‘SO, WHERE DO you put in the electricity?’ asks the smiling Komatipoort border guard when he spots the hybrid Prius among the busy stream of diesel double cabs and rugged SUVs waiting to cross the border into Mozambique. There’s a reassuring level of sophistication to his jest, a sure sign that we’re still in SA. Just ahead, the slinkier, sexier CR-Z piloted by Angus and snapper Marc is copping more of the stares, but unsurprisingly its hybrid status slips by unnoticed.
With the relative calm and efficiency of the SA customs office behind us we cross over into the tangible tension of the third world. Suddenly the Vodacom billboards are shouting Portuguese. We park and prise open the door against a swarming melee of ‘entrepreneurs’ offering entry assistance. Price negotiated, passports and drivers licences grudgingly relinquished, we’re herded to the head of the queue. Sign, stamp, no smile and we’re done. Well, not quite. Outside, more ‘officials’ in dirty dayglo vests point to a stuffy cubicle where apparently compulsory third-party insurance must first be purchased. Red Angus is not amused. Finally free to leave, we jump back into our respective charges and gingerly thread a path through many less fortunate border groupies in the direction of Maputo.
It’s not 150m before the CR-Z is flagged down again. What now? Wary of potential scamsters, and remembering that I’m lugging a boot full of Marc’s cameras and equipment, I ease the Prius past the distracted roadblock crew and disappear. All Angus’s respective documents and the CR-Z itself are rigorously checked. It’s probably a good thing he coughed up for that insurance. Meanwhile I sail off into the drab desolation of the Mozambican interior doing what the Prius excels at, eco-cruising. With the memory of a 5.2 litre per 100km average figure recorded earlier that morning on the sprint from Jo’burg to Nelspruit still fresh in my mind, I again play the built-in five minute interval video game. The aim is minimum fuel consumption, maximum electricity generation, but I find the road too flat to charge the batteries much. Yes, that really is the most exciting bit of the Prius driving experience. Dynamically speaking, I felt more involved piloting that Testarossa in Out Run, a 1986 arcade game. Later Angus would liken it to ‘driving a couch’. But the Prius is not just a one-trick pony, as I would come to appreciate later that evening.
Finally, the CR-Z looms large in my rear-view mirror. It’s really wedgy, with a low-slung shovel snout, dramatically rising waistline, muscular rear haunches and obligatory split rear screen. It’s taken decades, but the Japanese car design aesthetic is now so confidently well-defined that Honda has managed to make even this doorstop of a car look sexy. Two toll plazas later, we’re nearing Maputo.
Inside the CR-Z – Angus
It’s after 4pm when the Maputo city skyline hoves into view, the traffic getting thicker with each kilometre, and full-scale rush hour mayhem is in progress when we finally reach the city centre. Sadly the dilapidated sidewalk stalls, derelict buildings and slapdash shanties are more apocalyptic wasteland than the Miami of Africa we had in mind.
It’s hard not to build on the shadows which are all that remain of the palm-lined avenues, bougainvillea fragrant gardens and ample Portuguese villas that defined this city before the ravages of war. But this is Maputo, a third-world city emerging from the ashes of Lourenco Marques, and despite the evident squalor and decay, it’s also clear lots has changed in recent years.
Informal trading still defines the streets, Africa’s bootstrap model for survival. But now too there are signs of new investment. Checkers does business alongside new restaurants, petrol stations and shopping malls. In a reminder of the past, Frelimo party billboards and ads for local beer brand 2M are plastered everywhere from bars to bus stops.
The CR-Z has been revelling in the smooth road surfaces before Maputo, after eschewing Normal and Eco modes for the eco-unfriendly but more rewarding Power mode, and I have been berated by the instrument binnacle’s red glow, rather than the blue and green hues that reward careful fuel-saving progress. But I’m not looking for green credits, as the city’s cracked and potholed excuses for roads are proving a stern test. The Honda’s ride is proving tactile but not overly intrusive even in these conditions. I remain impressed by the suspension damping and high levels of bump suppression which belie the car’s inherently dynamic character. It runs on aluminium A-arms which are 4kg lighter than those on the Honda Insight sibling, but they are holding up well. No issues either for Wayne, who is also playing an intense game of road hazard dodgems in the Prius. Luckily the new Prius has sturdier ally suspension elements than the first generation, which was barred from dirt roads and deemed suitable only for billiard table tar.
