Just mentioning the words “Toyota Prius” amongst the company of anyone remotely interested in cars will likely elicit a scoff, eye roll, or maybe visceral anger, as they quote an old Jeremy Clarkson tirade and running gag from the mid-aughties of him lambasting the car at every turn.
Until now. In an almost Kim Kardashian-Esque “break the internet” sort of way, the sleek new Prius’s new styling made everyone look, and the car seemingly overnight is on the way to losing its most hated status.
Yet, as sleek as the new Prius is, all of the accolades feel backhanded, if not a bit shallow. There’s a distinct tone of “now we can finally respect this thing,” because it is now physically attractive, we don’t have to hate it anymore.
Is that all a car ever is, styling? Or an image based on pop culture references and our favorite media personalities? Why did we ever hate the car in the first place?
I pondered that question, as I drove a loud, misfiring 2009 second-generation Toyota Prius that I paid a whopping $900 for, out of this stranger’s driveway, onto the back of my mechanic friend’s enclosed trailer. My Prius plopped and gurgled; it could have easily been foley sound for a Pod Racer from Star Wars, Episode I. It clearly had a better life in its past, it had been chain-smoked in with cigarettes cavalierly ashed into the front seats. The front bumper was hanging just by one side, and the headlights were hazy from age. The tires didn’t match and were dry rotted, and the previous owner cut off the catalytic converter in an attempt to sell and recoup some of the money from the gas engine he had written off as “failed” without hardly any diagnosis.
To him, and probably to many sane people, that car was as good as scrap. It was a car that seemingly was designed to be hated, even more so in dilapidated, cigarette ash-filled status. Toyota had put all this energy into a dorky-looking hatchback that cost almost as much as the mid-sized Camry but had a convoluted powertrain that only ended up eking out a measly 110 horsepower. It was the car that showrunners and Hollywood writers would have characters drive to establish them as morally superior, but also annoying, disingenuous, and maybe condescending. It was the poster child of so many, in retrospect, very slanted analyses of the environmental impact of EV and hybrid traction batteries, that they’d soon be in scrapyards leeching heavy metals in the soil a mere handful of years after being made out of the factory. It was the bastion of so many online trolls and bad-faith comparison tests, in which folks would drive them like F1 cars to prove how not economical they were in the real world. To them, the Prius was everything wrong with cars, slow, ugly, mushy, terrible, and not as beneficial as it claimed to be. It should have never existed.
That’s a hell of a burden for a basic economy car to shoulder. I mean, was it ever that serious?
Nah, it wasn’t. In reality, the idea that the Prius was hated by all wasn’t squaring with the reality on the ground. See, not everyone subscribes to the same, arguably very media-influenced idea of what the Prius stood for. To many, even enthusiasts, the Prius was a spunky, mechanically robust car that was really, really good on gas. I mean, it’s the ubiquitous Uber vehicle in nearly every country for a reason, right? It didn’t drive all that well or look all that good, but a car that lacks dynamic abilities doesn’t necessarily make it bad. There are plenty of not-great driving vehicles that we still love, like old Volkswagen Vanagons, or any of the relaxed 70s-era American land yachts.
My ramshackle Prius was only listed for 18 minutes before the seller was bombarded with messages and offers, several of which tried to buy the car from under me. I squeezed in through some sort of fluke, and due to the nature of the demand, there was no negotiation on price. Either I was paying the full price, cigarette burns and all, or the guy would move to the next person in line. Everyone wanted this thing, and I don’t mean folks in search of basic transportation who didn’t read the car was in rough shape, but Prius enthusiasts. They were the people who wrote ads on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist, in search of broken Priuses to tinker with. They wanted to part the car out, and hack it up for other Priuses in need of attention. They were the folks who wrote obscure how-tos and things to look for when looking at used ones. For a car so “hated” it sure was in demand, and it definitely had its fans.
I mean, it had such a following that early hybrid efforts from other companies like Ford and Nissan followed Toyota’s blueprint. The concept of an eCVT, which isn’t actually really a CVT at all, had been referred to mostly as the Toyota PSD (Power Split Device) and made its debut on the original 1997 Prius. Sure, Honda’s two-seat Insight may have been a cult classic with its CR-X-esque design and available manual transmission, but when Honda ported its self-developed IMA hybrid system (integrated motor assist) to other vehicles in its lineup, the consensus from journalists and buyers alike is that it just wasn’t as good as the Prius.
The more I drove my Prius, the better it got, eventually somehow healing itself. I suspect a tired motor mount coupled with a clogged injector made the misfire feel far more pronounced than it really was, spooking the previous owner. A couple of full-throttle runs unclogged the injector, and the car was good as new, at least with respect to the powertrain.
I’m sorry, I can’t hate a car for that. My Prius and the whole Prius line had been abused, physically, and metaphorically. Yet, here it was, happily plodding along, doing its job, standing up to the abuse, flawlessly. That deserves far more admiration than sleek styling.