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The State

Like a volt from the blue: A Prius can speed

Gore's alleged 100-mph jaunt alters perceptions of 'wimpy' hybrid cars.

July 06, 2007|Dan Neil | Times Staff Writer

As yet another tale of celebrity spawn gone wild, the arrest Wednesday of Albert Gore III -- son of the former vice president -- on suspicion of drug possession was routine except for one rather mind-blowing detail:

Gore was clocked in a blue Toyota Prius hybrid traveling on the southbound 5 Freeway in Orange County in excess of 100 mph.

"One hundred and five, actually," said Orange County sheriff's spokesman Jim Amormino. "I think it's slightly downhill there."

The former vice president Thursday declared his love for his son, said Albert III was receiving treatment and added that the family was "going to leave it as a private matter."

Which was just as well. The Prius, not Gore, was the news.

Gore's cruel caning of Toyota's greener-than-thou hybrid -- powered by a small four-cylinder engine and electric motor that together produce about 110 horsepower -- rippled through talk radio and the blogosphere Thursday. Many were simply amazed.

"How in the world do you get a Toyota Prius to go 100 mph without a cliff to go over?" asked Rush Limbaugh.

Others wondered if the episode represented some kind of viral marketing coup for Toyota.

"Everybody must realize the incredible serendipity effect the Al Gore Jr.-in-a-Toyota Priusgoing 100 mph story will have on this car?" said one of dozens of posters on the heavily trafficked Priuschat.com website. "If Toyota is smart, they'll have a specially prepared Prius Pace Car for the next Indy 500."

Actually, the Prius -- the unofficial merit badge of environmentally conscious Californians and officially the most fuel-efficient car on the road -- is capable of going even faster, according to Mike Michels, spokesman for Toyota. But the car, which uses an electric booster, is speed-limited to 103 mph to avoid depleting the battery.

"It can go 103 mph indefinitely," he said. At least until the gas runs out.

A check of statistics compiled by Car and Driver magazine suggests that the slowest car on the road is not the Prius but the hairy-chested AM General Hummer H1, with a top speed of only 88 mph.

The question remains, why is the Prius such a screaming hot rod?

In part, it's a reflection of the state of the automotive technology, which, as it has raised benchmarks for handling, safety and comfort, has also driven up -- perhaps inadvertently -- absolute performance levels.

"If I went 100 mph in my 1983 Oldsmobile Delta 88, it would probably shake its bolts loose," said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "Cars are much better now."

Another factor is the increasingly globalized car market. The Prius has to meet driver expectations in Europe, where the highways have higher speed limits and in some places, no limit at all.

But for Prius advocates, the Gore affair underscores a point they've tried to make all along: Efficiency is just another way to spell performance.

The Prius is, for example, one of the most aerodynamically optimized vehicles on the road, with a low 0.26 coefficient of drag. That means the car doesn't require a lot of horsepower to push through the air.

The car also rides on tires with low "rolling resistance," which lessens friction between the rubber and the road. It's also a bantamweight at only 2,932 pounds, among the lightest cars on the market.

"The way the car is optimized," says Michels, "from aero resistance to rolling resistance, cooling systems, the powertrain itself, all of those things any hot-rodder is interested in as making the car go faster."

And, although it's probably no comfort to young Gore, his arrest is being seen by some as a testament to the little Prius' performance and, shall we say, absence of wuss. "Now there's proof positive the Prius can GO," wrote a poster on Priuschat.com. "At least the bashers can't say the car is pokey or slow."

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dan.neil@latimes.com

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