002: An opportunity seized  [trashed hummer]

At Westboro I got another Prius test drive, but under much more controlled
[by me] conditions.  I actually prepared for this, and brought out a whole
backpack-load of notes and equipment.  Based on much of the material I found
on the net, I already had a substantial laundry-list of things to try out
and play with, thinking that many of the concepts would map over to the
Highlander relatively unchanged.

Gilles got me started and then left me alone with a demo unit for upwards of
an hour, while I slowly tooled around their lot and fiddled with the controls
and did some rather odd testing.  One test was to fire up a 5-watt HT and
transmit strong RF into the wiring under the dash, particularly around the
major ECUs at the passenger side, watching for any sign of the electronics
freaking out.  Nothing happened.  Another test was to wave an inductive
line-tracing probe around the same general areas and just *listen* to what
the car was doing electrically -- and the chorus of oscillations, pulses,
packets, and PWM going on under there is *fascinating*.  Then I got out and
repeated the same steps under the hood.  In retrospect, this might have been
a really stupid thing to do since if the electronics *were* vulnerable to RFI,
I could have conceivably triggered an airbag or caused sudden acceleration
[with my knees right there in the way].  Of course negative on such tests
doesn't necessarily guarantee RFI immunity, but I needed to know at least
to a first approximation.  I peered around as much as I could in the engine
compartment, but things are rather packed into there and under various plastic
covers so it's not easy to see all the way down.  The major electrical
fiddly-bits that could potentially need attention all seemed fairly easy to
get to, however.

I also did my standard measurement test of the back end, and got some real
surprises.  The redesigned '04 had gone from a tiny sedan to a surprisingly
roomy liftback, almost wagon-like, that *could* clearly accomodate a standard
size washer or dryer -- one of my minimum criteria.  It is over six feet from
the back lip to the front seatbacks, which is rare to find even in most wagons
and "crossovers".  And while the rear window does slope down toward the back
it is kept quite high until a steep drop-off, and the inside surface follows
a more or less squared-off shape that allows it to clear boxy items in the
way back.  Sure, there's no way anyone was going to cram four big roadcases
full of wiggle-lights in there, but for a small to midsize car, this is
respectably cavernous inside -- especially considering the small frontal
area and curved shape that keeps the drag coefficient as low as it is.  And
in a real pinch [and in nice weather], since the rear opening slopes so far
forward, the hatch could conceivably remain slightly open over a large load.
I think something in the back of my brain began re-evaluating my needs right
about then.

Finally I felt emboldened enough to go out on the highway briefly and get to
a nearby business park, where I could continue noodling around larger
parking lots and exploring the user interface.  Overall, the drive system
seemed *much* smoother than I'd remembered from before, once it was in "D"
and actually moving.  It rapidly became evident that the controls match my
own driving style very closely.  I discovered that the go-pedal response is
very "slow-bottom" -- giving a wider range of control over low power demand,
and then a faster-response region up at the top if you really need it.  [As
though it had the elliptic throttle-cable cam that I had only dreamed about
for the wagon, oddly enough...]  Popping into Neutral at speed was no problem
at all, even though that concept seemed to terrify some of the people on the
forums.  Neutral is simply an electronic state, that says "don't do anything
with the motors", and causes absolutely nothing mechanical to change.  And boy,
that sucker could *coast*.  Braking was still a little funky, but at least I
knew already that the regenerative system has certain limitations.  Finally
a slightly longer stretch out on the highway took me back around to the
dealership, returning for more entertaining chat.

A whirlwind of thoughts raced through my head as I sat there at Gilles' desk
and he continued to hold forth about atmospheric CO2 and the price of light
sweet crude.  He completely agreed that the Highlander hybrid would be way
overkill in terms of power and not nearly as efficient as it could be -- I
could do close to its stated 28 mpg in the old wagon, f'krissake.  He pointed
out that SUVs in general are overrated due to marketing pressure, and usually
sold for the wrong reasons.  They very rarely get taken off-road, for example,
and are often sold on this false perception of "safety" in being able to see
over cars from one's lofty perch.  [Well, when *everybody* owns one, what's
the difference??]  I was thinking about serviceability, but already knew that
the need to do intense maintenance on a THS driveline was rather unlikely.
Gilles recounted the story of the Vancouver taxi driver who pushed a Prius
well over 200,000 miles in regular service -- Toyota found out about it, gave
the guy a brand new Prius and took away his old one to rip apart and analyze
for long-term degradation.  That represents a serious commitment to quality.
The maintenance schedule is impressively sparse -- change oil and check on a
couple of filters every 5000 miles, shuffle the tires between wheels every so
often, and change the plugs, coolant, and transaxle fluids at 120,000.  That's
basically *it*, in the absence of something actually breaking.

Gilles showed me a little bit of the Toyota online service manual from his
desktop computer, and printed off a few pages detailing basic electrical
troubleshooting techniques with a VOM and how to deal with some of the
oddball harness connectors in the Prius.  I knew that sort of stuff already
from previous car service manuals and common sense, and he was well aware
that he was dealing with a reasonably hardcore technical type -- he's a car
salesman and has the right hat to put on for better appeal to that type of
customer, even if he doesn't necessarily back it up with deep techie knowledge
of his own.  Now, this was right on the cusp of "Prius rarity", when demand
started to exceed supply in a big way and people were waiting over a year for
delivery in some cases.  He glanced over his Prius waiting-list and shook his
head a little -- it was already frighteningly long, in fact, which anyone in
his line of work loves to use as a tool to whip up that perceived "excitement"
about so many people buying a particular type of car.  He went into how
some confusion had arisen over future ownership of the car I had just
test-driven -- something about the estate of someone who recently died, or
was terminal and about to die, or whatever, and *might* be available sooner.
I wasn't really listening; I didn't want to play that game.  I was thinking
about some of the hacks I already intended to add to whatever hybrid vehicle
I would wind up owning, be it sooner or later.

