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Story by Lois Grace

The first car I ever drove was Vernon, my dad's 1959 VW Single Cab pickup. I was 11 years old and thrilled to be behind the wheel, in control (I use the term loosely) of such a big and (to me) powerful vehicle. A truck! My love affair with trucks had begun the moment I saw Vernon, but driving him sealed the deal. And, once I was an officially licensed driver, I made a point of keeping a running tally in my head of all the cars I have had the pleasure (usually) of driving. Some I drove for just a few blocks, others for a couple hours, but they all made impressions resulting in a permanent entry in my mental library. I added another one recently: a 2005 Toyota Prius. I know, I know. Years ago, when these hybrids (or mutants, as I like to call them) came out I swore you'd never see ME in one. I thought them ugly, expensive and impractical and much preferred my "pocket rocket" GTi. The Golf had the hybrid beat in looks, speed and sheer driving enjoyment. Or so I thought. But more about the Prius later.

Once I'd had the heady pleasure of driving an ancient old VW Transporter, taking Driver's Ed in high school was a piece of cake. Two comrades and I spent Saturday mornings in a brand new 1969 Plymouth Satellite which was notable only for the fact that it had cool little turn signal indicators on top of the front fenders. Other than that, the car was just a big automatic boat, to me. But it was a means to an end: my official California Driver's License. Right before my driver's test, my mother insisted I try out her 1963 Jeep Wagoneer. My impressions? It was a huge, top-heavy box with an monstrous clutch that required two feet to press down. Worst of all, it didn't even pretend to be cute. I never mastered the clutch on that thing, and consequently didn't get too far in it (literally). My mother put so many miles on the beast that she developed thigh muscles like Wile E. Coyote.

Among the others on my Cars I Have Driven List: a 1947 Crosley sedan (terrifyingly fragile-feeling), a 1971 BMW 2002 (incredible power and handling), a 1965 Corvair Monza (beautiful and elegant), a 1971 Datsun 240Z (my mother's "baby" so not really able to try it out sufficiently but very impressive and ornery), a 1995 Saab 900 Turbo Convertible (sublime), my own 1978 Saab 99 GLE (a wonderful, fun and funky car), my Dad's 1968 VW 7-passenger van (typically VW, also fun and funky with a capitol "F"), a 1985 Volvo wagon (yes, a wagon, but OH! Those Swedes!), a 1967 Ford Mustang (very fast and nimble for a larger car), a 1999 Dodge Stealth Bi-Turbo (not sure about this one, visibility was dreadful and it wasn't that fast), a 2003 Golf Gti (INCREDIBLY fast), a 1970 Plymouth Barracuda (a classic now, but a daily driver for a friend then. SCARY fast, no handling at all), a 1995 Honda CRX (cute, nimble with horrid brakes), a 1965 Chevrolet pickup (big hulk of a workhorse, nearly unhinged the front end going over a railroad crossing), a 1995 Mustang 5.0 (again, scared myself with this one), and a 1984 VW Westfalia camper (drove it for fellow Autoist correspondent, Don Capestrain. I liked it, heck it was a camper!). Oddly, I never did drive Dad's 20-foot Explorer motorhome. I'm not really sure why. This is just a partial list, but my favorite by far is one I haven't even mentioned yet.

The winner, by any means of measure, is the1997 Porsche Turbo Carrera convertible I drove a few years ago . I had stopped in to my friendly VW-fixit place for something and admired the black turbo Carrera convertible sitting outside. My buddy Ralph (at the counter) said it belonged to his brother and was there for a few minor adjustments. He tossed me the keys and said "Have fun". I thought he was joking (wouldn't you?). Off I went, in a blaze of shiny black paint and a great roar. But not after giving them all fits of laughter as I tried to "blaze" out of the parking lot and killed the engine three times. Words cannot describe this car adequately. For that you'll have to read "Car and Driver". Maybe "jaw-droppingly fast", and "frighteningly agile" might suffice. I'm a big fan of speed, but I also like to feel in control. With the Porsche, I got both. I whipped out onto an expressway with the top (black Haartz cloth, of course) down and glanced in the rear view mirror. The little "whale tail" was busy coming out of its hiding spot on the decklid. The speedo read an unbelievable 85mph, which would normally have given me a thrill, except I was in a 45mph zone at the time. And the Campbell (CA) police are not known for their sense of humor. Reluctantly, I slowed down and headed for the nearest corner to try out the steering, which turned out to be just as impressive as the gas pedal. I could go on, but since this is not a Porsche newsletter, I won't. Let's just say that this was a few years ago and I still have goosebumps from that Porsche.

But, back to the Prius and since this is not a Toyota newsletter either, I'll keep it short and to the point. I seriously doubt that the Prius will make the "Top 10 VolksWoman Favorites" list, but it was fun to drive and interesting to learn about. Of course, everything I drive ends up being compared to Volkswagens - my own and everyone else's. In the interest of fairness, you can't really compare apples and oranges, which is what this ends up being. Which car - the GTi or the Prius - looks more like an apple or orange isn't the point. The point is that in the intervening years between my 1990 Golf and this 2005 Prius, some amazing technology has taken place. Instead of one 4-cylinder gasoline-powered engine (pumped up some here and there by its performance-crazed owner), this Prius sported a 72-hp, 16-valve gasoline engine, plus an electrical motor with about 60hp. The basic principle is that you start the car, and the electric motor gets you moving. Once you reach speed the electric motor shuts off and the gas motor takes over. The end result (and why these cars are gaining in popularity by the moment) is that the Prius can get upwards of 50mg. Some motorcycles don't get that! And, the Prius is not some mechanical slug either. It actually gets up and goes - not like a VR6 Gti, say, but it was certainly very respectable.

The owner of the Prius is the doctor I work for, and while he is not some tree-hugging radical environmentalist he does believe in making the most of things. If there is a car somewhere that can use a gallon of gas more efficiently then he is willing to give it a try. As a former engineer for Ford Motor Company, he has that "automotive curiosity". The whole hybrid thing just makes sense. Of course there are those who think hybrids are hideously ugly, and I was one of them. I have made an exception for the Prius, however, as it seems a bit VW-like in its looks. It's kinda cute, in a weird homely sort of way. Isn't that what people said about the Beetle, when it first arrived? And, we all know how that turned out. Designers will tell you the days of buying a car strictly because of its looks (think big fins or lots of chrome here) are over. The era of socially-responsible, gas saving autos is here. But for those who loved (and still love) the Beetle because of its high mileage ways and yes, its adorable looks, the Prius might be a modern solution to a very sticky problem: how to save gas and look cute while doing it.


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