Wednesday, February 29, 2012

2011 Toyota Prius: Even This Car Snob Gets It

I still feel a bit like George Jetson when I take off down the street in our new 2011 Prius. It's quiet and has a little high-pitched hum. If only I had a robot maid at home to keep things running smoothly while I'm out silently driving around town... 

  • Combined Mileage of 50 MPG with 47 MPG in town and 52 MPG on the highway (my real-world numbers from real-world driving)
  • Easy-to-Understand Options Packages (but those are pricey)
  • Fits in Small Parking Spaces
  • Great Turning Radius
  • Takes 87 Octane in it's 11.9 Gallon Tank
  • Useful Cargo-area Underfloor Storage
  • Push-button Start & Smart Key
  • 60/40 Rear Seat

Be Prepared For:
Alien's Fist Shifter Knob
  • A Relatively Boring Ride
  • The Shifter Knob Looks Like E.T's Fist
  • The Distracting Mini-Prius Graphic on the Dash
  • Odd Placement of Display for Gauges (Centered Rather than Driver-Centric)
  • Weird Split Rear Window
  • Cheap Feeling Interior Materials
  • The Beeping (inside the vehicle) When in Reverse (should beep outside the vehicle)
  • Engine Turning Off When You're Stopped (Car is on, but gas engine is off)
  • Model Numbers Get Confusing When Comparing to the Prius V
  • Paying $200 for Floor Mats

To Bring You Up to Speed
Look How Fast He's Going!
We did it again: Bought a car in January. Apparently January is the month we buy cars even though the best deals come along in late December. Too little, too late I guess. January 2011 we were in the market because my Lexus RX was totaled in an accident, and this year it's because my husband sold his Subaru Outback within 12 hours of posting on Craigslist. So on the second day of 2012 we visited two dealerships looking at new cars, hybrids to be exact. We drove a new Toyota Prius, version 2/type II/model 2 (doesn't seem to be any consistency in how they label them). It was the least exciting test drive of my life. But we did get great gas mileage.

I also drove the Prius V since we were replacing an Outback wagon. But mileage was the driving force so we stuck with our goal and took the hatchback. I did like the Prius V. Stay tuned for my review.

(And for the record: We got a great deal last January on our Audi Q7 at Audi Concord in Concord, CA; and this year we got a good deal from Novato Toyota on our Prius. So maybe January isn't such a bad month to buy a vehicle. But it was fun to check on to see the trends.)

Can a Car Snob Really Drive a Prius?
Note Placement of Gauges
Why a hybrid? Better city mileage is the main reason. This vehicle will be our main around-town car, but will take a few trips each month of over 100 miles for my husband's work. Neither of us have a daily commute, so we got the bare-bones basic Prius with cloth interior and no options. There are days when we don't get in a car at all. (I love those days because it means the kids are getting to school using their own leg power and I've planned ahead and don't need to run to the grocery store.)

Mini-Prius in Display
At this time, there are few hybrids on the market that can beat the Prius on city mileage and size with an MSRP of under $24,000. But boy, oh boy, is it boring to drive. Why isn't there a hybrid out there that's fun to drive and still returns city numbers of 45-53 mpg? I hope the manufacturers are listening. I could totally space out watching the spinning wheels of the mini-Prius on the dash display and run into the car in front of me. I can also imagine getting passed by Honey and Lavender, the horses that pull groups of sight-seers down our country road. 

Why a 2011 vs. 2012? Since we were in the market in January, the 2012's weren't up for any good incentives. I now see that there are a few improvements on the 2012 line-up, but only in the options packages, and we wouldn't have sprung for those anyway. The 2012 Prius 2 starts at $24,000 and the prices increase to the fancy Prius 5 at $29,800. 

Note: Sections of this review might might make more sense when you consider that my other vehicle is a very heavy, very powerful Audi Q7.  These two vehicles are quite different: German brains, beauty and muscle with poor MPG vs. Japanese technological efficiency with quiet good manners and strong MPG.

Power When You Need It
Electric, ECO & Power Modes
When I first stepped on the gas after stopping, the Prius seemed so slow to get up and go I was nervous about getting flattened by the likes of Honey and Lavender. We found the "Power" mode on our second test drive, and that was a good thing when merging with all the Costco shoppers on a holiday weekend. Truth be told, I'd rather be run over by horses than deal with crazed parking lot drivers. But now that I've driven it for a month, I realize that you just have to step down with authority and the Prius will respond quickly. Don't floor it, just be confident in your intentions. I don't use the "Power" mode now, but might if I ever want to quickly change lanes on the highway. It all depends on how you drive and where you drive.

If you want to use only electric power you can select the "EV" mode, but you'll also have to go under 23 MPH and basically coast. The "EV" and "Power" mode buttons never need to be touched -- use the gas pedal instead. Once you stop meeting the requirements of either mode, the car automatically returns you to "ECO" mode. Regardless of how you drive the Prius, you can increase your mileage by turning off the interior fan. I use the defroster & fan some mornings, but as soon as the window is cleared, I turn the whole thing off and wear gloves and a warm coat. We'll keep our A/C use down this summer as well because using the fan brings down our mileage by 2-3 MPG.

I didn't like the dash materials in the 2011 Toyota Sienna and they're the same in the Prius. And the doors on the Prius are so lightweight I sometimes worry that they'll fall off after a slam from one of the kids. But it's lightweight, saves fuel, increases mileage, yada-yada-yada. Driving a Prius doesn't make you stand out in Marin County, California. It's even hard to distinguish the three different generations. Hint: This 3rd & newest generation has a deeper crease on the upper door panels so it definitely looks more sporty and angular. Not really.

60/40 Rear Seat Split
The Prius is fine. It does what it's supposed to do and Toyota seems to be adhering to strict weight requirements to keep the mileage on top of the heap. I would love an power memory driver seat, but that's not an option on any model -- although the newer model years do have power adjustable seats. I'd like a shifter knob that looks like a shifter and not an alien's fist. But that's not gonna happen either. This is the first Toyota I've encountered that doesn't have a maddening maze of options packages, which I'm grateful for. The Prius is exactly what it says it is: a reliable, basic, 5-door hatch with a hybrid drive and good mileage.

The options that are available make sense, although I think they're a bit overpriced. Driving around town, we can make due without the SiriusXM radio or the new "Entune" system (Toyota's in-car technology system with downloadable apps and standard apps like Bing and Pandora. But if I had a daily commute, I'd spring for almost all the bells & whistles.

By my second test drive, I found it easier to look out the split back window without a double-take. And I found that after a few parking lot tests I was more used to the alien fist-like shifter. Jim at the dealer showed me how to change the display so I wouldn't be distracted by the mini-Prius and it's spinning wheels. (I'm still slightly distracted by the display, but at least nothing spins.) I do love the Smart Key that stays in my pocket or purse and doesn't even come out to lock the vehicle -- just run your finger over a little sensor on the driver's door and it locks. 

All of this is to say: after two short drives you get used to the odd features of the Prius. And after owning it for a month, you'll likely be happy with your purchase and will start to brag about the great mileage you get both around town and on the highway. A Prius may not be the sexiest, fastest, most exhilarating car to drive, but it isn't disappointing.

Thanks to Jim & Hugh at Novato Toyota. Photos from &

(c) Copyright 2010-2016. Erika JN Fish. Car Mama. All Rights Reserved.

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