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DAN NEIL RUMBLE SEAT

Toyota's spark of genius

October 15, 2003|DAN NEIL

If you ever despair that the U.S. auto industry is whirling, slowly but with gathering momentum, down the tubes of history, the second-generation Toyota Prius will give you no comfort. This is a car Detroit assures us cannot be built. No way. No how. A spacious, safe and well-appointed mid-size four-door with practical performance while returning more than 60 miles per gallon? For $20,000? Are you, like, high?

Well, there it sits in my driveway, looking like a set piece from a Kubrick film but in other respects a straightforward piece of engineering. And it shames the domestic automakers and the Bush administration.

As recently as this summer, during the Big Three's annual assassination of higher mileage standards proposed in Congress, industry shills argued that the proposed increase for cars -- 40 mpg by the year 2015 -- would be impossible to meet. The technology would be far too expensive; the weight reductions needed would create flimsy death traps; consumers simply would not accept the anemic performance such high mileage requirements would impose.

Moreover, the automakers argued, requiring such increases would tie up capital, intellectual and otherwise, that Detroit needs to develop fuel-cell technology. The Bush administration and the Big Three are touting the Freedom CAR initiative -- a program to bring hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles to market, which received $1.2 billion in the Energy Department's budget for 2003 -- as a visionary alternative to the dreary incrementalism of federal mileage standards.

Have faith, America, and take another toke off your asthma inhaler. On some as-yet-unspecified date, on the golden horizon of the hydrogen economy, Detroit will deliver the ideal car, clean and powerful, trailing only clouds of noblesse oblige.

Forgive me if I'm skeptical. The most optimistic estimates put the mass marketing of fuel cells more than a decade away. It makes zero sense to give Detroit a pass on improving emissions and fuel economy now for some promised land of milk and money in the future.

Freedom CAR replaced the Clinton administration's fig leaf of hypocrisy, the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, which doled out $1.5 billion to a consortium of automakers, universities and suppliers for nearly a decade and likewise was used to stall efforts to increase mileage standards. The Bush administration pulled the plug on the partnership last year, citing its failure to reach its goal: developing an affordable family sedan that gets 80 mpg.

Well, the Prius (pronounced PREE-us) gets 60 mpg -- the highest fuel mileage of any mass-production car sold in the United States -- and Toyota did it without subsidies from the federal government and much less posturing than the Big Three's promising to save the world when they get around to it.

I can live with the scandal embodied in a national energy policy that is actually reducing tax benefits for clean-fuel cars (Prius buyers can claim a $2,000 tax deduction on cars placed in service before Dec. 31) while offering tens of thousands of dollars in tax credits to "small business" buyers of H2 Hummers.

What boggles my mind is the wasted business opportunity. Consumers want high-mileage cars. In Los Angeles, the entertainment industry's pretty young things are lining up for the Prius. The first generation of the Prius sold a modest 5,600 units in the United States in 2000. Toyota already has taken more than 10,000 orders for the second-generation Prius ahead of its launch this month and is adding capacity to meet demand of 36,000 units in the States and 76,000 units worldwide. If the Prius doesn't outsell Pontiac's new GTO in the 2005 model year, I'll eat a box of General Motors product guru Bob Lutz's Partagas Robustos.

Anybody who has ever turned a wrench will marvel at this car. Even before you look under the hybrid's hood, consider the body structure: a four-door hatchback on a 106.3-inch wheelbase, with interior room only slightly less than that of the Toyota Camry and a huge trunk (16.1 cubic feet) made all the more usable by the hatch and folding rear seats. Its coolly futuristic, maglev-like styling accounts for its slippery aerodynamics, 0.26 coefficient of drag, among the lowest on the market. And the car weighs only 2,890 pounds, 300 pounds less than a four-cylinder Camry automatic.

The Prius is spacious and comfortable in both front and back seats. I'm 6-foot-1 and I had no trouble getting comfortable in the car. Outward visibility is excellent; the car's hatch features lower glass panels to improve rearward sightlines. Toyota's use of lightweight materials for upholstery, door panels and other surfaces gives the car the feel of expensive, lightweight camping equipment. When you close the door you notice it doesn't have the thudding authority of upscale Toyota products, and the seat cushions and armrests are thin, but overall the car has nice tactility and warmth.

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