West Coast Fever: Cutting Petroleum Use by 50 Percent With the Prius (and Cars Like It)

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Feb 04, 2016

I had the all-new 2016 Toyota Prius during the big east coast snowstorm, and while it lacks all-wheel drive it proved sure-footed. Here was the car in the real world, which was quite a contrast to its debut—being lowered down on a crane at a Las Vegas casino.

Wife and shovel uncover the 2016 Prius. (Jim Motavalli photo)
Wife and shovel uncover the 2016 Prius. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The new Prius (with aerodynamics improved from 0.25 to 0.24 CD) has taken some knocks for styling—find it on several ugliest cars in the world lists—but the Salvador Dali head- and tail-lights grow on you when you’re commuting in the thing. The company hopefully suggests “modern,” “dramatic” and “emotional” to describe the look. But love or hate the looks, the bottom line is that Toyota has made the Prius better on every level, including in the all-important fuel economy.

The 2016 Prius makes a big splash in Las Vegas. (Jim Motavalli photo)
The 2016 Prius makes a big splash in Las Vegas. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Most Priuses check in at 52 mpg combined (50 on the highway, 54 in the city), but there’s also an ECO model (with traditional nickel-metal-hydride batteries instead of the lithium-ion in all other models) that achieves a stellar 56 mpg.

More on the Prius later, but let’s stop to consider a new Union of Concerned Scientists report that looks at three states—California, Oregon and Washington—and concludes they could cut petroleum use in half by 2030.

These are three blue states, flyover territory for Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, that buy heavily into the environmental ethos. They recycle, they ride their bikes, they take public transit. And they love, love cars like the Toyota Prius. The little hybrid was the bestselling car in California until it was dethroned by the Honda Accord in 2014. Some 71,210 Prius’ were sold in the state last year, and it still gets the Silicon Valley vote.

Not coincidentally, these three states—and in particular, California—are also strongholds of the electric car. California has nearly half of all new EV registrations, and Washington has a similar density—more than three out of a thousand registered vehicles have plugs. Oregon is also a stellar EV state, and offers a free fast-charge highway all along the coast. There’s even a Chief EV Officer.

The road is clear to big fuel savings in California. If one state can do it, so can we all. (Union of Concerned Scientists graphic)
The road is clear to big fuel savings in California. If one state can do it, so can we all. (Union of Concerned Scientists graphic)

California rebates EV buyers $2,500, and Governor Jerry Brown has actually made that 50 percent oil cut a state goal (along with a 40 percent cut in greenhouse gas) by 2030. And both things appear to be achievable.

California, with its heavy car dependence, is still a big oil consumer, but it’s mending its ways—oil use there declined 15 percent from 2007 to 2013. That’s a lot. Between 2015 and 2030, thanks to various measures, the decline could be 24 percent. California is home to the much-feared (by the auto industry) Air Resources Board, which dictates emission standards followed by a bunch of other states.

OK, I’m back in the Prius. The seats are comfortable. It seems both more powerful and quieter than the previous model, though quick acceleration on a highway entrance ramp will make the engine strain and assault your ears a bit. Extensive sound-insulating strategy went into this car.

There’s a ton of new safety features, including a new form of radar-enabled cruise control that lets the driver follow the car in front, lane departure with steering assist, and a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection. Visibility, especially to the rear, is better than in older versions of the car.

Did I mention the built-in wireless charger? This is an excellent feature I’ve been anticipating in new cars for years. You’ll need a new Qi-compatible phone back, but with that you’ll just have to drop the phone on the pad for it to start charging.

By the way, it’s not an expensive car, with prices ranging from $24,200 to $30,000. The Prius is sold in Two (and Two Eco), Three (and Three Touring) and Four (and Four Touring) models. All combine a 1.8-liter four with two motor/generators and a CVT transmission. The engine is 40 percent efficient, which doesn’t sound all that great but is remarkable for an internal-combustion engine.

If you still insist on an SUV (riding high, two dogs, etc.) you can still be pretty green. Most of the current crossovers are based on car platforms, and if you add a hybrid drive they get pretty frugal. I recently spent a week in a $35,000 Toyota RAV-4 hybrid that has every possible creature comfort, and still managed 33 mpg combined. 

I was just out visiting my brother, who’s a professor in Missouri. He’s got a 2014 Prius in the garage, and is ordering a 2016 to complement it. So you see, the red states are also getting fuel economy fever—even with $2 a gallon gas. Here's a closer look at the 2016 Prius on video:


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