned red right as I passed.  Just for posterities sake, I figured I’d use the Prius’ tight steering and suspension system to hit a turn to a road that weaves up to Cactus rd and get out of sight and head home.

Either way, just the fact that I had no gear changes to wait for since it’s CVT transaxle and the power being there when you need it… made me feel safer.  Everyone seems to think it’s a weak little car for some reason, and I’m not sure why other than hearing electric hybrid and thinking that.

EDIT 05/19/2011 (After hundreds of miles of road time):
I have to say I love this car for it’s tech appeal, and how much it makes me feel like I’m back in my old Neon Sport in 1999.  Since I picked up the car, I’ve noticed quite a few things being said about the car that don’t seem to jive with what I’ve noticed with it.  I’ll go down the small list:

Said: “The steering is unrefined and sloppy”
What I’ve noticed: Honestly, the steering is one of the selling points for me, as it only takes half a turn of the wheel to take a real tight corner.  It’s responsive, and the vehicle doesn’t yaw or lean when going through those turns like most cars I’ve driven.  This is even with the stock Goodyear Integrity tires, which are mediocre and can be replaced with much better performing tires.

Said: “The power is weak and is almost not highway driveable with normal cars around”
What I’ve noticed: Barring taking the car onto the Autobahn, this car can do just as well as a Toyota Camry.  I drive the highway at 60-75 MPH every morning/evening to and from work, and it performs wonderfully.  In fact, I’ll rate this as a user-error since I get my MPG from proper throttle use BUT still keep comfortably in control on the highway.  The power is there to use, but I think this stigma has come from the first adopters of the Prius being super MPG snobs and trying to get 75+ MPG on the highway.  I average 50-55MPG on my highway use, at 65-75 MPH.  After all, a Toyota Yaris is highway usable without a problem, and the gasoline engine used in it is essentially the same in the Prius.  The difference is that the Prius has 2 other electric engines strapped to it (Well, it’s a general statement…), and they add some very effective torque.

Said: “The Prius is just another econobox and is small”
What I’ve noticed: I’ve fit four people comfortably in the car, with enough room to comfortably fit another person in the back.  The leg room in the front & back seat is wonderful, enough for my father in the back who needs to relax his legs while sitting.  The rear hatch area is essentially a small SUV compartment size about 1/2 to 3/4 the size of my GMC Jimmy’s compartment (picture a Hyundai Tucson rear compartment), and can hold items securely within a confined space… just like an SUV.  The engine seems uneffected by a car full of people, as I’ve taken a load of people up a mountain pass (South Mountain in Phoenix, AZ) and the entire drive was normal.  We all drove from the north side of Phoenix (15-20 miles), so highway/city/mountain driving was experienced with that amount of load.  The plus side was that with the mountain driving, the full round trip rated ~75 MPG due to so much elevation drop coming back.

