By Bill Moore
|Last week, Jerry Prazan walked up to my desk and said he'd gotten a call from the local Toyota dealer. They had just received the new 2004 Prius gasoline-electric hybrid sedan and the salesman wanted to know if Jerry was interested in taking a test drive.||
I've worked with Jerry for something like four years and for the last couple years, he's been talking about buying a hybrid car, but neither the Honda Insight -- which I drive -- nor Civic Hybrid or the Toyota Prius were what he was looking for.
That appears to have changed with the introduction of the 2004 Prius. So, he wanted to know if I'd be interested meeting him at the dealership next Saturday when he would test drive the car.
Is the Pope Catholic?
So, bright and early -- if you consider 10:30 AM "early" -- I drove my Honda Insight onto the lot of Old Mill Toyota, the oldest Toyota dealership in Omaha. In the Fall of 1999 I had driven an early Japanese version of the Prius onto the same dealership to show them what the car looked like.
Jerry hadn't shown up yet, so I occupied myself by taking some photos of the car, which was about to hit the road again with yet another prospective buyer, a gentlemen who said he travels a lot and is fed-up with airport security hassles. He figures he'll do a lot more driving instead of flying commercially. He wanted a car with good gas mileage and lots of cargo space, which the new Prius has in spades.
While inspecting the Prius's voluminous cargo space, he ruminated darkly about the gradual imposition of a fascist state in America. I decided to avoid pursuing that topic with him.
As the man and the Toyota salesman drove off, Jerry pulled up in his dependable, but aging Corolla with 93,000 plus miles on it. He confided to me that his plan is to give the Corolla to his son when he turns 16 in about nine months. He said he's thinking strongly replacing that car with a Prius since he's been a satisfied Toyota customer for years. His wife, though, wants a Camry, so I suspect he'll have a sales job on his hands when the time comes.
We walked into the showroom to get out of the chilling breeze and to meet the salesman who'd called him. Almost immediately, Jerry spotted an old ally from his days as the City of Omaha's lobbyist in Lincoln. Bart McEvoy had once been the chief of staff for Mayor Bernie Simmons until the mayor's untimely death. Things haven't been the same in the mayor's office since, they both agreed.
The original salesman courteously and professionally passed Jerry off to Bart -- he was also trying to close a three-car deal and knew Jerry wasn't immediately in the market for the car.
The three of us sat down in Bart's little open cubicle. McEvoy had just come to work for Old Mill three month's earlier from the local Volkswagen dealership, commenting that while he is a devoted VW fan, he found the dealership's service department lacking. He told us that Old Mill's service department has the best reputation in town, so he came to work for them.
The two former public servants briefly caught up on their respective pasts and then got down to the business of preparing to drive the single demonstrator the dealership had gotten only 10 days earlier.
It turns out that the car actually belongs to Toyota, though the dealers can sell it after sixty days. Toyota provides the insurance, so each salesperson has to make a photocopy of each prospect's driver's license. Jerry handed his over and Bart trundled off to make a copy.
"He's a really good guy," Jerry whispered to me as he tried on the ball cap Bart had given him. It said "Prius" on it and I felt a tinge of envy. Bart would later tell Jerry to keep it. "See I told you he's a good guy."
The copy made and license returned, McEvoy had a bit more paperwork to complete and asked Prazan to sign the release form.
The legal formalities finished, Bart handed Jerry some literature and briefly explained the features of the car with the help of a sales presentation binder. By the time he'd finished, the car had returned and we walked outside for the test drive.
What seems to impress most people looking at the car for the first time is the amount of interior space, especially when the rear seats are folded down. You could haul a sofa in this car. The introduction of the hatchback in the new model is a stroke of genius and clearly will do wonders for the appeal of the car. Here's an stylish, highly-efficient, roomy car with tons of storage space, enough so that small families and couples who don't need all the space in a minivan or SUV, would find this car a suitable and affordable alternative.
The test drive took about ten minutes as we wound around through West Omaha back streets. Jerry said he did ninety-five percent of his driving on city streets, so he wasn't interested in taking the car out on the Interstate. He seemed clearly impressed with the car, as had been 28 other people who had driven it since it had arrived in town.
McEvoy explained some of the features of the electronic display screen, though he appeared unfamiliar with the vehicle efficiency screen that depicts how the car's performing terms of its miles-per-gallon fuel economy. I showed him how to find the screen and explained to both men that eventually this is the screen conscientious drivers will use the most as they get into the fuel efficiency "game." Neither seemed convinced, but neither has spent much time in a hybrid.
While the Prius has more than enough bells and whistles to keep an airline pilot happy, Prazan remarked that he prefers to keep his cars simple. He appears to have found the blizzard of 3D display screens a bit intimidating the first time out, but by the end of the test drive, he was getting comfortable with switching between the radio, cabin ventilation and vehicle performance display screens.
The model we drove came with the "Smart Key" that allows the driver to turn on the car with the electronic key still in their pocket. It bumps up the price of the car about a grand. It also has an interesting side-effect, as McEvoy explained. He'd taken another customer out for a test drive, keeping the key in his pocket. During the drive, they'd stopped to switch drivers and as McEvoy got out of the car and walked around the front, the car shut itself off.
I asked McEvoy how many of the 28 people who had driven the car in the last 10 days had actually ordered one. "Six" he replied, adding that if the dealership had had available cars on the lot, he was pretty sure all of them would have bought one. Right now, he explained, the only thing the dealership can do is take an order plus a $500 refundable deposit, advising the customer that it will take 90-120 days for their cars to come in.
He also noted that about half of the people coming in for test drives have already sold themselves, so he's hoping that the company can ramp up production to meet demand. Old Mill apparently sold only six Priuses in 2002, mainly because they couldn't get them, he said.
"Toyota is already talking to additional suppliers," McEvoy told me. This will let the company build more cars, of which there is already a backlog of some 20,000 vehicles pre-ordered even though it only officially went on sale last week in North America. About half that number is from customers in Japan.
We had no sooner parked the car back at Old Mill next to my 2000 Honda Insight, when yet another salesman walked up with more paperwork, ready to take yet another prospective buyer out for a spin.
So what did Jerry think about the car? He appeared satisfied with car's space, styling and performance. Still, this is new technology and it takes a bit of a spirit of adventure to make the leap from the known to the still-largely-unknown. Crunch time will come next summer when he has to make the final decision, but he seemed confident that when the time came, he would buy a Prius.
To be continued.... in the summer of 2004!
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