Psst!... I Can Make You a Deal on a Prius!

Don't worry, environmentalists. We don't have to drill in ANWR ... I just bought a Prius!

Call it counter-programming or just a normal human response to a local pump price of $4.99 a gallon, I have done the deed. (And, yes, in the spirit of counter-programming I am thinking of slapping "McCain '08" and "Support our Troops" bumper stickers on the rear -- only I hate ruining a new car with gooey advertisements that never come off.)

Of course, it wasn't easy. Buying a Prius in Los Angeles these days is more difficult than scoring a bag of the purest Nepalese hash. You have to know someone who knows someone. It's kind of like getting a counterfeit green card. The line is so long sometimes you have to wait until 2011 and then pay for so many extras you don't want there are gee-gaws on your car you won't know how to use ten years after buying it.

But working undercover and with the aid of a certain arcane methodology (e. g. the internet), I managed to corral one from a nearby Toyota dealer in a few weeks. The good news: the only unwanted extra I had to pay for was the ubiquitous and ever-mysterious "clear coat." (I wanted leather seats and Bluetooth -- the latter being mandatory with California's new cell phone law about to kick in July 1.) The bad news: MSRP. I had to pay full price, shouting down my ancestors, who were yelling in unison in my head "I can get it for you wholesale!" In the words of somebody else's ancestors: "Fuhgeddaboudit!"

Now if you're about to tell me that I have to drive this automobile for forty-five years in order to make up the difference or that the car's battery is a lethal environmental hazard that has to be buried for a thousand years in a hazmat vault under the MGM Grand, I don't want to hear it. I just bought the car, fer crissakes. (Besides, this is a "light" piece, in case you haven't noticed.)

So on to my experience actually driving the thing. It was nerve-wracking and dangerous -- but fun. Naturally I was petrified, as are most people driving a new car, that I would ding up its pristine body before I got off the lot, so I white-knuckled the steering wheel as I eased the baby off -- all the time thinking "Do I have the power to get into this crazy LA traffic?" Well, somehow I managed it, sliding into rush hour. (People may be getting used to the relatively slow pick-up of hybrids -- who knows?)

Now here's the dangerous part: you get transfixed by your mileage. The Prius has a groovy high tech touch screen that gives you all kinds of info about how you're doing, what part of the hybrid motor you're using, etc. -- and, of course, you want to know. You can't keep your eye off the screen, watching the pretty gears and colors as the engine switches between gas and electric. (Hmm... 33mpg... not too bad, but should I ease up to 40? ... What? 11MPG? Maybe I should have leased a Jag. I'd be making it up this hill a lot faster and the leather wouldn't be optional.)

Anyway, I kept my eye on the road enough to make it to my Hollywood Hills neighborhood where I may be the last on my block to buy a hybrid. For the entertainment industry crowd, the pervasive Beemers and Mercedes are going the way of the woolly mammoth (until the aforementioned companies come up with their own hybrids, which is probably ten minutes from now).

There's a lot of self-satisfaction and a bit of hypocrisy in all this, obviously. But am I now proud of myself for making a contribution to the environment and less of a contribution to Saudi Arabia and Iran? Well... regarding the latter... you bet. And as for the former, why not?

The Prius of today is obviously a transitional vehicle. (Isn't everything?) In the long run those of us who are opting for hybrids now are encouraging the auto companies to move in innovative directions.

If you do the math, our hybrid purchases still seem to be driven by that aforementioned "self-satisfaction" rather than by true energy savings. But that math is precariously close to the tipping point, especially if you keep your car for a period of time. And the way things are going, that "period of time" may soon be six weeks!