The Toyota Prius Experience

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My wife and I have been driving a 2008 Toyota Prius since December 2007. With a year under our belt I thought I would reflect on our experience in a way that might interest anyone considering a Prius. Our previous vehicle was a 2004 Honda CRV and prior to that we went through three different mini vans as our kids were growing up.

The Prius appealed to us on three levels. The first and most important was its gas mileage. Our CRV was averaging 14 litres per 100 kilometres which is about 17 miles per gallon. As gas prices were soaring to over $1.50 CDN per litre ($5.70 US a gallon) we calculated that the higher cost of a Prius would be offset by the lower operating costs. The Prius marketing untruth (every manufactures lies!) was 4.7 l/100Lm (50 mpg) on the highway and 4.2 l/100km (56 mpg) in the city.

The second thing that appealed to us was its emissions levels. I believe that we are contributing to global warming and a reduction is CO2 must be made by everyone. The Prius has the lowest emissions of any vehicle sold in North America.

And third was our vanity. I’m a computer geek and I look at the Prius as an example of extreme technology. If you will excuse the stretch in this analogy, the Prius is like the new US/NATO Joint Strike Force fighter aircraft. Neither would be able to move with the constant management of on-board computers. The Prius has four or five CPUs (without a GPS there is one less CPU) that are networked together to manage the dual engines and the planetary gear transmission. The Prius actually simulates the performance of a traditional automobile.

You can read many other articles on how the technology works, I certainly have. How it really works is what I have to say. The Prius is an ideal automobile when driven on smooth pavement when there is no possibility of ice, snow, or temperatures below freezing. Otherwise it requires nerves of steel and a resistance from trying to launch a class-action suit against Toyota.

Let’s start with air temperature. I live in Montreal, Canada where from December to March the temperature stays below freezing. The Prius supplies heat from its gasoline engine. The result is that the Prius gas engine almost never shuts off in the winter and the Toyota programming of its CPUs uses the gas engine to propel the car whenever the gas engine is running. The end result is that we average 8.7 l/100 km (27 mpg) in the city in the winter. I have already been approached by another Prius owner about launching a class-action suit based over this.

Next come ice and snow. After doing some reading about how the Prius works, I learned that the torque of the electric motors is strong enough to shear the front wheels off the car if they were allowed to spin on ice or snow (or even sand). To prevent this from happening and to protect the regenerative recharging system the Prius uses a traction control system that cuts the power to the front wheels if either of them begin to spin even the slightest amount. The wheels come to a complete stop regardless of how hard you are pressing on the gas pedal. Now I have been told that many modern cars use a similar system because it prevents the car from sliding sideways of slippery ground. That it does but on a number of occasions I have found myself at a dead stop completely unable to move forward both on hills and even level ground. In each of these situations I needed to back up (traction control does not seem to engage when backing up) and take a run at the slippery spot.

Finally there is uneven pavement. When you step on the brakes on a Prius I have been told that the disc brakes DO NOT engage. Instead the computers use the resistance in the electric motor to slow the vehicle. Only when you expect to come to a full stop will the physical brakes engage. This means that a Prius will only need to have its brakes changed every 100,000 km (62500 miles). This technique is an example of what I mean by saying the Prius simulates a conventional automobile.

The problem occurs when stopping on uneven pavement as is found in any city that has winter. Freezing and thawing destroys asphalt and creates uneven pavement, cracks, and potholes. When braking on pavement damaged this way the Prius detects that the two front wheels are no longer spinning at the same speed. Regardless of the cause the Prius reacts by shutting down power to the wheels. In a braking situation this means that the electric motor’s resistance is disconnected and the physical braking system must be engaged. There is a delay of about a second between when the electric motor disengages and the disc brakes engage. The feeling is as if the car is suddenly accelerating. While the car is not accelerating, that brief moment of complete loss of braking scared the hell out us when we first encountered it. We have learned to ignore it or if it is a real panic situation then you must bang on the brake pedal which overrides the computer and engages the disc brake immediately.

I still have three years left in my lease and I do not plan to find a way to get out of it. It still gets better gas consumption that our previous cars although I am pissed that Toyota is not forthcoming on the issue of winter driving. Driving on ice and snow is a problem many people face with late model two-wheel drive cars and I have trained myself to deal with the braking issue.

