#039;Prius envy#039;

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 8, 2003

Harry Stevens once owned a 1938 Chevrolet coupe.

"It was the greatest little car in the world. I wish I had kept it," he said.

He also owned a 1957 Ford Fairlane like the one you see in films of the 1950s; a two-tone robin's egg blue model with fins and those distinctive bulging red eye-tail lights.

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"I should have kept that one, too," he sighed.

Now, he owns a Toyota Prius and according to Stevens, "It's the best car I've ever owned."

To be sure, Stevens is older now than the days when he drove the coupe with the top down or cruised the streets in his 1950s automobile icon Ford.

But, let's face it: he's acting like a youngster again.

"Look at that!" he exclaimed, taking his hands off the steering wheel in traffic. "Can you believe that? It's amazing! I've never seen that before. One hundred miles to the gallon. Unbelievable!"

If Stevens tells more stories about averaging 50 miles per hour, it's bound to create a certain amount of something called "Prius envy."

The symptoms occur if you drive a gas-guzzling, primitive, polluting vehicle left over from the 20th century. Obsolescence may be closer than it appears.

Another symptom is the belief that a hybrid car must be plugged in at night.

You use more than one or two gallons of gasoline each day without good reason. You may be abusing gasoline or have a gasoline addiction and need to contact Gasoholics Anonymous immediately.

"You have to checkout their Web site: Prius envy. Get it? Well, you know what I mean," said Stevens still bubbling with enthusiasm at the opportunity to show off his Prius.

A visit to the Prius envy Web site reveals everything a car-buyer wants to know about the hybrid car but was afraid to ask.

Mixing gas, electric

With 276 volts under the hood, the Prius is the auto industry's statement that hybrid -- gas and electric -- drive can be all things to all people on the nation's highways.

The combination of a combustion engine and an electric motor both improves fuel efficiency and lowers emissions.

As gas prices continue to rise in America and the nation's dependence on oil grows, hybrid technology is taking on a new relevancy.

Harry's wild about …

Stevens bought a new 2002 model with both high voltage DC and AC systems as well as a 12-volt system.

The electric motor powering the drive train is located in the rear of the trunk completely covered.

Toyota points out the possible dangers due to high voltage up front and frequently in the owner's manual.

Depending upon the driving conditions, the Prius runs on the best combination of (1) Gasoline engine power; (2) Electric motor power generated by the gasoline engine; or (3) Electric motor power of the hybrid engine.

When stopping the engine, the gasoline engine is automatically stopped.

When decreasing speed by applying the brakes, electricity converted from the turning force of the wheels is stored in the hybrid vehicle battery.

Stevens and his wife, Joann, have made trips to the East Coast with their Prius, cruising along at freeway speeds, passing when necessary and otherwise performing without incident like gasoline engine-powered vehicles.

In-town driving takes getting used to for the most unusual reason: the engine runs so quiet, when the car is stopped, that it is tempting -- Harry Stevens admits he has done it a couple of times -- to try starting an engine that is already running.

Otherwise the Prius hybrid car is like any other. Roomy in the front and back seats, tastefully appointed inside the cabin, air conditioned and equipped with AM-FM radio and CD player, plus all the other motoring amenities, it attracts attention for the obvious and other reasons.

"The only place you will see the 'hybrid' word is on the trunk. Otherwise, you'd have to open the trunk and see the long battery case at the rear or the Inverter unit under the hood and long orange cables and service plug to tell it is anything different from any other car," he said.

The car's looks are apparently pleasing to the eye. A recent trip to a shopping center caused two teenager girls to examine the car up close and remark how "sweet" it looks.

And … it has cupholders, too.

Tax deduction, too

Stevens earned a one-time $2,000 tax deduction for buying his 2002 Prius.

Toyota's competition is Honda, which offers the Insight hybrid car. Each sells in the $20,000 price range, according to cars.com.

The Honda Insight offers the highest gas mileage based on comparisons and an eight-year, 80,000-mile hybrid warranty.

Also cars.com rates the Insight 's ride "overly firm" and said it also had noise problems, its light weight made it a safety risk and that the car's emissions were not commensurate with fuel economy.

The Prius scored points with cars.com for its high fuel mileage, low emissions and eight-year, 100,000 mile warranty.

It was criticized for poor acceleration and braking that isn't linear and no manual transmission model.

Also, its limited availability is bothersome to anxious buyers ready to deal.

However, the Prius is arguably proof that a hybrid electric/gasoline car can be a traditional car in almost all the ways drivers want it to be.

More hybrids to come

Daimler Chrysler leads the American car makers' efforts to enter the hybrid derby.

With more than 26 ways to combine electric motors and combustion engines, Daimler Chrysler has opted for the parallel hybrid cooling system.

Not only does the system provide the improved gas mileage and lower emissions, it offers higher acceleration; one of the complaints about the systems used by Toyota and Honda vehicles.

Daimler Chrysler hopes to introduce its hybrid vehicle in the 2004 model year.

Because hybrid cars cost between $1,500 and $4,000 more than a conventional combustion engine vehicles, their owners must hope to recover the dollars at the gas pump.

Stevens is convinced that can be done. Even if it isn't accomplished, he feels he is doing the "right thing" for the environment.

"We're depleting our fossil fuel supplies more and more each day. We have to do something," he said.

Would he buy another Prius after his experience with his current car?

"You bet," he said. "It's worth every penny I paid for it."

Stevens added, "We've been relying on subsidized nuclear power, subsidized oil for decades. It's just got to change."

What would it take …

Todd wouldn't give his last name, but the salesman at Rochester Ford-Toyota, talked at length about the Prius.

"We're seeing a lot of interest in the car," he said. "Mainly, these are people in the 50s or older, who do a lot of driving around the city. They are looking for a car for commuting purposes.

"For the most part, the people who come in and ask questions about the hybrid car know a lot. They have done their research, visited the Prius envy Web site, they're familiar with Toyota quality and they are concerned about the environment and gasoline prices. They know their hybrid cars."

The last Prius the salesman sold went to a rural mail carrier, who, he said, "Does a lot of start and stop driving, so the Prius was ideal for that."

"Who's next?" to embrace the hybrid car temptation.

The salesman didn't know, but he did say there are only two Prius hybrid cars on the Rochester auto lot.

The rising gasoline prices -- fueled by the nation's oil suppliers' concerns for the possibility of war in Iraq -- touches consumers where they hurt the most: their wallets and pocketbooks.

Lee Bonorden can be contacted at 434-2232 or by e-mail at :mailto:lee.bonorden@austindailyherald.com