While the 24 Hours of Lemons race series, which employs me as Chief Justice of the Lemons Supreme Court, visits Sonoma Raceway aka Sears Point twice each year, I hadn’t done a Race Organizer Review there since I drove a 2016 Scion FR-S for the 2016 Sears Pointless race. Since I stay 44 miles from the track when I work at Sonoma Raceway, on the Island That Rust Forgot, the 25-mile pure-EV range of the Toyota Prius Prime seemed like a good match. Here’s how three days of racing (plus a few junkyard-photography visits) went.
The Prius is ubiquitous in the San Francisco Bay Area, in large part because the State of California lets Prius drivers roll solo in the carpool lanes of the state’s maddeningly overcrowded highways. For this reason, not a single racer at the 2017 Sears Pointless 24 Hours of Lemons paid the slightest bit of attention to my Prius Prime, even though it spent Friday, Saturday, and Sunday parked in the garage used for car inspections and black-flag penalties. The Prius is an invisible car in these parts, unless it happens to be powered by a Harley-Davidson V-twin engine.
Every night, I would plug in the Prius Prime’s 120VAC charger into a long extension cord at my childhood home and give the batteries a full charge. Then I’d drive the 44 miles to Sonoma Raceway, the first 25 or so on 100% electric-motor power, and plug the car in for the day while I worked. Normally, I’ll use my Race Organizer Review machine for transportation around the facility, to get to photographic vantage points or to take a look at a heroic fixes, but that wasn’t an option when the first five or six hours of each day were devoted to battery charging. Fortunately, I had the use of an even greener vehicle: a Vintage Electric bicycle.
This car is made for unchallenging commuting, not clipping apexes or wowing supermodels on the French Riviera, so there’s not a lot to say about the way it behaves at the limit. It’s quick enough off the line to keep up with traffic, the handling is competent enough, and anyone interested in the kind of fuel economy you get with a car like this isn’t going to mind the (somewhat distant) gnashy, thrashy sounds when the Atkinson-cycle gasoline engine kicks in, or the indistinct feel of the continuously-variable transmission’s gear-ratio changes. It drives like a regular, if sedate, transportation appliance, an appliance that nobody will notice.
My only real complaint about this car, during the five days I drove it, is the irritating “boot-up” song played when you hit the ignition switch. It sounds like something a local realtor would commission for late-night TV commercials, after hiring a low-bidder musician whose primary influence was the Microsoft Windows 95 start-up tune. I was ready to take a Sawzall to the dash in order to remove the source of that song.
I made no effort to drive the car in a frugal, eco-puritanical manner. If highway traffic was going 75 mph, that’s what I did. The first day, prior to the race, I drove about 100 highway miles while visiting junkyards around the Bay Area, and 75 of those miles were after the plug-in batteries became exhausted. Even so, 83.7 highway miles per gallon is startling.
During my time with the Prius Prime, I drove 469 mostly highway miles, and I used 5.578 gallons of gasoline in doing so. According to Toyota, the Prius Prime ingests between 6.5 and 7.5 kilowatt-hours of electrical power (depending on parameters so numerous and arcane that I’d go mad trying to list all of them) to get a full battery charge at 120VAC. I put eight battery charges into the car, so we’ll go with the higher kWh figure of 7.5 and say that the car “burned” 60 kilowatt-hours in addition to the 5.578 gallons of gas. Each of those kilowatt-hours cost $0.10837 in Alameda and $0.1408 in Sonoma, for a total monetary cost of $2.44 (Alameda) plus $5.28 (Sonoma). So, $16.39 worth of gas (California has pricey gas) and $7.72 worth of electrical power to drive 469 miles: not bad! Calculating how much carbon and other pollutants were emitted during this driving proved impossible, due to the impossibility of figuring out exactly how all the electrical power was generated and how much was lost due to transmission inefficiency, but it must have been way the hell less than the output of, say, a 2008 Chevy Tahoe driving 469 miles on underinflated tires.
Of course, if you’re doing your car shopping based entirely on how cheaply you can do your commute, then a 20-year-old Honda Civic HX is a better choice than a new Prius Prime; the initial cost of the old gas-sipper Civic will be about $31,000 lower than that of the new Prius, which compensates nicely for the gas-hoggishness of the 50-mile-per-gallon Civic’s insatiable thirst. The new Prius Prime is a way to drive a nice new car that should last until internal-combustion vehicles are either outlawed or irrelevant, while using less energy and gaining the approval of the less radical members of the left-side team in the Culture Wars.