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Doubting the Prius and the pious

By Toby Litt, Special to CNN
  • Toby Litt says some were dubious from the start about the hybrid Prius
  • He says the recent recall confirmed suspicions about virtuous cars and people
  • There's a long, satisfying history of mistrusting virtue, he says, and linking it to fraud
  • Litt: Prius not perfect, but makes an attempt at progress

Editor's Note: Toby Litt is a novelist and short story writer based in London. His short story "John and John" won the 2009 Manchester Fiction Prize; his new thriller, "King Death," will be published by Penguin this May. More information at

London (CNN) -- The Toyota Prius is a car that, right from its 1997 launch, came veiled in a frosty penumbra of disbelief, of incredulity. For some of us,anyway. How could we trust anything that was a hybrid?

I mean, it was neither one thing nor the other, so it was probably nothing at all. Did it really go? Yeah. Did it have oomph? No. Anyway, wouldn't it always be running out of gas, or electricity, or whatever the hell it ran on?

As for those fuel consumption figures -- uh-oh. Toyota said one thing. Independent tests said another. Those people buying the damn things must be some trusting fools, I tell you.

Now there is a Prius recall, something to do with brakes that don't brake. What makes this so satisfying to many of the anti-Prius bias is to see that they were right all along to have been suspicious. And not just about some car, but about all apparently virtuous people and all their apparently benign motives.

If I were especially cynical, I'd manufacture my own conspiracy theory: that when the company men were looking to name this breakthrough car, some genius took a long, hard look at the English language and came up with a combination of letters uniquely primed to cause suspicion.

Not simply because Prius sounds like pious. Think how often we use those first three letters "pri" for qualities we detest. For instance, prim, prissy, priggish, prickly, privileged, prima donna, Prince of Wales (just kidding--although the Prince of Wales has, it is true, purchased a Prius), pritentious (OK, I'm pushing it there).

Under this theory, the Prius is the star of a truly virulent viral marketing campaign. First, make people hate it. Next, find people to defend it. Soon, pretty much all people will have heard of it -- and lots will buy it. The haters will then hate it even more. And so on.

This is exactly what happened with the Prius, though I rather doubt it was planned.

Still, it's hardly surprising that, when it comes to other people's cars and their motives for driving them, we're unlikely to give any benefit of any doubt, even for such a virtue-laden car as this.

And suspicion of conspicuous virtue is hardly new. According to Terry Jones of Monty Python, you can find traces of it in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales." It was slightly later, though still way back in 1637, that we get the first linkage of "pious" to "fraud". Fraud, that is, "Practised for the sake of religion or for a good object." A good object such as -- to take an example at random--a planet-saving automobile.

Our dubiousness is gathering pace. It may not actually be a sign of wisdom constantly to mistrust everyone. But if mistrusting everyone seems, 99 percent of the time, to bring you into line with the genuinely wise people, then, hey, why not?

But there's a real moral defeatism being displayed here. The Prius, while demonstrably not perfect, is, at the very least, an attempt to find the right road into the future. A future, that is, that still has a place for the road -- and not of the apocalyptic, Cormac McCarthy variety.

Doubting Thomas may make for a safe driver, but he's a pretty lousy map-reader on long journeys toward progress.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Toby Litt.