Buying a Prius in 2014 - Before CarPlay

iOS 7.1 was unveiled a month or so back, and its centerpiece was Apple's CarPlay, which promises to finally deliver a safe, hands-free (and eyes-free) iOS experience for drivers.

Unfortunately, CarPlay won't be available for a while, and I need a new car now.

On the plus side, there have never been more high-tech, high mileage hybrid vehicles available.

So which car is the best fit for a tech lover with a long commute?

Let's get one thing out of the way - if money was no object, I'd be buying a Tesla.

Unfortunately, we aren't quite there yet.

I am, however, seeing the occasional Tesla Model S sedan in our home suburb, and at my office.

It is, quite simply, a head-turner. Beautiful inside and out. Huge touchscreen display. Just a pure object of art.

But for now, it remains squarely in the province of "aspirational purchases". Maybe that can be my NEXT car.


When I said I had a long commute, I wasn't joking. It's 35+ miles, from the west Chicago suburbs, to the far north Chicago suburbs. 

There are no plausible mass transit options, unfortunately - I'd have to take a commuter train 20 miles to the city center, and then another commuter train 20 miles north. It would take 2.5 hours and cost an absolute fortune each day.

So, I'd like to get a hybrid vehicle - primarily for the fuel cost savings, but also because I'd like to minimize the environmental effect of that commute as much as possible, and because I love high-tech, and the innovation that went into the development (and widespread adoption) of the hybrid engine.

10 years ago, people mocked the idea of a hybrid vehicle. It was something for snobs and effete losers. Today, the hybrid engine is ubiquitous. Plug-in electric cars are status symbols. And I can't remember the last time I saw a Humvee H2. Times change.

I don't want the tech to be limited to the drivetrain - I'm going to be spending a lot of time in this car, so I'd like a Sirius/XM radio, a navigation system, and bluetooth iPhone integration. (CarPlay can wait for the car after this one.)

I'll cut the suspense - while I was working on this post, I bought a Prius. But there are a LOT of Prius types - which one to choose?

Toyota Prius

The obvious choice. When you say "Hybrid", people immediately think "Prius".

It was in the first generation of hybrid vehicles, and didn't look as crazy-weird as the first Honda Insight (with its enclosed back wheels.) The Prius needs to be considered.

But again - which Prius? In recent years, they seem to have multiplied.

There is the Prius Two, the Prius Three, the Prius Four, and the seemingly mythical Prius Five (which I have never seen). Then, there is the Prius V (wagon), the Prius C (small and sporty) and the Prius Plug-In (full-electric.)

I've got one kid, and another on the way. While this car will usually be for 1 passenger, there could plausibly be a time when I'd need to fit 4 people. So the Prius C is out.

The Prius V is just too station-wagony for me. The Plug-In is too expensive for me - and its range may become an issue with 40 mile commutes each way every day.

So - the standard Prius. But what does that numbering system mean?

Prius Two vs. Three vs. Four

It's pretty simple - those are the trim levels. There's no Prius "One" anymore - presumably, that was the old-style form factor.

The Two is your basic trim package - upholstered seats, standard radio.

The Three adds some extra features - most often navigation & satellite radio.

The Four adds some more features - leather seats, a heads-up display on the windshield, and so on.

I'm going to be spending a lot of time in this car, so I went with a 2013 Prius Four, with 22K miles, and basically every available option. Leather seats, Bluetooth, SiriusXM, touchscreen navigation. That HUD on the windshield.

I even got the solar-panel roof, which will apparently power some kind of passive AC during the summertime, when the car is sitting in the parking lot. And it all fit into the budget!

One Month Later

The car is advertised at about 50 MPG city, and about 50 MPG highway.

I don't know if Toyota tried to understate the Prius' efficiency and "call a shot" that they knew they could hit, but I have never - not even once - failed to exceed 50 MPG during my commute. (I even got 63 MPG once - that was something.)