In the CR-Z I decide to dial in Econ Mode to deal with the stop-start traffic. The accelerator pedal immediately turns as soft and unresponsive as a sponge, coaxing me to sidle between traffic lights. It’s a good thing, as we are trying hard to keep this tiny hybrid convoy together.
Strange how in Eco mode the 1.5-litre V-Tec engine is muted, numbed, compared to the high-revving freedom it displays in Sport mode, and which was so rewarding on the sweeping curves of Mpumalanga’s mountain passes. But with that a distant memory, we head further into the hive, Marc navigating our way through the city on the wide 24 de Julho boulevard.
We’re heading for the old ‘Monumental’ bull ring, which doubled as a popular boxing ring between 1935 and 1969. A little bit of nostalgia on the agenda, and perhaps there will be time for one more main event as these two Japanese hybrid fighters get closer.
There it is! exclaims Marc. It seems the bull ring has become a taxi rank, and what’s left of the battered Monumental signage stares down at the Hi-Ace and Gaz transporters littering the gravel parking lot. I get an uneasy feel as we approach, as if these two hybrids just don’t belong. And as I’m about to indicate and turn into the lot, a fist fight breaks out between two taxi patrons just metres from our car. I lose my nerve and accelerate for the closest alley, my own neutral corner. I hope Wayne saw me duck for safety.
Inside the Prius – Wayne
I’m concentrating hard not to lose the copper CR-Z, now just three cars in front. Not bad for a lawless 5pm Maputo gridlock that has me repeatedly questioning the sanity of bringing these two high-tech oddities a little deeper into Africa. But hey, if hybrids are going to make a difference in the world, they’re going to have to work everywhere, I muse. Even here. Fortunately the Prius is built for angry gridlock and with the far livelier throttle response of Power mode engaged, it’s coping with the selfish cut and thrust traffic brilliantly.
We’re aiming for the Praca de Touros bull ring where Mozambicans once fought as entertainment for the Portuguese colonialists. More recently, the amphitheatre featured in Leonardo DiCaprio’s Blood Diamond. DiCaprio owns a Prius, but I bet he never imagined one would follow him here.
I can just make out the Monumental signage through the teeming masses of people, taxis and burning piles of junk. It seems the fighting has moved outside as one breaks out alongside me. Inside the Prius I too am fighting visions of an unruly mob simply carrying off a futuristic Toyota. I’m sweating like a hog in February, but that could also just be the pressing effects of a full bladder. Empty water bottles decorate the central storage console.
Damn, where’s that Honda now? Like a stabbed rat Angus has scoped the war scene and disappeared. Instinctively I turn down a side road, except it’s more meteorite impact zone than road. Progress is of necessity painstakingly slow. The tar has worn through, replaced by large pools of indeterminable depth and then I discover it’s a dead end. Sadly, like the people hanging out of the decrepit buildings, this road has few prospects. It matters not one jot to them that I’m saving the world in my Prius.
Happily, I finally spot a u-turning CR-Z and after a brief regroup we head for the coast. Unaware of the mounting bladder pressure in the cabin of the following Toyota, Angus and Marc go sightseeing down Avenida de Marginal as it mirrors the coastline, watching the fishermen in their dhows. Eventually we stop outside Costa do Sol, birthplace of the famous LM prawn feast, and I make a grateful beeline for the ablutions while Angus organises sleeping quarters and a table for dinner.
A plate of unintentionally blackened, second-rate prawns gives me a chance to reflect on my initial impressions of Maputo and it really is a case of a notion shattered. Oh you’ll love it, they said. The food, the culture, the vibe ‘Africa’s Miami’ they said. Yeah, right. There’s no doubt that Maputo once held great appeal. The seaside setting still captivates, but its architectural character has been so ravaged by decay, its people so economically crippled by civil war, that the romance is all but gone.
The night shift – Wayne
Night time brings with it signs of life. The locals line the beach with makeshift bars, selling beer from ice buckets alongside buckets of fire. It looks festive. Without much thought, all three of us head out along the coast in the CR-Z. Being the shortest, I offer to sit in the back. Big mistake. All attempts to sit upright fail dismally. The only way I ‘fit’ is to lie across the rear bench on my back with my legs tucked up in the foetal position. When it comes to practicality, the Prius clobbers the CR-Z. The road feels like corrugated tar. It would probably have been bearable if the bench wasn’t shaped for two tiny derrieres. Within minutes my back’s in the kind of agony I imagine is second only to passing a kidney stone.
