Death Valley. It’s a place known for being a hot-weather testing playground for car manufacturers as they examine their prototypes to see if they can handle the heat.
It’s also one of those places you hear about from friends who’ve been to the US and love driving or riding.
There was no hot car for us this time around, though. Instead we took the hardly desirable but tremendously pragmatic Toyota Prius V.
The US-spec, five-seat version of the hybrid wagon/van that is sold in Australia with seven seats has a few differences in the States compared to the car we get, but its drivetrain components remain the same.
That means a 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol-electric hybrid unit producing a maximum of 100kW, which is teamed to a continuously variable transmission (CVT) automatic sending power to the front wheels.
Thanks to its slippery shape, the Prius V has a fuel use rating of just 4.4 litres per 100 kilometres – only half a litre more than the smaller, lighter Prius hatchback upon which it is based.
That low fuel use was something we were counting on, as we plotted out our trip on the in-car satellite navigation system – something that took more effort than it should have due to a fiddly menu system and small, pixelated display screen. Thankfully, the media unit used in US cars is different to that seen in Australian cars.
Once we figured out the name of a town in Death Valley, we took the navigation system’s advice and hit the road.
We had no idea what to expect, as neither of us had done any research on the place. We simply decided it would be a more enjoyable and more scenic route than trudging down the I-15 South from Las Vegas, Nevada, back to Los Angeles, California.
And being the beginning of winter, it was a much more travel-friendly temperature than in, say, June, where temperatures regularly hit 50 degrees Celsius.
But before we actually entered Death Valley, we passed a few – how do I put this – intriguing sights. Yeah, the craggy mountains in the distance were good, but the following bits were simply golden.
First was the large (almost billboard-sized) sign just outside Amargosa Valley that proudly proclaimed BROTHEL. If that wasn’t enough to make you look, the adjoining building was surely alluring in a very different way.
We didn’t know if it was just a front for the more lascivious business next door, so we quickly continued on our way.
Just down the road was the equally photo-worthy border crossing from Nevada to California, complete with giant cow sculpture and windmill. And not much else.
The biggest thing we noticed when crossing the border into California was the drop in the quality of the road surface.
Instead of ploughing a straight line and paving over the top of it with level hot mix bitumen as was the case in Nevada, the Californian government appeared to have just drawn the blacktop on the surface of the earth. That meant lots of undulations and lateral body movement for the Prius V to cope with, and it passed with flying colours.
Its ride comfort over these poor surfaces was excellent, with the suspension smoothing out fast repetitive bumps while also allowing the Prius V to coast over some wave-like rolling sections of road that put the rollercoasters in Vegas to shame.
The scenery improved the further we delved in to the valley, with rocky outcrops and plenty of places to pull over and take in the view. As you descend, you simply have to stop and look at the Zabriskie Point, which oversees what is known as The Badlands.
This place was once a Borax mine, but it attracts visitors because it looks a flood of rock that has been frozen in time – indeed, the formation of the rock is from a dried up lake more than five million years old.
Before long we arrived in the cool little town of Furnace Creek, which, amazingly, is 57 metres below sea level. There’s a good little diner for a feed, but don’t expect any espresso coffee (though thankfully the pot coffee was good!).
And for those who don’t like planning their trips until they’re at their destination – like us, on this occasion – there are helpful maps on the tabletops to help you orientate yourself to your surroundings.
With our batteries charged, and with a new destination inputted in the navigation system, we kept moving through the valley.
Past the Devil’s Cornfield (with its hilarious little cactus pods strewn as far as the eye can see, and on the amazing – and seemingly out of place – Mesquite Flat sand dunes.
This was the point that the road started to get a bit more involving.
Climbing from sea level to more than 4000 feet (1220m) over about 10 kilometres of driving, the Prius V’s little powertrain was tested – and to it’s credit, it never felt out of its depth in terms of performance. We didn’t even engage its enticing PWR mode that ups the performance of the drivetrain and takes one eye off the fuel consumption.
As quick as we climbed, we commenced our winding descent to the bottom of another canyon, with the Prius V holding its line nicely through some higher-speed corners. It can feel a little heavy through sharper bends, but as we mentioned earlier, this wasn’t a car chosen for its dynamic capabilities.
With only two occupants on board and a few bags, it was hardly working for its keep. We know from experience that the seven-seat version with bums on all seats can feel undercooked, but we’d suggest that a small family could feel quite comfortable with the Prius V.
Indeed, in five-seat guise it kind of makes more sense than with seven chairs. The usefulness of those extra two seats that stow away in the boot make sense for littlies, but as an alternative to an SUV or a mid-size wagon, it makes sense.
We managed to fit two suitcases and a large duffel bag as well as a few sundry items in the Prius V’s 485-litre boot, and if we’d needed more space, we could always have folded down the rear seats (which flip down flat in a 60:40 fashion). That second row also slides fore and aft, either to liberate leg room for those in the back or to expand the boot space.
Otherwise, the storage through the cabin was quite good – the only issue we found was the lack of decent-sized bottle holders, and that there’s only one central cupholder (front passengers get a small flip-out caddy that hides in the dashboard).
The large covered centre console section is handy, while the flat floor of the Prius means it has a large bin section between the front seats – ideal for stowing snacks or bottles that won’t fit in the holsters.
With darkness descending, we headed out of Death Valley.
But before we returned to civilisation, a quirky little ghost town caught our eye on the map: Ballarat.
The signs claimed this place was named after the goldrush town in Victoria, and this place was itself a village based on searching for precious metals.
After a quick glance around town – or what’s left of it – we got out of there, and aimed for the main highway and, much later that night, Los Angeles.
The Prius V impressed us on many levels on this trip, which spanned a wholesome 675km and saw us use an average of 5.2L/100km. Not bad, especially considering we’d probably have used quite a bit more had we been in a conventionally-powered SUV.