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Buying a New Toyota Prius; 24 Hours of LeMons(Sic) In October's Letter from Europe

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

By Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief
The Auto Channel

It took a long, smog-laden summer combined with gasoline at well over 3 dollars a gallon for my wife to ask me to get a Toyota Prius for a road-test.

She has been a BMW driver as long as I’ve known her so it never really occurred to me that she was being serious. Her 530i has been running like as dream. Admittedly around San Francisco she has only been getting 19.1 miles per gallon but bearing in mind the relatively low annual mileage we were not talking about a fortune.

”It isn’t just the mileage” she said, “I refuse to be held to ransom by the oil barons and the Arabs. And the Prius pollutes a lot less than other cars”, she added.

So the Prius duly arrived and she took to it like duck to water. The fact that literally every second car in Marin County is a Prius must have been reassuring as well but at the end of the day what mattered was whether she liked or not.

It couldn’t have been more different from her regular car…smaller, less powerful, less luxurious and with less street cred, except in politically mega-correct Mill Valley.

To be fair, once we figured out how to start it the rest was plain sailing, apart from one desperately annoying feature. The beep-beep while reversing was excruciating but I dare say one could disconnect it but obviously not on a test car.

Once in “D” everything was easy. The steering is considerably lighter and less precise than on a BMW but not disastrously so. The seats were very comfortable and all the instrument panel was a doddle to figure out.

Acceleration was amazing and as for the top speed, well, we didn’t push it but 90 miles per hour came up in no time at all. We didn’t get a chance to do a full fuel test and 60 miles per gallon in town does sound a bit extreme but given the hills of San Francisco I am sure 50 would be no problem at all. The highway mileage is somewhat academic as she would not be driving it to New York any time soon.

Whether she will get it depends on the sort of deal she can get on her BMW as a trade-in but all things being equal Toyota will have gained another convert.

Well, things happened rather quickly from then on. We went to see a dealer in San Francisco and while they were perfectly nice they also prevaricated somewhat. To see what she would get for her immaculate BMW from the dealer she bought it from- and two before!- she went to see Sonnen in San Rafael.

After keeping her out in the parking lot the boss, who was supposed to come and see her just sent a lackey back to offer her a ludicrously small amount.

I wouldn’t treat a dog the way they treated her, so should we ever buy another BMW it will most definitely NOT be from this highly arrogant dealership.

What happened next is an object lesson in how things can be done. I didn’t make it up…there would be little point, anybody could check it with a phone call. Having worked for The Auto Channel for the past 11 years as European Bureau Chief I got on the site, tapped in Toyota, tapped in Prius, my zip code and my telephone number and within half an hour I had an e mail from Bob Martin of Hansel Toyota in Petaluma.

Thank you for your enquiry it said, I’ll be back to shortly. The phone rang at 7.30 in the evening, it was Bob Martin. Yes, he had a Prius, yes, it was the color Suzie wanted and yes, he would be happy to take the BMW in part exchange.

The following morning my wife was on her way to Petaluma and by lunchtime she was the proud owner of a brand new, top of the range Prius. They gave her a decent trade in price for the BMW, showed her around and treated her with utmost courtesy. With 200 miles on the clock it would be just a little bit too early to pass judgment on her purchase but I’ll let you know in due course.

While all this was going on we also had an amazing experience. Old friend and ace scribe Jay Lamm told me about an amazing endurance race for cars costing 500 dollars or less.

Yes, you read it right, not 50 thousand, not 5000 thousand just five hundred dollars. With proof of purchase required! Admittedly we were allowed to spend extra on brakes and on a roll cage but that was it.

The challenge proved to be irresistible. Question. How should I go about finding a set of wheels that will last 6 hours the first day and 7 hours the next?! If in doubt turn to an old friend and there are none better than John Clinard of Ford Motor Company.

He immediately saw the funny side of the race, entitled 24 Hours of Lemons and suggested Hayward Ford as the kind of people who would probably want to get involved.

Too right! They simply jumped at the idea. Boss man Doc Lane, Alan Alwie, the Service director from Newcastle, England and all the mechanics were unanimous in their support for this crazy venture. Job 1-to find something for 500 dollars.

Joke One: of all the things in the World they came up with a 1994 Oldsmobile Achieva. Never raced or rallied, just a rusty old heap. As I was buying it from the dealership I had to fill in all sorts of forms but at least I did receive a piece of paper which said AS IS- NO WARRANTY! By the time I’ve paid preparation fee (ha-ha), smog fee, sales tax and registration fee the total came to 771 dollars and 36 cents but as these items had nothing to do with the car itself the organizers had no problems with it.

The race itself was a complete blast. There were cars of all shapes and sizes when the green flag was waved at 4 p.m. Saturday afternoon. As we had one of the least powerful cars we decided that patience was the way to go. While all sorts of hotshots rocketed past us only to crash or have terminal mechanical breakdowns we just plodded on.

Lap after lap, hour after hour with just one stop for change of drivers. We had five in all, a local lad of 18 called Ray, two mechanics from Hayward Ford called Patrick and George and my twins, Nicholas and Annabelle.

By Sunday afternoon all five had a go and in the end we finished a glorious fourth beating all the specialist magazines such as Sportscar International, Excellence, Car& Driver to name but three. I just had lunch with Jay who assured me that there will be a race next year. He already has our entry and we will of course keep you posted.

The team had two support vehicles, a brand new GM Yukon and a Mini. While not ideal for the occasion we improvised somewhat. A bicycle was needed was get around so we put the top down, took the front wheel off, put the whole thing on the back seat and hey presto I was off to the races.

The Mini, as always is huge fun and will be even more so when the new one arrives in the not too distant future. The new engine is built in England and will be a vast improvement on the current one which was a joint effort with Chrysler.

The little car is so successful that production had to be increased yet again! Not bad bearing in mind that it has been around for in one shape or another for over 40 years!

The Yukon was the 2007 version of GM’s venerable workhorse and it was a huge improvement on the previous one. As I’ve mentioned last month, GM are on a product-led recovery as witnessed by the Saturn Aura.

That's it for with you next month