Every time you turn off the car, it tells you how far you traveled, and your MPG for that trip. (It also tracks your MPG on a monthly basis, too.)

It's not uncommon to see short trips with 75-80 MPG, depending on how you drive. Bottom line - the Prius is a bit better in terms of efficiency than you'd expect based on its sticker.

Toyota's in-dash nav/entertainment console is very good, but there are changes that I wish that they'd make.

  • Radio Presets are identified ONLY by their frequency - i.e., "93.1" instead of "XRT", and Ch. 28 instead of "Spectrum." That is a user-interface issue that really should have been handled better. 

  • The XM Sports function seems fantastic at first glance - you tell it your favorite teams, and then clicking on the icon will show you your teams' scores - and the XM channel they're being broadcast on.  But clicking the button with your team's game and XM channel doesn't change to that channel! Why not?
  • The entire idea of the Toyota Entune iOS App seems unnecessary. The way it works is this - you can add and manage EXTRA in-dash apps (including Opentable, Pandora, and a non-Fandango movie ticket app).  But those new apps ONLY function when your iPhone has the Entune app downloaded, running, and connected to the car via Bluetooth.
Bottom line - this is easily the most advanced vehicle I have ever purchased.  It exceeds my expectations in terms of miles-per-gallon, and it had no trouble with the final snowstorms of Chicago's Worst Winter Ever. 

Now I just need to figure out how to stop spilling coffee when I'm driving it. 

Seriously, Toyota, if you make the Prius cup holders that deep and that "snug", it's impossible to get a venti coffee out without the lid popping off! 


  1. Hello, Matthew. I have virtually the same car (the Four, etc, though mine's a 2012), my second Prius after driving a 2008.
    Though I really like the car overall, I have to disagree about the in-dash nav/entertainment system. It's an improvement over what was offered in the Gen 2 Prius, but when you compare it to similar standalone devices, it falls short.
    Compared to any dedicated GPS device (or Google Maps or Apple Maps on an iPhone) Toyota's is pitiful. The map data is astonishingly out of date (and expensive to update), it's missing some basic functionality that standalone devices had a decade ago (where's the "find near route" function--not ON route: what if I need to find a gas station that's close to the Interstate I'm on?). Any of the nav apps on my iPhone give more logical directions as well as much more accurate travel time estimates (and yes, I've customized the road speed Nav system preferences). I could go on, but the list would be VERY long.

    The voice-control is laughable; this wouldn't be a big problem, except that the system locks you out while driving. Obviously this is out of concern for safety, but the car allows--no, PROMOTES--the use of hands-free cell phones, and all of the studies on the topic are clear that it's conversing on the phone (not holding it) that's the big distraction, far more so than talking to someone in the car. Ten seconds to add a destination: no; ten minutes jabbering away on a call: yes.

    Separately, the Navweather is also puzzling: it has a Forecast function, but then demand that you enter the desired city, each and every time. Why not default to the current location, then allow you to change it if desired?

    I don't know if you've had this issue with the Entune app, but I have to manually make it active on my iPhone each time I want to use it on the car: if I don't, even if it's running in the background I get "To use the services, an active application needs to be running on your phone."

    1. Hi Scott - I can't disagree with any of these criticisms. It's fairly obvious that there's a ton of opportunity for Apple to step in and make in-car nav/entertainment a lot better.

      Our other car is a 2008 Acura RDX, and while its graphics are a generation behind the Prius' display, it's substantially simpler to use.

      My latest complaint about the NavWeather is that *literally* every time I start the car, I learn of "severe weather located in my area". Every time so far, it's flooding in Indiana or some such. There needs to be a stronger threshold for what constitutes "severe weather" worthy of a voice interruption and pop-up dialogue box.

      You're right, though - in all of my cars, I'd rather be using the iPhone and Google Maps. Let's hope that CarPlay becomes a de facto standard, and the current myriad of bad choices and underwhelming UI gets swept away.