nearest thing to a jetpack
Monday, November 14 2005
This morning Gretchen and I set out at 9am with both dogs to our bank to convert one kind of bank check into another and then we headed straight to Prestige Toyota, where we bought the first new car either of us have ever owned. Generally I've been opposed to buying new cars, partly for political reasons and partly for pragmatic ones. It's a cliché but it's true: a new car loses much of its value the moment you drive it off the lot. And supporting the automotive industry by buying its products new contributes the worst possible momentum to both capitalism and consumerism. But the car we would be buying would be a Toyota Prius and there are no used Priuses to be had. And once bought, Priuses retain their resale value simply because of the long waitlists for new ones. Mind you, I have no delusions about the aggregate pollutive and energy-consuming effects of a Prius over its lifetime. They get great gas mileage, but they also contain 200 pounds of batteries which require scads of energy to manufacture and must eventually be disposed of somehow. Still, it's possible more efficient battery technology will eventually be developed allowing a Prius bought today to behave more like an electric car. It's no solution to the burning of fossil fuels, but (even when generated by the burning of fossil fuel) electricity is a lot cheaper per unit of momentum than gasoline is.
That's all well and good, but in practical terms, as far as Prestige Toyota was concerned, we were just another couple buying a brand new car. When we walked in we were talking to a dealer unfamiliar with our purchase and, seeing how "young" we looked, he immediately assumed we were buying a Scion. I know Scions are targeted at young adults based on the extremely annoying commercials I hear for them (the only commercials!) on the >3WK stream. But then the proper saleslady was tracked down and the transaction began. Our dogs roamed the dealership while we filled out the paperwork. Then we went out to the parking lot to look at our purchase.
The Prius is a bigger car than the Honda Civic, with actual headroom and an enormous "trunk" reachable through a hatchback. With the back seats put down, it has nearly the payload capacity of my old Toyota pickup truck (back when it had the shell on the bed). The shape of the Prius is unique, with a low snubby nose and a high rear end, all of it seemingly dictated more by the unwavering laws of fluid dynamics than by fads or fashions.
Next our saleslady gave us a crash course in driving and maintaining the car. With the Prius Toyota made the decision to drop some of the idioms of conventional car driving and replace them with newer ones that make sense given the technical advances that have occurred since those idioms were established. The various driving modes (automatic transmission "gears") are arrived at by manipulating a small joystick on the dashboard, leaving the central aisle hump free for added storage and cupholders. There is no conventional dashboard; all its controls and readouts have been consolidated into a narrow strip of digital readouts directly beneath the windshield or onto a flatscreen color display to the right of the wheel. Most of the time the color display gives a graphic illustration of how energy is moving to and from the wheels, generators, and gasoline engine, as well as the miles per gallon of the moment, though it also has screens allowing changes in the stereo and cab climate. Since Gretchen had taken it on a test drive some days ago, I was given an opportunity to drive the Prius around the parking lot. At low speeds it often acts simply as an electric car, moving about in eerie silence.
Part of the reason not to ever buy cars from dealerships is to avoid the salesmanship, which (at least in my case) always implies a grave ignorance of my worldview. When the gargantuan guy in the back tried explained the extended warranty, roadside assistance, paint job insurance, and then asked which "if not all" of these packages we wanted, I said "How about none?" Then I said that not getting such packages was like a religion to me. It's important to be absolute about such things, or they'll keep you in there all day. That declaration, along with Gretchen's plea that she had to be going to work soon, got us out of there about five minutes later.
Gretchen drove home in the Honda Civic, leaving me with the dogs in the Prius. Driving to Lowes and then home, I have to admit that the Prius gave me a genuine feeling of moral superiority over all the drivers on the road. All those other sad sacks puttering about with their dinosaur-age technology, and here I was, driving the nearest thing to a jetpack that the 2000s have yet delivered.
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