To take my mind off the discomfort I gaze out of the tiny triangle of a rear window. Maputo certainly looks better in the dark. The city’s ablaze with lights. We pass a casino, a cinema and a soldier with a large gun. He’s waving wildly at us as Angus makes the snap decision to pretend he hasn’t seen him and accelerates exponentially away. No doubt he reckoned our GP plates, sci-fi bodywork and the contorted ‘hostage’ in the rear seat worthy of further investigation. Slightly spooked we head back to our dormitory-style bunk beds and a 4.45am alarm.
Exit, day 2 – Angus
An early start redolent of garlic is a potent lingering reminder of Mozambican hospitality. The city’s asleep at this hour, apart from scurrying rats and a lone beachfront jogger. We pack the CR-Z, which neatly fits two Samsonite cases into its 233-litre boot (or two golf bags with the rear seats folded down), and position our hybrid steeds for some picturesque profile shots before an Indian Ocean backdrop.
As the sun slowly illuminates metalwork and paints the morning sky, we take time to absorb their respective very different styling messages. The Prius arguably tries too hard to be futuristic but succeeds mainly in looking odd. It certainly doesn’t major on either visual appeal or driver enjoyment; instead it’s really only a CO2-saving appliance.
The diminutive Honda is all emotion, as good to look at as it is to drive. It presents an eye-catching silhouette against the tropical vista with its high, curved windscreen and slender A-pillars.
But enough of that, we are keen to get the cars to the bull ring before the taxi wars hot up again. We tuck into the cars and blast down the palm-lined beachfront road which once formed the main straight of the old Lourenco Marques race circuit, feeling the thresh of windblown sand against the bodywork like the racers of years past. The famous Polana Hotel comes into view and then we turn back towards the drab city. The inside of the CR-Z is in stark contrast: a futuristic blaze of light, with those bright gauges that change colour depending on driving style, shining chrome centre console and high-backed sports seats.
Oil-stained earth and smouldering fires are all that greet us at the bull ring, and while Marc get to work with his cameras, I ponder the impact of our eco warriors on Africa. Burning piles of plastic rubbish are clogging our sinuses and hazing the crisp morning air, and I recall the irony of driving the clean hybrids through the afternoon traffic, surrounded by trucks and buses spewing out billowing clouds of black smoke. Aah, the third world.
I jump into the Prius for the return journey to the border and am immediately attacked by alarm bells when I am tardy in slotting in my seat belt, and again when I select reverse. Annoying. Once on the move, the Prius is so calm and refined, I almost fall asleep. A switch from Eco to Power mode to liven up the torpid drive doesn’t help much, failing to alter the elastic steering feel or couch-like dynamics. Still, the 1.8-litre Atkinson cycle petrol offers more urge than the Honda’s diminutive 1.5, but demands a little pampering. Mashing the throttle to the floor elicits no more than raucous protest from the continuously variable transmission (CVT). It’s a far cry from the CR-Z’s six-speed manual which offers a tall overdrive ratio for economical highway cruising. While I enjoy the greater control the manual offers, a down side is that it takes plenty of rowing between the third, fourth and fifth cogs to keep the i-VTEC engine on the boil.
We exit the border with little fuss and I find more time to mutter about the Prius. It’s clear to me that movie stars and corporate bunny huggers are using it to talk up their ‘green’ credentials, because it fails as a driver’s car. The body roll, lacklustre steering and sloppy dynamics conspire against it. The CR-Z is the vibrant alternative, not only to the only other hybrid competitor in its class at this point, but also to dynamic equals including the Mini Cooper S and Alfa Mito
Travel in Africa is never going to produce the fuel sipping that hybrids are potentially capable of. The distances are too great, schedules often too tight and roads often far from flat. In-city driving at leisurely pace rather than our Ronin-in-the-slums chases might yield different results. Yet we racked up a perfectly acceptable average over the trip distance of 6.2/100km for the Prius and 7.2/100km for the CR-Z. Their engineering integrity appears to be up to the task, but they are yet to broadly prove their worth. It seems hybrids are ready for Africa, but Africa may not yet be ready for hybrids.
None of that detracts directly from the CR-Z, the best attempt yet to fuse sporty attributes with green graces. What its frugal parallel hybrid powertrain lacks in grunt it makes up for with finessed steering, chassis and handling. It’s a sports hatch that happens to be a hybrid, not vice versa, and behind the wheel you’ll realise that saving the planet can be a load of fun.