When the time comes to replace the Prius my wife and I have come to the conclusion that in our climate only a four wheel drive vehicle makes sense. Hopefully come December 2011 there will be a RAV4 or CRV hybrid. I forget to mention that we actually wanted the Ford Escape Hybrid but Ford wanted 19% for lease!

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About Ken

I am the Program Coordinator and Chairperson of the Computer Science Technology program at Dawson College in Montreal, Canada. I am also a Program Consultant to and part-time instructor in the Computer Institute of Concordia University's School of Extended Learning.

7 thoughts on “The Toyota Prius Experience

  1. Pat H

    Thanks for posting this very helpful information. I also live in Montreal and am considering a Prius. So – gas savings summer only and pothole problems. (Only Montrealers know just how serious that issue is!) My biggest fear, however, is that the Toyota dealership will really overcharge on repair / preventive maintenance, since there is no alternative to their service. What has been your experience on this?

  2. Ken Post author

    So far the Prius has been the least expensive car as far as service goes. I get tires put on and off at a garage so it is just the regular maintenance and in the 16 months that we have had the Prius it has cost a total of about $80. On my other vehicles the biggest expense was brakes, typically every two years. I will likely return the Prius at the end of the four year lease without having to do a brake job.

  3. Pat H

    Would you mind telling me the name of your Toyota dealer? My experience was that even a fully warranted routine visit ended up costing me a few hundred bucks in “extras” – while no real maintenance actually happened. The experience was so bad that it is a serious deterrent to ever dealing with Toyota again.

    I understand very little about the engineering involved in hybrid cars, but I take it that all the negative issues having to do with the driving experience are Prius specific, while that of winter gas mileage would be true of all hybrids. Am I correct?

    Another issue – when you went for a hybrid did you worry at all about getting service if you had trouble out in the hinterlands? Are the parts of the car that might “break” on the road the conventional things that a typical garage can take care of? Sorry if these are naive questions, but I don’t know cars at all – and feel quite insecure in this new territory. Even though I also feel pretty strongly about supporting the cars that are leading the way. Call me conflicted.

  4. Ken Post author

    The dealer my wife and I chose was President Toyota on St. Catherine near Dawson where I work. The decision was based on convenience. Quite frankly I have no respect for any dealer. As for service departments, what I have heard from other Toyota owners is that they all have an arrogant attitude towards the client regardless of the model of Toyota. Put another way, I have never heard of a good Toyota service department of any dealer in Montreal.

    I am puzzled by your experiences with dealers when having service during the warranty period. I have leased Mazdas, Fords, Hondas, and now the Toyota and I have never been presented with a necessary repair (other than brakes and exhaust) that was not covered by the warranty.

    The issue of gas mileage in the winter is an issue with all cars. My previous car was a Honda CRV which consumed more gas in the winter because of the resistance of snow and the time it took to warm up the engine in cold weather. We decided to go hybrid because the CRV was doing 15 liters per 100 km.

    As for repairs in the hinterlands I can offer no information. A number of bad experiences with the ‘local garage’ some years ago has meant that we never entrust anything more complicated than changing a tire to an independent garage. The fact that the Prius has been on the market for nine years suggests to me that independent garages that specialize in Toyota would be able to do service.

    Two weeks ago I had a leak in a tire. It was a Saturday so I went to Gordon’s Goodyear on St. Jacques and Cavendish. They did an excellent and quick job on repairing the tire and had no problem with the tire pressure monitoring device in the tire. But when I pulled in to the bay I discovered that my Prius was the first one they had ever seen. They asked me to leave the car in neutral. You can’t have a Prius in neutral unless the car is turned on. I explained this and it was no problem. When I drove out they came up to the car to ask how it was moving since the engine had not turned on.

    I have had cars I regretted almost the moment I took procession of (Mazda MPV van, first generation). My wife and I still like our Prius and enjoy driving it. We have learned to compensate in our driving for its quirks and have come to accept that the dealer is a jerk. If it handled better in snow then it would be a perfect car.

  5. Pat H

    Thanks a lot for your thoughtful comments. I still can’t say my mind is made up, but you have really given me a lot to think about.

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