Saturday, October 13, 2007

A Driving Record with No Prius

One hidden pleasure of my recent New Mexico trip was getting bumped up to a Prius.

When I first heard the term “regenerative braking”, I remember being thrilled by the concept. It was so obviously a good idea that I was delighted someone had taken the trouble to implement it. And the generalization of the concept had an immediate impact on my own driving, to the point that I saw an improvement in my mileage. But I'd never had a chance to test my skill against the actual thing itself.

There are many redeeming things about driving the Prius. Most of all, because jerky action tends to hurt mileage, and the Prius is constantly reminding you of it, the car instills a certain calm in the driver. It's a lot easier to obey low urban speed-limits when doing so means your car will whisper along on the electric motor alone. And finally, even though I put in a great deal of highway driving (which is not its strongest point), I averaged precisely 55 miles to the gallon on my trip, needing much less than a tank of gas where normally I would have needed much more: indeed, 55 is just about twice the best mileage I normally get from a rental car.

The car is, sadly, marred by several things:

  • Toyota simply has no internal design sense. The interior is true Toyota plastic with controls that are, in general, ugly, unintuitive, ill- and inconsistently-placed, -sized and -lit.
  • The relatively large LCD is another big disappointment, with cheesy graphics and no useful displays (e.g., when certain operations don't function, the LCD provides no useful feedback).
  • In my entire trip I never determined how to turn off the radio, only to turn the volume down to zero. (The volume button can be toggled by pushing, but whether it was depressed or not seemed to have no effect on radio operation.)
  • The rear “spoiler” is in a very awkward place, splitting one large rear window into two ungainly small ones; the glass warps slightly around the spoiler, distorting the view ever-so-slightly; and the spoiler is just about where the lights of cars would be, blocking an important visual cue.
  • The car beeps whenever you put it in reverse, a user interface disaster of staggering proportions.
  • There is a strange ‘B’ driving mode, which turns out to be the low-gear (but they didn't think to use ‘L’: the ‘B’ stands for “braking”, natch).
  • Hovering near certain speeds makes the electric motor turn on and off with regularity; furthermore, every time the motor disengages the car emits a slight clunk and changes its road feel, which is jarring.
  • And finally, the first few times I simply couldn't figure out how to get the car started without rebooting it. (There's a whole new meaning for a car's boot.)

Overall, the car doesn't feel quite ready yet. The internal interface, in particular, desperately demands Acura's masterful attention to detail when it comes to design and layout. And then, I think, I'd be delighted to get one.


Pete said...

Shriram, I can't believe you didn't figure out how to turn off the beeping when you back up. It's so easy.

Cait mostly thinks it's cute, that the Prius is beeping because it wants to pretend it's a big truck.

Shriram Krishnamurthi said...

Good point. I figured out a few other of these multi-step wag-your-tail-while-standing-on-your-head features, so I'm embarrassed to not have figured out this one. If I ever buy a Toyota, it's clear that I should be ambitious about exploring its state space. I'll be the human model-checker.

Michael Greenberg said...

There's a power button (labelled "PWR", since Toyota rejects our barbaric phonetic system) right below the volume knob.

The rear-view window is a real hassle.

I thought "B" stood for "battery charge" -- huh.

Shriram Krishnamurthi said...

Well, of course it would be a physical button. Everything else about the audio is controlled by touch-screen, and the way of turning off the fan is also through the touch-screen, so it makes perfect sense that the way to turn off the radio would not be.

While we're at it, have you noticed how the touch-screen is angled towards...well, towards the person sitting in the middle of the rear seat? I suppose that, for safety reasons, the touch-screen should only operated by a person in the rear, using a long stick.

‘B’ does charge the battery, more than usual (since it's braking whenever you're not accelerating). The manual helpfully suggests this may reduce your gasoline mileage. ‘B’ might also stand for “blinkin' hell” or “blimey”, for all anyone can tell. In the space it takes to write one Roman alphabet they could have written an entire Japanese glyph, and that would have been more informative (while also educating Americans a little about the rest of the world).

John L said...

I think the climate controls are worse than the audio controls, and you missed the car's worst feature: it acts like a sail in a crosswind. A nice big sail.

Oh, and the B is an engine brake. It makes the wheels turn the engine, with compression. It's for descending mountains without destroying your brakes. So rent another one for a drive up Mt. Washington. ;-)

I read a Kiplinger editorial last month (should I admit that?) where the guy wanted a green grade of A because both his cars got more than 20 mpg. Less than half the top score would make, what, a C?

Shriram Krishnamurthi said...

You know, I was trying to ignore that sail business. I was in a remarkably windy part of New Mexico: note, not just in New Mexico, which is pretty windy, but a windy part of New Mexico—so windy that at one point they had a windsock in the highway divider. So I chalked it up to the state, not the car. But it sure could use a lower wind-profile.