The little blue car that could(n’t)

I just went back in my archives to see if I ever wrote about getting a new car a few years back, and apparently I did not. It was Chickadee’s senior year of high school, and there was a lot of other stuff going on, and also I vaguely remember my ex making a snarky comment about it to me (which immediately sent me into a reflexive shame spiral of “I don’t deserve nice things” because a traumatized brain is a complex and stupid thing), and so somehow, I never talked about it, I think. But: just before Christmas of 2015, Trixie, my trusty old Corolla, became Chickadee’s very own car, while I became the proud new owner of a Prius C (the smaller Prius; and the salesguy kept saying “People think it stands for Compact but it stands for City!” to the point where Otto and I said that to each other for a solid year before it stopped being funny) we named Gemma. Gemma is a perky little blue car that fulfilled all of my hippie liberal dreams to the point where I couldn’t believe it didn’t come with a bonus bag of ethically-sourced granola and a hemp shopping bag in which to carry it.

I have never loved a car like I love Gemma. We have a very special relationship. (Not that special, ya perv. Sheesh.)

For one thing, as anyone with older teenagers can attest, having a licensed kid with their own car, finally, is a special bonus level of Life Reclaimed, because suddenly I did not need to drive to school or band practice or various clubs or the library or ANYTHING. Chickadee and Monkey would leave for school in the morning WITHOUT ME and return in the afternoon WITHOUT ME and if either of them needed to go somewhere outside of that, 99% of the time they went without me and it was glorious. (Is it wrong, when your oldest gets a car, to task them with also driving your youngest around? Maybe. That was a long time ago, kids. Everyone lived. Let it go.)

For another thing, as much as I’d loved Trixie, Gemma has bells and whistles Trixie could never have even dreamed of, and not just because, y’know, she’s a car. Gemma has her own computer with built-in GPS and voice recognition, and Gemma is adorable and wee and fits into tiny parking spaces, and Gemma gets about 60 miles to the gallon most days. She is a penny-pincher’s dream, and I love her. The first time I scratched her, I CRIED. For real. I’ve just never had such a nice car.

Aside from all of that—which is quite a lot, yes?—Gemma seems impervious to the sorts of bullshit maintenance issues every other car I’ve ever owned has had. I mean, she was new when we bought her, which was a whole new experience for me, anyway, but also hybrids are, like, robot cars. The engine looks like a computer instead of an engine and she does things like politely announce when I’m due for an oil change. Trixie’s favorite trick is to turn on the Low Tire Pressure light as soon as the weather drops 10 degrees, and it doesn’t tell you which tire and honestly I do not believe it matters if the tire pressure is actually low; it gets cold, Trixie is POSITIVE your tires need more air. (This has been so pervasive for so many years, I recently learned Chickie has put a piece of electrical tape over that part of the dash display because, “She lies, man, and I don’t care.”) The one time in four years when I required a low tire pressure alert in Gemma, she was very polite about it (as she is) and MY TIRE WAS ACTUALLY LOW. What a concept!

In the past four years I haven’t had a single problem with Gemma. Other than oil changes, I’ve had no maintenance on her, either. She just tools around town with me, nice and quiet and fuel efficient, and it’s lovely.

ANYWAY. You know where this is going, right?

This past week, I had some sort of crud. We went to an event on Sunday night and it was loads of fun and I went to bed that night having no idea that I would wake up Monday morning with a fever and (perhaps worse) a bad case of grumpiness. Because, see, I did not have the flu (I don’t think), I just had… a low fever. For days. And no other symptoms aside from general malaise. I just Felt Bad and then I felt stupid because where were my other sickness symptoms? Where was my super-high I-cannot-possibly-be-expected-to-human-today undeniable fever? Nowhere, that’s where. I ran a fever of about 100.5 for four days and I Felt Bad but I also wasn’t dying or anything. I stayed home and mostly in bed and I slept a lot and wondered if I would ever feel human again. Wednesday night I dragged myself out of bed and showered and put on clean jammies and changed the bed sheets and that took so much effort, I was back in bed on Thursday.

