Toplikar: Pimp my Prius, please

Embracers of hybrid technology join auto club all of their own

Dave Toplikar peers into the camera on the back of his new Toyota Prius. A live video feed is displayed on the dashboard screen when the car is in reverse.

“I don’t get it. What do you mean, gas and electric? Do you plug it in?” I laughed as I drove my daughter Julie from her dorm in my new Toyota Prius.

Julie had lots of questions. Like many of us, she was pretty skeptical of the whole notion of mixing two power sources – an electric motor and a gasoline engine – under one hood.

But I told her I was pretty convinced that the Prius had finally made the jump. It’s gone from being the quirky concept hybrid car (prius means “first” in Latin) to being one that I could trust on a cross-country trip.

And I had taken the plunge and joined the early adopters into the unofficial Prius club.

Wow factors

Here are some surprises about the Prius that I soon discovered:

¢ It doesn’t sound like a sewing machine. When I hit the gas, it leaps into traffic just like any of the other cars in my family fleet.

¢ It has a keyless entry system. If I have the electronic key in my pocket, the car knows it. When I grab the door handle, it unlocks. The first couple of times, I found myself saying “Good dog” and patting its roof when it unlocked the door.

¢ When I want to start it, I don’t need to put the key in the ignition. I just put my foot on the brake, press the “start” button and the car wakes up and is ready to roll. It has the same kind of symbol on the button that my Apple laptop has.

¢ When I put it reverse – a couple of the guys I showed at Best Buy loved this – a video camera down by the license plate turns on. And a TV screen with a fisheye lens shows what’s behind me.

¢ The same video screen also serves as a touch screen for controlling functions such as air conditioning and the sound system. (I could have gotten the package that included a Bluetooth to connect to your mobile phone and a navigation option. Figuring phones and nav systems improve about every six months, I decided not to get those.)

¢ I asked a couple of guys at Best Buy to figure out how I could play the videos from my iPod on that screen. They thought I’d have to get some aftermarket product to make it work – but they also warned me it was illegal to have video within eyesight of the driver. So instead, I bought an auxiliary wire that runs directly from my iPod into my Prius’ stereo sound system.

Now my Prius doubles as an iPod accessory.

I’m sure there are other aftermarket products I can use to pimp my Prius down the road.

Working together

Sure, the Prius comes with the cool tech stuff. But the main reason I got it was for the gasoline mileage. It’s rated 60 miles per gallon for city and 51 mpg for highway.

I drove it around town for a couple of days and finally hit the 50-mile mark on the odometer. My mileage was 34.7, according to the information on the car’s view screen. When I hit 100 miles, I was getting 37.3 mpg.

That’s right.

All the fuel consumption information is right there on the view screen, and in real time. That’s so you can keep checking it as you drive to get feedback on saving gas.

I’m sure I could do better if I actually drove it with some prudence.

However, I’m kind of used to driving my daughter Bonnie’s five-speed Mustang. So I was probably punching the Prius’ accelerator a little too hard.

Back to Julie’s main question: Do you have to plug it in at night?

No. The battery is recharged during the normal course of driving. The “Hybrid Synergy Drive” system takes care of that.

How it works

If you want to learn how the Hybrid Synergy Drive works, go to Toyota’s Web site. You’ll see a lot of animation showing that the gasoline engine works in synch with the electric motor to power the car.

A battery powers the electric motor, which takes over at slow speeds. That’s where you save gasoline.

When the gasoline engine takes over, it sends a charge to the battery. The battery also gets a charge during braking action on the wheels, which Toyota calls “regenerative braking.”

Smug club

I checked online to see who else was in the elite Prius club: Prince Charles, Billy Crystal, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, Harrison Ford and Angelina Jolie are among the proud owners.

Even Lawrence’s own Chuck Woodling and his wife, Carolyn, have joined the party.

“Hey, look there’s one! You’re supposed to wave,” I told Julie, remembering something from Larry David’s TV show, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

“Did she wave back?” I asked, happy to finally be a member of the cool environmental crowd.

“No. She just stared straight ahead.”

Hmm. I’m sure she probably was just too busy checking her “consumption” information display to improve her mileage.

Or maybe once you’re in the Prius club, a slight head nod is the acknowledgment of choice.

I wonder if there’s a secret horn honk?

I guess I should read the manual – and get plugged in.