The Frontal Cortex

When I first heard that Al Gore III was caught going 105 mph in a Prius, I was most impressed by the fact that a Prius can actually go that fast. You must really have to floor the Prius engine – all 110 horsepower of it – in order to get the car into triple digits. But it turns out there are other factors at work: speeding isn’t just about the size of the engine. Dan Neil explains:

The question remains, why is the Prius such a screaming hot rod?

In part, it’s a reflection of the state of the automotive technology, which, as it has raised benchmarks for handling, safety and comfort, has also driven up — perhaps inadvertently — absolute performance levels.

“If I went 100 mph in my 1983 Oldsmobile Delta 88, it would probably shake its bolts loose,” said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “Cars are much better now.”

But for Prius advocates, the Gore affair underscores a point they’ve tried to make all along: Efficiency is just another way to spell performance.

The Prius is, for example, one of the most aerodynamically optimized vehicles on the road, with a low 0.26 coefficient of drag. That means the car doesn’t require a lot of horsepower to push through the air.

The car also rides on tires with low “rolling resistance,” which lessens friction between the rubber and the road. It’s also a bantamweight at only 2,932 pounds, among the lightest cars on the market.

“The way the car is optimized,” says Michels, “from aero resistance to rolling resistance, cooling systems, the powertrain itself, all of those things any hot-rodder is interested in as making the car go faster.”


  1. #1 NJ
    July 6, 2007

    “Son,” he said “It’s gonna cost ya to free us, if you don’t stop drivin’ that Hot…Rod…Prius”

    Nope. Just doesn’t work.

  2. #2 tekel
    July 6, 2007

    two thoughts.

    1. if he hadn’t been driving such a sissy car, he might have been able to get away.

    2. A 1983 Delta 88 is a great example of an American gutless rustbucket optimized for driving at 35 MPH on a gravel road. Perhaps a better comparison would be to a 1989 Acura Legend, which was almost as big as an 88, but since it was built and engineered by the japanese when they cared about quality and the American car companies evidently still didn’t, it was rock-solid at 130 MPH and still got 35 MPG highway.

    The question isn’t “Why do American cars from the 80’s suck,” as we’ve solved that problem. The question should be “Why do American cars STILL suck, after having sucked so bad for so long?”

  3. #3 Tony P
    July 6, 2007

    Actually U.S. auto manufacturers have gotten better, but they’re nowhere near the Japanese yet. In recent weeks I’ve ridden in a brand new Cadillac, a brand new Acura, etc. Inside you can barely tell the difference now. Outside the Caddy still looks like a sharp angled box, but that’s the only difference. Time will tell though.

    But Toyota is learning a hard lesson right now. Yes, they’re now the number two auto maker in the world, but they have to get a handle on quality else they’re going the same was as GM.

    Actually not all cars from the 80’s sucked. Friend of a friend has an 89 LTD Crown Vic and that baby still moves. Oh it feels like you’re driving a marshmallow but it’s got no problem hitting and sustaining speeds of 100MPH. It’s got some minor issues but they can be corrected.

  4. #4 X
    July 6, 2007

    Actually, Toyota is number one globally and in the U.S.; that happened a while ago.

  5. #5 tekel
    July 7, 2007

    Tony: In recent weeks I’ve ridden in a brand new Cadillac, a brand new Acura, etc. Inside you can barely tell the difference now.

    I couldn’t disagree more. No one who has compared a caddy with an audi or mercedes side-by-side could ever mistake one for the other.

    Have you recently DRIVEN a new US luxury car? They’re still crap. I drove a Caddy CTS/V for the first time about three years ago, at the AutoShow in Motion event. The CTS/V had less than 5000 miles on it. The interior leather was chintzy and stiff, not soft and supple. The stitching on the leather was poorly done and uneven in places. The dash sounded hollow and felt and looked like black tupperware plastic. The fold-down storage box under the radio kept popping open spontaneously. And for some unfathomable reason, the car came then with a foot-actuated emergency brake rather than a handbrake, like you’re driving a rickety old F-150 pickup instead of a luxury sedan. When you released the brake, it made this “Sproing! CLUNK” noise, straight out of a cartoon. And I don’t even want to talk about the way it steered.

    I drove a 2007 version of the same car about 3 weeks ago, on a lark. They haven’t fixed any of my major complaints. The parking brake is still on the floor. Corvettes have a handbrake- isn’t this car supposed to appeal to the same class of drivers?

    The leather alone is an unacceptable flaw. Anyone who has ever sat in an Audi or a BMW would just laugh and walk away from the $55k pricetag on the Caddy. I mean, seriously- the car may go fast in a straight line, but the handling is a joke and the interior just isn’t comparable to any german car, even one which costs $10k less in the united states.

    And don’t even get me started on the luxury-suv Escalade bullsh1*at. Those trucks are total junk, again- after driving the Escalade, I understand why people who need to compensate for their small p3nis buy hummers instead. The Escalade drives like a U-Haul truck. Neither the E or the H2 stand up to the Touraeg or the X5.

  6. #6 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    July 10, 2007

    The World’s Fastest Electric Car
    It’s not a Prius, it’s a TZero from AC Propulsion

  7. #7 Tim
    July 20, 2007

    2932 lbs is not exactly light for a car, and cannot be a reason for the supposed lighter load to propel it forward. For example, NHTSA uses weight class ratings that place this weight near the top end of the middle weight category. The car may appear light, but the battery that propels the car when the ICE is off adds quite a bit of weight.

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