Saturday, April 08, 2006

Meliora, the clever, pretty Prius

I guess I have a lot of backlogged things I could be talking about on a blog but didn't, seeing as how I didn't have a blog until yesterday. So here's another one.

I have always hated cars, but gradually over the years I've progressed to the point where I have a hate-love-hate-hate relationship with cars. This past January, I finally got a car I actually like. Not hate-like-hate, but actually like. Her name is Meliora (means "better" in Greek) and she's a pretty blue Prius.

Yes, that means she's a hybrid, which is fantastic. Even in a slippery cold Vermont winter with snow tires she gets 43mpg. In summer she'll probably be in the mid-50s. I still chuckle every time I drive by a gas pump with prices higher than the time before, and don't have to stop. But it's more than that. Here are some things you should know about the Prius:
  • You drive a Prius exactly like an old-style car. No need to plug it in, no need to decide what engine to use, you just get in and drive. Meliora is smart. She figures out whether she needs the electric or gas engine, or both, or neither, every minute. She'll shut off the gas one when she doesn't need it -- like stopped at a traffic light, or if you have lots of battery power and aren't going that fast. She'll turn it back on the instant she needs it to go where you ask her to go.

  • She handles wonderfully. Turns tight and has great pickup, the latter because when you need it she'll kick in both engines. They complement each other. Electric engines are at their best at lower torques, gasoline ones at higher torques, so wherever you are on the speed spectrum she's got the power to keep you at it.

  • She's a midsize hatchback sedan and from the outside, with her sleek profile (lowest aerodynamic drag coefficient of any car in mass production) she looks small, but inside she's far more roomy than you'll believe until you get in one. I came from a Dodge Caravan minivan, and Meliora has more legroom, especially in the back seat. Cargo space is big and flexible too.

  • The designers really stepped back and asked, why do things work this way, and can they work better? for just about every part of the car. Lots of tiny little effects. Lights in the bottom of the doors so you can see where you're getting out. Comfortable handles. Lots of storage that disappears when you don't need it. Controls on the steering wheel so you can do almost anything you need to do without raising your hand or turning your eye.

  • The Smart Key System seems like so much gee-whiz, but it's fantastic. Your fob and the car automatically recognize one another, so you can step out of the car, press a button on the handle, and walk away. She's locked tight, anti-theft system active. Come back and just open the door, get in, and press the Power button, and she's ready to go. Your "key" never even leaves your fanny pack, purse, pocket, whatever. It's one of those things that seems corny until you have it, and then it's something that you say, I can't believe I ever had to do it the old way.

  • Her safety features are amazing. In addition to front and side airbags, she has Traction Control and Vehicle Stability Control, which prevent skids in slippery condition and allow you to continue to drive, steer, and brake. When we picked her up, the salesman had us try to make her skid on the ice-and-snow-covered parking lot, and even going down a hill around a curve fast and hitting the brakes we could not make her skid. Consumer Reports estimates that VSC will save more lives than airbags when it's made its way onto more cars.

  • Her total cost of ownership is lower than a "comparable" car -- though you can't really say comparable because cars in her price class do not have half of her sophisticated, smart features. Maintenance costs seem to be about the same -- some things are lower (like the brakes, which divert energy to the battery instead of wasting it as heat that deform the pads and wear them out; or the transmission, which is far, far simpler, and doesn't need to be rebuilt), some are higher (there's a whole second engine in there!), and the total seems about the same or a little less. Rumors of battery failure costing you $3000-$8000 (the amount changes depending on how paranoid the last person to forward the email was) are generally unfounded, as the batteries last as long as the car.

  • If you buy now (easier said than done -- there's usually a 3-month waiting list, longer if you have to have your choice of color and options, and you'll probably have to put $500 down to get on the list and pay full MSRP) you'll get $3,150 back on next year's taxes. But this won't last forever -- it'll probably be diminished or gone by the end of the year.

    The car is fun to be in. It's tech savvy, with gadgets galore (the Bluetooth integration with my cell phone is snazzy), all very smart and well-done. It feels good to be in it -- near zero emissions, reducing our dependence on oil (foreign or domestic, it's all bad to me), and good for my wallet. And she's just very very pretty. What's not to like?


litlfrog said...

It always warms my heart when engineers rethink things that have "always been that way" to make simple, cheap, but welcome changes. :)

To address an early point of the post, I'm curious: why have you always hated cars?

HawthornThistleberry said...

Back on Long Island, you could get pretty far with a bicycle. Everything is flat and things are very close together. My college was 7 miles away and I rode to school faster than it took to drive, after you account the time of parking, taking a shuttle from the South P-Lot to campus, and walking to the building you could ride right up to.

Was during those times that I took a class on Philosophy of Technology, where we asked such questions as, "name one technology that solved a problem without causing another one just as big." (Only one we came up with was public sanitation.) When I looked at it, cars, seen from the point of view of how a society spends its resources, are the most godawful, inexcusable waste ever. Think of all we, as a society, spend on having cars. Roads, bridges, parking lots, smog, refineries, oil drilling, building the cars, sitting in traffic, auto shops, gas stations, auto accidents, insurance companies, and you can keep listing things all day. And in the end, with the way traffic works, most of the people using cars on any given day in most of the country aren't really getting anywhere faster than they would have if we hadn't done any of it.

During this same time, I had my first car. My parents bought it for me; I didn't ask for it and didn't want it, so it was a very disappointing birthday. It sat in a driveway because I didn't want it. That Christmas, all I got was registration and license plates. I decided this was a hint, so I started using it. It immediately started bleeding me dry -- I had no money from then until fall, due to one repair or other. And it took me longer to get everywhere.

I had not been able to afford to get people anything nice for Christmas for a few years, but this year I saved up so I could get good stuff for people. Was looking forward to it. Mid-December, my car ruptured its gas tank. Guess how much it cost to fix it. Exactly what I had saved, to the dollar.

For many years after that, though gradually diminishing, that's all cars ever were in my life. Money-sucking time-wasters. I never met an honest mechanic; dealing with mechanics was like pulling teeth. Everything about dealing with cars reminded me over and over of how bad an idea cars are, personally, environmentally, socially, globally.

Even now, with me being fat and slow, living in a hilly area miles from anything, I still sometimes miss having a bicycle.

Siobhan said...

Hopefully we can get you a bicycle soon. Maybe one for each of us so we can go out and ride in the nice days.

HawthornThistleberry said...

Well, might be nice, but is it worth the cost, considering how rarely they'd get used? Seems hard to justify, particularly at full price for a bike sturdy enough to support me.