Driving a hybrid can satisfy more than your conscience. With a little help from the flourishing car-customization business, it’s an easy matter to add a bit of style – some blue racing stripes, beige leather interior – to an otherwise anonymous Prius. Or fully surrender to your id, and you could perhaps end up with the car on the opposite page.
When we asked George Barris, the 79-year-old godfather of the customizer scene, to modify a Prius, he relished the chance to infuse the eco-minded vehicle with life. “It’s sleek, but it’s got no sculpturing!” says the designer, whose creations have been driven by everyone from James Dean to Madonna. “No dramatics!” In order to keep the overhaul within reach of real drivers, we requested that Barris add no more than $10,000 to the car’s price. Barris also couldn’t tamper with the car’s scrupulously engineered electronics or mechanics – that is, threaten in another way to void the manufacturer’s warranty – although we found some other Prius modifiers who are more hacker geek than hot-rodder and willing to take that chance.
The result is a hybrid that looks lithe but powerful and is dressed outlandishly. Barris made the nose longer and taller so that it doesn’t cheat the wind so much as cleave it. The flared fenders and 18-inch wheels could have come straight off a Porsche. He added an aerodynamic rear spoiler and then gave the body some welcome texture with a Tangerine Gold-Astra Green paint job. Love the finish or hate it – that’s where any hybrid owner wanting to drive more than a prosaic mileage statement should start, Barris says. “You could have no engine under there,” he explains, “and it will still catch people’s attention.”
The Electricity Fiend Occasional electric power wasn’t enough for Ron Gremban, a Marin County electrical engineer. In leading an effort by CalCars, a small nonprofit dedicated to such technology, Gremban added 260 pounds’ worth of lead-acid batteries and channeled the extra juice into the car’s propulsion system. His car can now run on electricity at up to 34 miles per hour for 10 miles. It works so well that the car’s technology may soon be incorporated into the limited production of such “plug-in hybrids.” Which makes Gremban feel a bit like Henry Ford.
The Paranoid If the grid goes down – by dint of natural disaster, terrorist strike or a spike in demand – Richard Factor has a Prius that can supply power to his home. Factor, an electronics buff who lives in New Jersey, spliced a heavy-duty outlet right into the car’s electrical system and wired his home’s appliances to the Prius via a standard computer-backup system. When the car’s own potent battery loses too much energy, running the engine recharges it. “If you are frugal, one tank of gas can power the house for a couple of weeks,” he says.
The Fuel Watcher When Atilla Vass realized he was filling up his car with gallons of gas still in the tank, the Hungarian-born Silicon Valley software engineer designed a more accurate fuel gauge. Vass tapped into the car’s computer network and established a new line of communication with the Prius’s fuel sensor. Today his own pocket-size computer, mounted on the car’s dash, displays the precise percentage of fuel remaining and calculates – based on his driving habits – how many tenths of a mile he can still go.
The Video Jockey The Prius dashboard monitor that tells drivers whether the car is running on gas or electricity doesn’t impress David Watson, an engineer from outside Melbourne, Fla. So he devised the necessary hardware and software to turn the car’s monitor into a video screen that plays DVD’s or, from a rear-mounted camera, broadcasts an image of what’s directly behind the car. “Reverse safety is such a big thing these days,” he says. “If you’re going to have a screen, it should really give you that view.”
The Prober “I knew the car came without the button,” says Wayne Brown, a technology officer for Pilgrim’s Pride, a chicken producer in Pittsburg, Tex. “But what I didn’t know was how it hooked up.” The “button” is a dashboard-mounted switch, found exclusively in Priuses sold in Japan and Europe, that enables the car to drive for about a mile on battery power alone. Brown spent months’ worth of spare time connecting an oscilloscope to the car’s electronics before inserting a pin into what he hoped was the right hole. The successful procedure ended up on the Web – to the apparent benefit of Prius owners everywhere. “I believe,” Brown says, “that hundreds of people have done the conversion.”
Andrew Tilin, a former senior editor at Business 2.0, writes frequently about automobiles and technology.
New York Times