But then he remembered something else: he had another "unclaimed" Prius out
back, that had come back slightly used from a rental company.  Apparently
Enterprise has a policy that they cannot keep cars in their fleet longer than
15,000 miles, and they often dump then back onto local dealers before then as
part of the turnover.  We wandered outside to look at it.  It was an '04 base
model, without the NAV and smart-key and Bluetooth all that other useless
yuppie malarkey -- relatively rare, since dealer allocations usually consist
of the higher-level models.  Apparently the base models are hard to find retail
*because* they get shuffled off to the fleet market.  He pointed out a minor
shopping-cart scrape or something on one of the plastic bumpers, but otherwise
it seemed completely intact and clean.  And it was this subtle, earthtoney
grayish-green color.

The light suddenly dawned.  I realized that I was looking at my next car,
and cut him a deposit check on it when we got back inside.  And thus I
totally jumped the line on the whole waiting-list thing.

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Did I need to justify this relatively quick decision to myself?  Certainly,
but that was easy considering the amount of supporting material.  It really
*wasn't* a snap decision -- at that point after all the research, I was
seeing a much larger view of things.  It was in fact all present and clear
in my mind as I decided right then and there to buy a Prius -- *that* Prius,
sitting right there in front of me on Gilles' snowy lot.  Best anti-terrorism
move I could make, in fact.

Sure, I would be taking a bit of a space hit, but not nearly so much as with
a generic sedan.  How often do I really haul big loads of gear, relative to
when it's just me and a backpack in an otherwise empty car?  Fairly seldom.
In reality, more clever space-packing would often be the right answer.  Heck,
I thought, back in the day I used to haul 200 pounds of laser-show gear off to
a con in the old Datsun shitbox, which was a sedan with way less space than
this, and I learned to pack that thing very efficiently.  So the average
volume of cage I really need around me began taking a back seat, so to speak,
to weight savings, drag coefficient, geek factor, and mileage.

And maybe more importantly, money right up front.  This car would cost about
*half* what the Highlander would, as would the fuel to feed it.  And the
potential of a 2900 pound golf cart to cause damage would certainly be less
in the eyes of the insurance pirates, and thus subject to lower liability
premiums.  This was all starting to sound much more attractive to my
unemployed-at-the-time self.  [Prius and related research had sort of
become my full-time, unpaid, work-at-home job at this point...]

In general, the '04 and later generation Prius has a *ton* of improvements
over the original "classic", which really made all the difference in my own
decision process.  The newer Prius isn't perfect, of course -- a few problems
had been brought to light in the first year of its existence and some fixes
plowed into the '05 model years, but all of these were well-known to me via
the forums.  I figured a year-plus of shakedown time was a good thing.  My
comfort zone is generally a bit behind the bleeding edge -- to let things
have time to settle down in the user base and see what problems emerge
before I make my own commitment.  Toyota periodically issues Technical
Service Bulletins about issues that customers frequently experience, and
if it's serious enough it becomes a recall, or a Special Service Campaign
in their lingo.  Many of these bulletins also appear at a site called
alldata.com, so I was able to freely browse the currently known problems
and make sure the dealer would address them before delivering the car.

I really took to the ergonomics, especially when compared to the wagon's
more "sporty" cockpit which to me just felt too cramped and enclosing and
ridiculously low to the ground.  I like being able to twist out of the
driver's seat and actually be able to *reach* something in the back, and the
more open arrangement and nice gap between the lower dash and the center
console makes that easier in the Prius.  The seat also sits a little higher
off ground level.  The sightlines are good in general, even if the hood is
impossible to actually see.  The design is clearly able to accomodate larger
people [which I'm not] by having the maximum roof height occur right where a
tall driver's head would be.  Again, well thought-out.  The only issue [which
others have also noted] may be seeing around the somewhat thicker than normal
A-pillars, especially when turning left.

And the hack potential?  I had already been building a list of concepts, and
already had a good idea on how to go about most of it.  When you sit at the
wheel of a Prius, a large portion of what you see is featureless black plastic
dashboard, particularly toward the left end.  Very early in the process I had
figured out where extra gauges and indicators could be mounted, without any
intrusion into the view of existing instruments or the road.  I already knew
where to access the knowledge bases already populated with specific Prius
facts to work from.  The potential was totally ripe, and my enthusiasm
rapidly building.

Therefore, I was *so* ready.  I had already embraced the concept, and was
convinced -- Prius it is.  And the rest of the logic fell right into place as
I drove the ol' wagon home that evening and returned to the computer to read
more whitepapers on oxygen sensors and buck/boost converters.  I was even
starting to answer questions in some of the forums, without being an owner
yet.  It was also lots of fun watching the other newbies become convinced,
and sometimes helping the process.  Why wait and pay more for a relative
unknown in the Highlander, I began thinking, when there's all this grassroots
knowledge already available from 4 years of people driving Priuses?  The sense
of community was almost tangible, and the FAQs numerous.  For the questions I
found unanswered, I had already decided that I would simply work on obtaining
my own answers and then hang them out on the net for posterity.  They had
helped me a whole lot, and I was already giving back to the effort.

And in that same community tradition of naming one's Prius, I had already
come up with "green golf cart".