Many years ago back in the UK there was a late night music show I watched religiously. It was concentrating on the alternative music scene and of my favourite bands at the time was a band called Gomez. During the round table chat with other artists and the host, someone said something derisive about whoever the current trendy pop artist heading the charts at the times was. The singer from Gomez pointed they were on the same label as his band, and it was thanks to the big mainstream pop stars that his label could afford to invest long term into smaller niche groups like his so they could record and tour consistently.
That insight has stuck with me, and it can be applied to most large cultures. From inside the bubble of car enthusiast culture it’s easy to deride the cars we perceive as mundane. The Camry, Accord, Malibu and Versa for example, as well as most crossover SUV’s and all minivans. All of which are popular amongst people who need an appliance to get from A to B and shop mainly on fuel economy, reliability and cost of the vehicle rather than speed and handling.
Those are the cars though that make their companies money. Without those popular vehicles selling many thousands of units per year we wouldn’t get the more affordable enthusiast biased cars such as the MX-5, the Challenger, GT86, Mustang and Camaro. We also certainly wouldn’t have had things like the Toyota MR2 or the Honda S2000.
To make affordable enthusiast cars the main spine of a car company needs to be based in volume cars. If you want a pure enthusiast car then you have to pay pure enthusiast car money. Even then, it was building the Boxter and then an SUV that saved Porsche from becoming a name of the past.
So what's so special about the Prius it compels me to actually put fingers to keyboard?
Well, the Prius is one of those core cars, but it’s also a true benchmark in automotive history. Toyota managed to build the first commercially popular hybrid car and turn it into a profitable unit. Stepping back and looking at the automotive industry, that’s a huge achievement. In the long term and upon reflection, it’s launch was the first real step away from a dependancy on petroleum. As enthusiasts we all love a petrol car, but the stark reality is the inarguable fact of oil being a finite resource. It’s only going to last so long, so a popular hybrid car that doesn’t use as much fuel for the appliance purchasing commuter is a great thing for stretching that finite resource out a little longer.
More importantly I believe, it also proves a platform to build upon. As the mass production reliability of the Prius and the crazy power making technology of the McLaren P1 march towards each other at some point we will get affordable hybrid sports cars. We already have the new NSX so it should only be a few years before we get some truly great everyman hybrid sports cars.
At this point, hybrid technology is going to become the stepping stone to what’s next. The reality of all cars on the road being electric (or whatever fuel cars of the future will run on) is still decades away.
So when you next see a Prius and feel that instinctive flash of disdain course through your body, remember that’s a car that’s going to be the foundation of enthusiast cars to come over the next couple of decades.