Said: “The car doesn’t get the MPG in the real world that the EPA states, it’s just a marketing ploy”
What I’ve noticed: Depending on your elevation increases/decreases (hilly area, or flat), temperature variances (the hotter temperatures are better performing), and amount of throttle used along with overly-aggressive driving styles, all effect mile-per-gallon ratings… on every car.  The difference is that the Prius does not respond to the throttle in the same respect as your average vehicle, and needs to be learned and acclimated to in order to utilize the car properly.  The car actually achieves much better than the EPA rating, however with the narrow testing style of the EPA test it achieved the given rating.  There are a couple of different things to build into your driving style with the Prius in order to achieve full MPG rating while at the same time having the power on the road.   (just as if you were learning how to drive a Mustang to get the power out of it).  Here’s a few:
1) At a light or stop sign, it’s more fuel-efficient to use a brisk acceleration instead of a slow-style.  The Prius engine setup does not have good fuel economy at low speeds while accelerating and it’s best to get closer to the speed you desire quickly instead of drawing out the bad fuel economy number and using more fuel.  It’s a win-win since brisk acceleration is there to use, and it saves you fuel.
2) Learn to feather your pedal when the power is not needed.  Since the accelerator is not directly attached to any intake or carburator and is entirely computer controlled, a new line of thought is needed.  This part takes a bit of personal training by going onto the road to try different foot pressures at different speeds to get the “feel”.  It’s quite easy under 39 MPH to utilize only the electric motors for a period of time, however the downside of this is it only will last for 1-2 miles before reverting to gasoline for the recharge.  The happy medium at that speed range is something referred to as “glide & pulse” by the Prius fans.  There is a section of throttle pressure that migrates away from electric & gasoline, along with not regenerating through the wheels.  This is seen on the screen on the dash as a dark line across all areas.. a “dead zone” where no power is being transmitted in the system.  This is “glide”, and once at speed if this is used for as much as possible with a light “pulse” of the accelerator for brief power, enormous fuel economy can be reached since it basically is barely any reduction in speed due to no engine pull and very little friction.  Keep in mind, I do not do this regularly at all aside from playing around, and is simply a “hypermile” way of doing things.  I guess bottom line is to just learn the accelerator and once you do it’s just like playing a game.

3) ALWAYS check your tire pressure.  This is not simply for safety on the Prius, this is for fuel economy.  When a tire loses it’s pressure, more of it’s surface contacts the road which creates greater friction and in turn reduces fuel economy, very noticably.  This is a grey area since the factory states to keep the pressure at 35 PSI in all 4 tires, but through usage the better economical way is to go 42 PSI front/40 PSI rear. (always check maximum tire pressure on the tire before going that high)  If the tire has a maximum tire pressure higher, the more the better.  The best rule of thumb is the maximum COLD tire pressure minus 2 PSI.  This allows a pressure variance.  Also, nitrogen can be used in the tires which will almost entirely halt any change in tire pressure.  Another upside is it absorbs heat from the tire more efficiently than air. (note I didn’t say oxygen, since air is a mixture of many gases including nitrogen)

4) If you are in mountainous terrain and going downhill, it’s best not to use your brakes continuously… on any vehicle.  They will overheat and become useless, which in turn will both destroy them AND make it even harder to decelerate.  The Prius has a feature on the shifter labelled “B” which is an engine brake.  Since when you have your foot completely off of the accelerator the only real decelerating power is the regeneration of power, you can shift into “B” and let go of the accelerator to use the engine as a decelerating force.  The brakes can be applied at the same time (not continuously for long periods of time), which will make slowing down from a runaway downhill descent much easier.  Granted, engine braking uses more fuel, so be sure to turn it back to “D” when in safe areas.

5) Lightly brake, it regenerates your battery.  If you can judge your stopping point, then just lightly braking will use that power to recharge your traction battery. (the big battery that runs the electric engines)  The plus side of this is that it uses less brake and makes it last longer, which makes brake replacement much cheaper over the long run.

6) Opt for a 0w30 motor oil instead of 5w30, synthetic if possible.  I know this isn’t a driving style or anything, but I had to throw this out there since it’s better for the engine and better for the pocket fuel-wise.  While retaining the same temperature rating, the viscosity of the oil is thinner and less restrictive of engine components.  I personally opted for 0w20 synthetic (not 0w30, but I use amsoil so it’s able to retain it’s body), and my fuel economy increased by 3-4 mpg at the minimum.  There is also the peace of mind with synthetic that the “sludge” deposits are virtually nil since the temperature threshold of synthetic motor oil is significantly higher.  There are also other factors to being into play, such as the ability to retain the fuel contamination for a much longer period of time and avoid sulphur dioxide from effectively eating the engine slowly.  (the very reason why there is a 3,000 mile oil change regimen)  Case in point with the variety I use of Amsoil which has a lifespan of 25,000 miles.  Granted, I personally would never wait that amount of miles before a refill because of the filter life (15,000 miles for mine), but it definitely gives you room for error time-wise.

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