But Friday, man, FRIDAY! Friday came and I woke up fever-free. I felt better. I was ready to rejoin society, or at least to leave the house and go get a few groceries (wooo!). I moved rather slowly (still tired) and it was early afternoon before I headed out to my car, but I was READY. I would LEAVE THE HOUSE like a HEALTHY PERSON.

I got inside the car and hit the POWER button, and Gemma… I don’t know how to describe what happened, other than to say that Gemma basically freaked the fuck out. EVERY SINGLE DASHBOARD LIGHT came on and blinked and the engine emitted a sickly whine and the computer display did nothing and… she did not start. That was… weird.

The thing about Priuses (Priii?) or maybe cars with power buttons in general is that the engine won’t start if your foot isn’t on the brake. Hitting the button will cause the electrical stuff to come on, but won’t affect the engine. Maybe my foot hadn’t been on the brake? I tried again. This time everything blinked a couple of times and went away but the CHECK ENGINE symbol remained and I realized that my four-year love affair with Gemma might have just hit a roadblock.

Suffice it to say that I am a smart, independent woman, so I spent the next ten minutes trying various combinations of hitting the button, trying our spare key, swearing at the car, trying to take the car out of Park (it was stuck!), and other totally useful things before texting Otto to say “My stupid car is dead.” By that time, the CHECK ENGINE light stayed on no matter what I did, but everything else had stopped even flickering. She was well and truly dead and I was furious because I WAS READY TO LEAVE THE HOUSE and also how could Gemma let me down like this? [Side note: Despite the recent move home of the eldest, she was already gone on a trip for the weekend and Monkey was at work, so of course this happened when our normally full-of-cars driveway was empty.]

Otto generously suggested that I was welcome to take his (2004) Miata out of the garage to run my errands if I didn’t want to be stuck at home (Hello, and welcome to Otto’s House Of Many Cars!), which meant I had to remind him that as much fun as I find it to basically sit an inch above the pavement in a metal wind tunnel, I thought maybe I’d just stay home. (For the curious: Yeah, I can drive stick. But that car is even smaller than Gemma and super loud and is just not really my jam.)

When Otto got home, he fiddled with the car for a while and confirmed it was well and truly dead. (You know, just in case I’d missed that it was perfectly fine or something.) He suspected the battery, so he called the dealership, whereupon we learned that This Is What Priuses (Priii?) Do: The battery up and dies with no warning and that’s the only thing that ever goes wrong with them. So on the one hand: what in the actual hell, man; but on the other: … yay? Also Otto works on cars himself, y’know, but it turns out that Priuses (Priii?) take a special battery you cannot get at the auto parts place AND it’s hidden in the back somewhere AAAAND if you connect it wrong you can fry the electronics pretty easily. So.

AAA showed up about two hours after we called (by which time I was cranky and hungry and Otto promised to buy me dinner if the car was ever retrieved so that I could both eat and leave the house), and Otto and the tow truck driver bonded, and Gemma left to go visit the dealership and get a new battery.

Otto actually asked the service guy on the phone—because I’d just had an oil change a couple of weeks ago—why they don’t test the battery when they do the oil change. I couldn’t quite hear the response but my impression was that it was the verbal equivalent of the shrugging emoji. I also find it fascinating that a car where I can set the interior temperature, see my exact fuel cost for any trip, and that regularly asks me if I want to update my route can’t, y’know, offer the barest hint as to the health of the battery before the car becomes an oversized paperweight. Thanks, Toyota! I’m just glad I was feeling better and wanting to buy orange juice and I wasn’t, say, feeling worse and needing to go to the doctor.

I realize that in the grand scheme of things this is a Minor First-World Annoyance. It was just… annoying (go figure) as well as surprising. I depend on Gemma, man. How will I ever look at her the same way? She let me down! And having to go pick up orange juice with Otto after dinner meant that it cost $50! (We may have ended up buying some other stuff….) Also, should I just go ahead and set a reminder on my calendar for four years from now to replace the battery again…?


