The first problem with the Prius is that it isn't just a car. When the engineers at Toyota began working on a hybrid, their course was probably very clear: they wanted to make a relatively inexpensive, moderately attractive piece of machinery that would go reasonably fast while sipping gas as carefully as Joe Lieberman's poison taster. Maybe they imagined that their car would gain a little cachet in the crunchy granola set, but their primary goal was to create affordable, moderately green transportation. They succeeded, of course, and produced a fine little car that does everything they wanted.
Then the marketing people got their greasy little hands on the Prius and everything went to hell.
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If your primary interest is in saving gasoline, the Prius is an outstanding bet. The 2008 model gets 48 mpg in the city and 45 mpg on the highway, making it the most fuel efficient car available in the US, according the EPA. Unfortunately, however, all of this fuel efficiency comes at a considerable cost: the price of a current Prius hovers somewhere in the $25,000 range, pushing it out of the range of many consumers. By comparison, a used 1990's Geo Metro gets 38 mpg in the city and 45 mpg on the highway, yet starts in the $2,000 range. For a fully refurbished model, purchasers can expect to pay $4,000-$5,000.
Of course, a used Geo just isn't all that sexy, which brings us to the heart of the Prius matter. While Toyota's wonder machine is great for saving gas, it's even better for improving one's social position. After all, there aren't a lot of cars that convey its mix of environmental awareness, sexy technology and trendy thriftiness. Admittedly, with the high cost of gas, a Prius will become a profitable purchase far earlier than comparable models, but that assumes that you are among the few people who are both willing and able to shell out $25,000 for a new car this year.