Road Rush

Why I love the Lotus - and the Prius

The Globe and Mail

Peter Cheney's Lotus Evora S with a Toyota Prius. (Peter Cheney/Peter Cheney)

I have never lived in Utah, and I love only one woman. And yet there is a part of me that is a polygamist. The part I’m referring to, of course, is my automotive side. Which explains my relationship with the Toyota Prius and the Lotus Evora S.

It’s hard to imagine two more radically different machines. The Prius is quiet. It’s fuel-efficient. It has a luggage compartment big enough to swallow a kayak. And driving a Prius has all the thrill of operating a kitchen appliance (and not one of the exciting ones, like a blender or a corn-popper).

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The Lotus, on the other hand, is a low-slung sports machine that makes a trip to Loblaws feel like a record lap at the Nurburgring. It has scalpel-like steering, a 285-km/h top speed and an exhaust note that, depending on the occasion, sounds like a supercharged saxophone or a jungle cat undergoing a proctological examination.

The Prius is from Venus. The Lotus is from Mars. And I love them both. Until last week, I never gave my diverse automotive preferences much thought. Then I got a Tweet from a reader who spotted my new Lotus: “That completely makes up for you liking the Prius,” he wrote.

This got me thinking about the taxonomy of motorized passion. Many enthusiasts are wedded to a single class of vehicle (old British roadsters, Italian supercars, jacked-up four-wheelers, etc.). But I find myself pulled toward a wide range of rides, from Porsche race cars to modified Jeeps to postwar classics. And then there’s the Prius, which is one of my favourite vehicles, much to the consternation of my car nut friends.

Almost anyone can understand why I’d like my Lotus. It is the stuff of adolescent fantasy and middle-age crisis: it looks like a Victoria’s Secret model with headlights and doors. The Prius is a sexless appliance. When I gave the Prius a glowing review, some of my friends reacted as if I had elected to become a eunuch. The Prius isn’t fast. It isn’t lust-worthy. Or is it?

Let us consider the nature of automotive polygamy.

Looking back on my life with cars, I realize that I have liked many different machines, for many different reasons. Buying my Lotus was the fulfilment of a long-held dream. But so was getting my first minivan back in 2002.

After years of travelling with our kids in a Honda Civic, picking up a new Honda Odyssey was the gateway to new adventures. The kids could bring friends along. My mother-in-law could join us for the drive from Nova Scotia to Toronto. We could tow my ultra-light plane. The Odyssey was our private Greyhound, filled with life and carrying us to distant horizons.

I loved that minivan just as much as my Lotus, but for different reasons. Like the Lotus, the Odyssey was the ultimate expression of its particular genre – in this case, the family hauler. It appealed to me as a father and as a son-in-law. And against all odds, I actually enjoyed driving it. The V-6 was smooth and torquey, and hustling the Odyssey through corners was like doing aerobatics in a Boeing cargo jet, calling for a smooth touch and a clear understanding of the laws of physics.

Then there were my many VW Beetles. They were slow. The heaters were inadequate. But I loved them nonetheless. They were rolling history, and their motors were like miniature aircraft engines that expressed the engineering genius of Ferdinand Porsche. I also loved my hunchbacked 1965 Volvos 544s, my 1973 BMW 2002 tii, and my 1963 Pontiac Laurentian (which suffered an untimely death when a drunken acquaintance ran into it with a delivery truck).

These are wildly different cars, yet each earned a place in my heart. And to this day, I am pulled toward cars you’d never expect. Even minivans – if I had the money and the garage space, I’d buy an Odyssey or Sienna today and park it next to my Lotus. But why stop there? Once an automotive polygamist gets in the mood, it’s more the merrier.

My ideal automotive harem would include an Alfa Romeo 1300 GTV, a Caterham CSR 240, an air-cooled Porsche 911, an Audi A7, a Ford Boss 302 Mustang, an original Fiat 500 (plus a new Fiat 500 Abarth), a Porsche Boxster Spyder, a Lotus Eleven, and a Shelby 427 Cobra. Rounding out my collection would be a 1959 Mercedes 300 sedan, a Ford F-150 pickup truck (great for moving and hauling supplies), a BMW X-5 diesel SUV (perfect for towing a glider trailer down to Pennsylvania) and a Ferrari 250 GTO. And, of course, a Prius.

Oddly enough, Toyota’s un-thrilling hybrid has become one of my favourite cars of all time. But it wasn’t a case of love at first sight. The Prius struck me as weird, and my first drive was hugely off-putting – the Prius didn’t feel or sound like a car. Instead, it felt like a sensory-deprivation chamber on wheels, and driving it offered all the thrill of operating a refrigerator.

But the Prius grew on me over the next several weeks. I loved the huge cargo space, and I became obsessed with the digital display that showed how much energy I was using. (My favourite part was watching electrons pour back into the battery as the Prius converted kinetic energy into electric power as we slowed.)

I drove the Prius the way I fly gliders, focusing on smoothness and efficiency. My wife and I drove from Toronto to Chattanooga on two tanks of gas (the Prius’s tank only holds 45 litres). And as our drive in the Prius continued, I began to appreciate a new form of driving where performance isn’t measured by rpm and lap times.

Last week, I took my new Lotus to the race track. Arcing through the curves of Mosport with the supercharged V-6 crooning behind me was brilliant, and I saw the speedo flash past 220 (it’ll go way faster, but it isn’t broken in yet). But is lapping the Lotus a better experience than the long drive I did in the Prius with my wife last summer? Hard to say.

The silence of the Prius promoted conversation, and its efficiency was brilliant – we cruised using less than 5 litres/100 km. Every gas station we passed was a victory. The Prius had plenty of cup holders (my Lotus has none) and the automatic transmission meant I could hold hands with my wife if I wanted. (A nice feature that is rarely addressed in road tests.)

Back in my twenties, my wife and chose each other. She’s the only woman for me. With cars, it’s different. I love my Lotus. But I love the Prius and the F-150 too. Welcome to Utah.

Don't forget to check out Peter Cheney's gallery this week: In pictures: Anatomy of a Porsche race car

For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

E-mail: pcheney@globeandmail.com

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