  1. Otto

    And this is why we have Emergency Backup Cars.


    • Meri

      My car is my parents’ emergency backup. It’s only a 40 minute drive…

  2. Ani

    Interesting. Our 2009 Prius is still going strong, no battery replacement needed.

    Really hoping I didn’t just jinx that as I’m driving it today and I’m far from home.

    • Jen A

      I was getting ready to post something similar – I drive a 2010 Prius that we bought in 2012 with 30K miles on it and we haven’t ever had a battery issue. There have been some recalls we’ve had to take it in for, and I’ve had to replace all the tires, but otherwise it’s just been oil changes and state inspections. (Knock on wood.)

  3. Mary K

    Battery self-awareness – maybe that’s just too META?

    Glad you and Gemma are both feeling better…

  4. Hally

    Otto’s comment about emergency back up cars reinforces my lifelong membership to Team Otto Fan Club. Priii can be both amazing and finicky. Who knew?

  5. Bridget

    Was it the big battery or the auxiliary battery? My 2010 Golden Nugget’s aux battery went out once and had to be replaced, but the big hybrid one is still ok 🤞🤞. Hope Gemma’s new power pack isn’t too $$$!

    • Mir

      Fortunately it was the 12V battery, not the big hybrid battery. I was still astonished at how much it cost, though.

  6. The Other Leanne

    Ask me about my new car. Hint: It started when the dash lights in the old car started coming on one-by-one and $2000 later I knew it was time to let go of the Black Maria (that’s a cop term, y’all).
    Gotta love “Otto’s House of Many Cars”!

  7. beth

    We are on Priii number 3 (all sold fully functioning when DH decided he just “needed” a newer car) Anyway, we have had that same crazy battery death in all of them and it is the same – dashboard goes nuts, then just dead. We found out on aux battery change #3, that you can do it yourself. It is a normal 12V battery but an odd size to fit in the hidden compartment and takes allot of work to actually get to it. We were able to find one across town, purchase, and install it ourselves. Not sure if we actually saved any money between calling, driving, and the time wasted trying to get to it, but it can be done without the dealership.

  8. Summer

    Holy cow, my car’s name is Trixie. I’ve never met anyone else with a car named Trixie. I just felt the need to pop in and say that. (She is a 2010 TSX.)

    • Kathy

      I have a Trixie, too. She was named for the prostitute on Deadwood! She’s a Hyundai Sonata hybrid.

  9. Carmen

    I have a Ford Focus Electric car (named Ginny) and she likes to do the same thing sporadically – but only a year apart, rather than four. The first time it happened I felt BETRAYED and HURT that she would let me down like that with no warning at all. Come to think of it, I should knock on wood because I think it’s been about a year now…

  10. Karen

    All of my cars since I’ve moved to CT 30 years ago are Emma – because my license plate is an EMA then numbers. My current Emma is a black wrangler Jeep. ALL my “Emmas” have been reliable vehicles, so I will not change the name or the plate to a different combo – ever. Stupid superstition for sure, but it works for me! My husband is looking at the Tesla models, he’d like an electric car – for some reason, that concept scares me because.. how do you know you’ll always be where you can recharge? We have the extra car in the garage too, but it’s not anything I feel comfortable driving. do you think they do that on purpose??..

  11. Leanne H

    I actually laughed out loud at your description of the Miata. My husband had one and it was his baaaby. His baby until child number two came along he he decided it just wasn’t practical anymore. I thought that when we had our first son, but then what did I know, I’m a girl after all.

  12. Denise

    LOL I too love my Prius (I have the wagon version called Prius V) and we were at IKEA shortly before we were scheduled to go on a vacation and… same thing happened. DEAD. DEAD. DEAD. Battery.

    I was scared to death that it was really truly 100% dead and was so relieved when it was JUST that bloody battery.

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