Driven to Extremes: Man Meets Prius

Tom Bodett

Tom Bodett | Oct 01, 2012

I had to surrender the manly van for a day and a night while the dealer installed a hitch assembly on the back. Why a hitch? It's what men do. We do it in order to take pictures like this --

It takes a real man to pay extra to have a trailer-hitch installed on his minivan. (Tom Bodett)

I don't actually pull big trailers around for short distances or short trailers around for big distances with the van. Still, it's fun to post photos like this on places like where sanctimonious mechanics and people who actually read the owner's guides in their glove boxes will pounce like a cat on a squeaky toy.

Yes, I mean you. Bring it.

But I haven't gathered you here today to provoke you. At least not entirely. I want to tell you about the Prius I was given as a loaner car for the 24 hours I was manly vanless. I'd never driven a Prius before and had always wanted to. We owned a Toyota Highlander Hybrid when it was first introduced. We live in a big, energy-sucking house on a windblown hill in Vermont that is now entirely net-zero energy consumption after installing a 37kW solar array and 13 tons of ground-sourced heat pumps over the past two years.

Tom's tricked-out palace of net-zero energy consumption. (Tom Bodett)

So as you see -- a Prius should plug right into the milieu of my life. But as it turns out the idea of driving a Prius is a whole different animal than the experience of driving one.

For starters, slipping into a Prius has the same emasculating effect as putting on one of those rear-view hospital gowns just before some awful invasive procedure of one sort or another. The gearshift is not a gearshift. It's a little joystick you operate with two fingers. Nothing to wrap your fist around. You point it at the D, the doors lock, and you go forward. You point it at the R and you go backward with a loud alarm helpfully reminding you that you are going backward. To put it in park you simply stop and push the button marked Park. You hear the doors unlock and a voice whispers "Namaste." Okay, it only seemed like it did.

Driving the Prius out of the lot reminded me of the way the aging Sister Joan Therese used to stalk around our fourth-grade classroom in her orthopedic shoes. For added emphasis my Prius was also orthopedic shoe black.

I stepped on the optimistically named accelerator to turn left onto a busy road, and there was an existential hesitation even after the forward motion began -- As if to say I'm not sure entering this road at this time in this direction is where my path actually lies.

Prius taking a moment to Be Here Now.


I've seen this type of paralysis before. Every time I go to the natural food co-op there is some earnest person in yoga pants frozen in the bulk foods aisle. They have What You Need to Know About Nuts and Beans up on the iPhone. You can almost feel their agony as they labor over the balance of calories versus beneficial oils. Almonds that come from another coast. Oddly militaristic sounding Navy Beans with no point of origin information at all. People pile up behind them, politely waiting for commitment. Like a Prius in traffic.

People tolerate Priuses on the road the way older people are given a pass on the sidewalk. It's good to see them out, you think. We work around them. I felt uncharacteristically self-conscious driving my Prius-for-a-day. I don't generally care what people think of my wheels. I drive a minivan for Pete's sake. But there was something about the low-wattage presence of the car that I found surprisingly uncomfortable. Then it dawned on me why.

When Toyota first introduced their hybrid Highlander SUV they were criticized for converting so much of the new efficiencies into torque rather than fuel economy. I thought it was brilliant. Driving it was fun. It had more goose when you stomped the pedal than the conventional V6 we also test drove. It's what sold me the car. There I was bombing around in a heavy, scooty car with big Hybrid Synergy Drive badges of honor all over it. I could have my cake and drive it too.

It's the same thing with the house. We live like pigs. I leave my computers and studio running. I keep the 50-inch plasma in standby because I don't like to wait for it to warm up. Don't forget I am the guy who has been saying "We'll leave the light on for you" about six hundred thousand times a year for the last quarter century. That's a lotta watts.

I made this energy so I can waste it if I want to! (Tom Bodett)

But these days I make all those watts myself from sunshine and some panels out in the field. My plasma flat screen is solar powered. So is my yard light and water pump. We heat the water and house with daylight and well water. What can I say? It's the housing equivalent of a hybrid Humvee.

And this is what is going to sell alternative energy once and for all in America -- pigs like me. Americans want to do the right thing. We just don't want to give up anything to do it. We'll drive cars that get 50 MPG so long as they also give you 50 MPH in a reasonable stretch of the day.

The Prius is a wonderful piece of work and still I couldn't get rid of it fast enough and back into my big gas-sucking bubble of minivan comfort. Does this make me a bad person? Okay, I admit it makes me at least a compromised one. For now. I could be brought around to the Prius pace of life eventually. In fact, I wonder, can you get a trailer hitch for those things?

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