Nice engine, pity about the shape

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Economy and the motoring press trip are not usually concepts which travel in company. The whole point of a motoring press trip, it can sometimes seem, is to exceed the economic speed limits. This is a time for the publicity department to put the pedal to the metal and leave a broad black stripe on the Freebie Highway. Lear jet to Venice and a Louis Vuitton attaché case to hold the press notes? That'll do nicely, thank you, but I can't say I'm impressed by the mid-range torque. Orient Express to Venice and a chance to tour the Veneto's finest hostelries in a Rolls Royce Corniche? Oh God, not the Gritti Palace again!

Economy and the motoring press trip are not usually concepts which travel in company. The whole point of a motoring press trip, it can sometimes seem, is to exceed the economic speed limits. This is a time for the publicity department to put the pedal to the metal and leave a broad black stripe on the Freebie Highway. Lear jet to Venice and a Louis Vuitton attaché case to hold the press notes? That'll do nicely, thank you, but I can't say I'm impressed by the mid-range torque. Orient Express to Venice and a chance to tour the Veneto's finest hostelries in a Rolls Royce Corniche? Oh God, not the Gritti Palace again!

By these standards, Toyota's junket this Thursday to introduce the British press to its newest product might be thought a tiny bit underpowered. A day trip to Brussels by Eurostar and not a whiff of a top-end badge product in sight. But then the object of this outing, the Toyota Prius, is a car with a conscience - a car for whom conspicuous consumption would be anathema. And - as it turns out - virtue has brought its own rewards. Because, by some unrepeatable miracle of timing, Toyota are introducing the Prius, one of the motoring world's most abstemious drinkers, in the heart of a full-blown petrol drought. As the train pulls out of Waterloo the talk is not of engine capacity and gear-ratios, but of the best siphoning techniques and whether a wheelie bin is a suitable receptacle for one's own personal fuel dump. As one Toyota manager jokes happily, Prius team members have been busy on British picket lines but they have been instructed to keep their identity concealed.

They must have been at work in Brussels as well, because the blockades which brought the centre to a halt on Wednesday are still in place, obliging the coach to Toyota's headquarters to take a wandering detour through the city's more battered outskirts. And here, too, fortune has been smiling on the organisers, since the route turns out to be a kind of stations of the cross of ecological rectitude.

First of all we pass a vast car graveyard, teetering canyons of rusting steel which underline the press pack's boasts about the unprecedented recyclability of the new car. A little further down the road an Esso refinery (unbesieged) reminds us that the Prius's revolutionary hybrid of electric motor and petrol engine will give 61.4 miles per gallon in city driving - the sort of figures that will allow you to cruise for hours on empty, looking for a garage with fuel in stock. And even a sharp U-turn in front of the Nato headquarters might have been co-opted for symbolic effect - as Toyota's president informs us in a video homily, "global competition for survival has begun" and this is a car which is prepared to do its bit. It is the New World Order on four wheels.

It is also, the company is at pains to make clear, a car. In fact, this message is pressed home with almost neurotic insistence. The entire frontage of Toyota's headquarters has been given over to a vast green poster bearing the words "A green car that's truly a car". "Prius is a real car", reads one section of the publicity handbook. If the Prius was a man, this amount of protestation might have you wondering a little about his sexuality, but in terms of appearance at least, the car is firmly in the closet. Toyota's engineers might have contrived an ingenious propulsive troilism by which petrol engine, electric motor and generator stimulate each other to new heights of economy and emission control, but the designers have cloaked it in an exterior of retiring conservatism. It has that vaguely orthopaedic look that car drivers everywhere have come to associate with common sense.

It's not that the Prius is completely unlovable. How could you not warm to a vehicle that has "slanted squish area combustion chambers", whatever they are, or one which converts your driving incompetence into a civic virtue (brake suddenly in the Prius and the generator squirrels away a little of that squandered inertia so that you can draw on it later on).

