The Mom Car Comparo: 2008 Toyota Prius vs. 2001 Subaru Outback

When my beloved Saab finally crapped out for keeps, I purchased my mother’s 2001 Subaru Outback from her.  She promptly went and acquired her “dream car,” a 2008 sea-foam green Toyota Prius.  I’ve been living with the Subaru for a year now, and I’ve also had the opportunity to put about a thousand miles on the Prius.  As someone who considers himself auto-enthusiastic, I thought I’d do a comparo of these two very un-enthusiast cars in order to discover which car is the best mom car.

The showdown of the millennium!

The “go” pedal: The accelerator pedal in the Subaru communicates with the engine via, I believe, carrier pigeon.  As you begin to apply pressure you’re rewarded with a brief wait, during which the uninitiated Subaruist will probably continue to attempt to smoothly accelerate – depressing the pedal even further.  By the time the engine finally realizes it’s being called on to move the car forward, our poor amateur will have the pedal halfway to the floor and the car will jerk forward with all the grace of a waltzing epileptic.  After a while you become accustomed to this quirk and learn to give the car only the tiniest amount of gas until after it actually starts moving.

The relationship between the Prius’ various motors and its accelerator is much, much more complicated.  Accelerating slowly from a stop is smooth, pleasant, and perfectly wonderful if you live somewhere with fewer than ten cars per square mile.  In a city, though, where you may be required to accelerate quickly into the only open spot in an otherwise impenetrable river of traffic, the story is very different.  You see, the Prius turns off its gas engine when it comes to a complete stop.  This is great for fuel economy, but means that when you need the power of petrol, the engine has to start back up.  I’m sure, at some point, you were taught not to start an engine while depressing the accelerator pedal.  This is not a lesson the Prius has learned, and when you put your foot down from a standstill the motor chokes on gasoline as it tries to turn over, making for a shuddering start and a sound sure to make anyone with any knowledge of what a healthy engine should sound like want to stuff their fingers in their ears.  Which is not a good impulse to have while driving.

At highway speeds, the accelerator pedal on the Prius serves to remind you that all of your interactions with the car are mediated by a bank of computers that would put HAL to shame.  Try to speed up or ease off just a little bit, and the computers read your input and tell the engine to go faster or slower in a very digital manner.  You know all those reasons audiophiles complain about CDs and digital downloads robbing music of it’s analog glory?  You know those charts that look like this?

You will be made linear.

That’s exactly what the Prius does.  You can actually feel your analog input being turned into digital fluctuations in engine speed, and it doesn’t feel good.

I should also mention that, at highway speeds, the Prius is just a regular car with a small engine.  That fancy hybrid drive-train turns into more weight that you need to lug around with you while you wait to transition back to stop-and-go driving.

The “Stop” Pedal:

The ABS system on the Outback is grabby and obtrusive, you can really feel the brakes engaging and releasing jerkily as they slow the car.

The regenerative system on the Prius is terrifying.  The first time you apply what you would normally consider moderate pressure to the brake pedal the car goes into all out panic mode and slams to a halt.  Sure, you get used to the extreme sensitivity of the pedal eventually, and learn to only apply the tiniest amount of pressure to it under normal braking situations, but it’s a fear conditioning response.  You become afraid of the brake pedal, and that’s not good for one of the most important interface points in the car.

The Turny Thing:

The Outback comes in at about a thousand pounds more than the Prius, yet is infinitely better in the corners.  Partially, this is because the Prius gives you the sense that it will simply topple over if asked to corner, but mostly it’s down to steering feel.  The Subaru is a little numb, but the wheel at least tells you if you’re about to lose traction.

Feels just like the Prius, only more fun.

The wheel on the Prius gives you as much feeback as the wheel on a Super Off Road arcade machine.  By which I mean, it’s incredibly light, there’s no real sense of resistance, and there’s no indication of what’s actually happening with the front tires.  Add to that the same sort of oversensitive twitchiness found on the brakes, and you have a car that really offers no incentive to do anything other than travel in a straight line.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Cog-swapper:

This might be my biggest gripe with the Outback.  The automatic transmission loves to shift up.  It will shift up any time it has the chance, doing its best to keep you from ever breaking 3k RPMs.  Then it will refuse to downshift.  I have actually had the experience of putting the gas pedal all the way down to the floor, while travelling uphill, the engine at just over 2k RPMs, and having the car wait a full five seconds before downshifting.

This gearbox might be the single biggest argument in favor of manual transmissions ever to be installed in a car (at least in this century).

At low speeds, with the electric motor engaged, the Prius is just fine.  Mostly because it doesn’t need a gearbox.  The rest of the time, well, it’s an econobox slushbox.  If I have to say more, you’ve never driven a manual.

Interior:

Both cars share the same penchant for cheap plastics and cheap feeling touch-points.  The Prius, however, has a lot of toys.  At this point most people should be familiar with all of the functions offered by the touchscreen system.  Live fuel-economy charting, a diagram that shows what’s powering what…all it amounts to is a lot of unnecessary distractions (unless you’re really, really trying to hyper-mile the car).  The functions that you actually need, like radio controls and nav, are not particularly intuitive or easy to access.  In fact, I found myself using my cell phone instead of the built-in nav system.

The other problem is that, when you sit in the Prius, you don’t quite feel like you’re sitting in a car.  This is very subjective, but the Prius doesn’t feel really car-ish.  It’s like a living room set up with pedals and a wheel.

The Outback is old, simple, and straightforward.  All of the switches do just want you think they will, and you don’t need to fuck around with a touchscreen to change the radio station.

 

Aesthetics:

They both ugly.

Conclusions:

People buy the Outback because they want a solid, practical wagon.  People buy the Prius because they want a toy…and not even a fun toy, just a toy that lets them feel superior to other people.  Never mind that hybrids require such a massive investment of materials and energy to manufacture that there’s no real overall reduction to the driver’s environmental footprint.  Never mind that hybrid drivetrains have a much higher cost-to-efficiency than most other fuel saving technologies and techniques.  Never mind that Europe is swimming in diesels that offer better fuel economy and a better driving experience.

The Prius uses less gas than, say, an Outback, and it has that screen that shows you all those nifty stats.  It’s not a car people buy because it’s better as a car (as my mom will admit), they buy it because it makes them feel good, and it’s “cute” in sea-foam green.

The Winner:

The surprise winner!

My mom’s 1988 Volvo 240DL (MT).  That’s right, the best car my mom owned in my lifetime was her 1988 Volvo 240DL with a five speed manual transmission.  It was underpowered, but otherwise had none of the problems of the Suabaru or the Prius.  It wins, it’s the best mom car…IN THE WORLD!

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