Friday, March 27, 2009

Rental Car Reviews

New feature here at Refugees: Rental Car Reviews.

I seem to travel every week, and drive a different rental car every week. I'm unlike many people that I usually seek out the smallest, simplest, most modest rental car I can find, because usually that means it will be easier to park, easier to maneuver in traffic, and cheaper to rent and refuel. Sometimes I get a larger more luxurious car anyway, despite my requests, and sometimes I get something completely random.

Last week I was rented a Prius, for the first time. I'd never even sat in a Prius, much less driven one, so it was an interesting experience. I thought about looking into buying one when gas was $4 a gallon, probably like everyone else, but felt like you could get most of the same fuel economy with a different, much simpler and cheaper, vehicle.

So... I got in the Prius and it took me a good while to even figure out how to start it up. Actually, you don't start a Prius, you turn it on, kind of like a golf cart. There's a big round button on the dash that you push, but you have to shove the door-opening key-fob thingy into a slot in the dashboard first.

That sort of sets the tone for driving the Prius: everything about it is a little strange, and different.

The dash in front of steering wheel is blank. The normal instruments (speedometer, fuel guage, etc) are in an LED cluster very far forward, underneath the sloped windshield, near the center of the dash. It took me a while to find them after I figured out how to turn the thing on.

There is a large multifunction display in the middle of the dash, where such things are located, but it has a number of unusual functions, including control of the radio and environmental controls, as well as a very distracting display of the Prius' multi-mode drive train. It shows you graphically whether the electric motor is driving the wheels, the gasoline motor is supplying power, or the wheels are recharging the battery through regenerative braking. The display is somewhat helpful in driving the car in an economical way, but probably somewhat dangerous because it can absorb too much of your attention.

Another display available is cumulative fuel economy, which is more helpful. It shows instantaneous and average mileage, and a chart showing mileage over the last 30 minutes. The most helpful part of that display is a bar graph of instantaneous mileage. Driving to keep that bar graph as high as possible proved to be the best way to get the best mileage.

I was disappointed in how "conservative" the programming of the drivetrain turned out to be. I though I could, by really going easy on the gas pedal, drive around in electric mode for a good while until the battery got low. The gasoline motor is programmed to start however, at the first sign of battery depletion, or the slightest acceleration.

The mileage looked pretty good however, as I was able to score up to 48 MPG on the cumulative mileage display by driving very carefully. But I'm a little sceptical of the display, because when I filled up the tank it looked like I got more like 35 MPG than the 47.9 the display indicated when I stopped for fuel. You'd have to drive the thing quite a bit to determine if the mileage indicated was really correct.

The fit and finish of the vehicle was adequate, but not great for a Toyota. The interior was very modern and unconventional, with strange cupholders, weird controls, etc, but not particularly impressive in terms of quality and appearance. Everything looked like a very cheap plastic, and the upholstery was typical economy-car fabric. I don't know if there is a fancier version of the Prius with a more luxurious interior.

Handling and performance were adequate - pretty good for an economy car, expecially a hybrid. There was a little more acceleration than I expected, and the car didn't feel off balance as I sort of expected.

Cargo room in the back was adequate - actually pretty good as a rental car because it was easy to get the suitcases and luggage into the baggage compartment.

Overall I didn't come away thinking I wanted to run out an buy a Prius, but it was very adequate as an economy car. I don't actually know what they cost, but I could see how some people would really like them.

Also I don't know if its possible to reprogram the car to make it less prone to starting the gasoline engine and get better gas mileage - from what I saw it looked like it should be easy.

Boy is this some exciting internet content or what!


Jeri said...

I've been driving my mom's Prius for a couple of days and I had to call her to figure out how to start it. The whole turning it on but no engine start - and putting it in gear and it popping back to neutral position - was very counterintuitive. Sigh.

My friend who was riding with me called it "unamerican". (Tongue in cheek.)

I think you'd get used to it though.

I rent constantly too - my fave so far has been the Toyota RAV4.

John the Scientist said...

Un-American- no - it's the modern equivalent of a hair shirt, and the core consumer segment wants to feel different, and slightly punished for their consumerist ways, while still getting the satisfaction of doing something green. Which they can taek comfort in - until those batteries start going in another few years, and we have a problem trying to find a place to recycle them.

DavidJacob said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
mattw said...

While I've never driven a Prius, I've ridden in my friend's. The ride-along experience is fun to play with all the buttons while the other person drives.

When I traveled and rented cars I never asked for anything specifically and it was always fun to see what I'd get. I think the last time I went out for business I got a new Mustang. That was nice.

MWT said...

Thanks for the review. I considered getting a Prius a while ago.