But it can't be said that it's likely to turn heads - I doubt that any Brussels commuters even notice the convoy of cars which takes off on a tour of the city's postcard sights, guided by a satellite navigation system of imperturbable efficiency. Nor is it likely to endear itself to boy racers, admittedly not a large part of the car's target market. Despite the promise of "torque-strong driving sensation", the Prius feels as if it knows what's good for you better than you do - press hard on the accelerator and it responds with the g-force equivalent of "More haste, less speed young man."

Once you've got used to it, though, there's something rather soothing about the complete silence with which you pull away from any stop (whenever you come to a halt the engine cuts out, and the electric motor takes over the task of getting you under way again). What's more, the electronic display of fuel consumption (updated every five minutes) is so beguiling that it probably counts as a factory-fitted safety hazard - for brief moments, you are driving a car that can do over 100 miles to the gallon.

As we leave, we are handed a goody bag of souvenirs, which is queued for with that slightly self-conscious pretence at indifference with which grown-ups ensure they don't miss out on free trinkets. It includes a paperback called The Prius That Shook The World, which turns out to be the Bravo Two Zero of low-emission vehicle production, a gripping tale of struggle against adversity which manages to combine thriller crossheads such as "Anguish" and "Deserting Under Fire" with less conventional incitements to page-turning fever - my personal favourite being "Finding the Cost of Electromagnetic Steel Plate". Curiously, though, a genuine excitement makes its way through Hideshi Itazaki's salaryman prose.

The Prius doesn't look like the future and it doesn't drive much like it either - unless the future turns out to be a lot more sensible than the present. But underneath the unassuming bonnet the technology is performing acts of valour.

The fuel crisis may have been preoccupying motoring journalists - not to mention virtually everyone else in the country - but it doesn't yet seem to have penetrated the sensibility of the gambling man. I am indebted for this fact to flutter.com, an intriguing website that offers a barometer of betting opinion.

The canny idea behind the company is that it acts as a clearing house for the kind of low-level wagers that are usually transacted in the pub just before closing time. If you want to bet that David Beckham will hawk up a gob of phlegm before minute 13 of the Manchester vs Arsenal match, you can post your odds and wait for takers. Alternatively, you can browse through other people's amateur jabs at bookmaking and see if there's anything that takes your fancy. Someone called Dougal is currently offering odds of 10 to one against The Sun's Page Three stunner this coming Monday being a baldie, for instance, though he's wisely limited the odds to £1 to avoid being cleared out by David Yelland. Amazingly, Dougal seems to have found one poor sap who thinks this is a good bet.

The most frenzied activity naturally centres on football, where people's calculation of probabilities, never particularly good, is fatally muddied by team loyalty. The site was showing 517 available bets at the time of writing. You could also have ventured your cash on whether the Big Brother winner would leave by helicopter, the size of the final vote and whether Nasty Nick will be signed up as a panto villain before 31 October. Search for bets on petrol tax futures, though, and the site is as unyielding as a Welsh forecourt pump. Perhaps there is a tiny glimmer of comfort for the Government in this highly informal focus group on what the punters really get exercised about.

I was struck the other day by a poster for a technology news service that read "It's not what you know. It's how long you've known it." It turned out that this was a slightly clumsy way of saying that they could get you price-sensitive information before the competition, but on a casual glance I took it to be an acknowledgement of that strange bashfulness one can feel at wheeling out a fact that one has only just taken delivery of.

Until knowledge has rested in your own consciousness for a time, you don't really feel you can lay proper title to it - you have to add an awkward post-script to identify the true owner, as though you would otherwise be accused of intellectual shoplifting. Once the period of maturation has passed, though, you can wield a fact with proprietorial swagger and happily accept the interest it accrues. Why this should be I'm not sure, but I suspect it is a hangover from the days of steam education, and one endangered by modern just-in-time delivery techniques. These days, it's not so much how long you've known it, it's whether you know how to find it in the next few minutes.

sutcliff@globalnet.co.uk

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