It is all too easy at these events to get swept up in an atmosphere of artificial excitement. You have been flown to some distant resort in California or Arizona in the middle of winter for a test drive. You are seeing a car for the first time, weeks before the general public. And you are surrounded by engineers, executives, and public relations operatives whose jobs depend on generating excitement for the vehicle at hand.
What car ever looks bad under these circumstances?
Last spring, I violated my own rule after driving the new Toyota Prius gas electric hybrid at a long-lead event in Napa Valley. I loved the car. For one thing, I was preconditioned to treat Toyota's technical achievements with shock and awe. After I succeeded in hyper-miling the Prius to in excess of 70 miles per gallon, I was hooked. Talk of a $23,000 base price for the technological marvel was a bonus.
Well, six months later and I'm driving a Prius on my normal weekend test route. In the cold light of day, all those techno touches seem more curious than clever. The extreme aero shape of the body has left the instrument panel several feet away and made me feel as if I am driving from the middle of the car. The transmission shifter on the dash requires a re-education and some of the controls are bizarrely located (the seat heater switch is located down by my knee and completely out of sight).
That $23,000 starting price, meanwhile, has become a mirage. I have borrowed a car from one of the high trim level series, and the addition of the Advanced Technology Package (dynamic cruise control, pre-collision system, intelligent parking assist) has jacked the price up to $32,771.
After logging more than 200 miles on my normal test route, I was getting a smidgen over 50 miles per gallon – good but nowhere near my 70-plus mpg at the preview.
I have discovered I don't really drive the Prius – I guide it. The combination of the awkward seating position, weird controls, pokey acceleration (zero to 60 in 9.8 seconds), and elongated aero shape makes me feel like I am traveling in a space capsule rather than riding in a car.
None of this is a knock on Toyota. It has created the world's most popular – make that the world's ONLY popular – gas electric hybrid, delivered on its fuel economy promise, and put it on sale at a reasonable price.
But it is a reminder to potential buyers that Prius is something special and doesn't look, touch, or feel like a traditional gas-powered car.
And it is a reminder to me to never, never judge a car based on a manufacturer's preview.