I hesitate to belive that the cars couldn't hang on the hills and, more likely, the "tree huggin'" drivers chose to "Hyperdrive" their Hybrid's up the mountain.
Agreed. I was 100% against buying a Prius despite having a long daily commute.
However, I received one as a rental when I was travelling in the northeast with my wife last month (we went to NYC for a wedding and then wanted to see the trees turn in Maine) and was more than pleasantly surprised.
Over 500 mi in our trip, I was averaging ~49mi DESPITE doing my best to NOT to modify my driving style (70-75MPH on the Hwy, mostly Hwy driving). Yes, the engine was running most of the time but it wasn't working very hard. It's also a very, very slippery car that doesn't weigh very much.
My current car gets 30MPG hwy (97 Honda accord). If the Prius had netted only 40MPG, I would probably replace my accord with a much more fun to drive Mazda 3 (claims 40MPG Hwy but it looks like most people driving how i do average 35).
However, a 19MPG improvement is simply too great to ignore. I will buy a Prius for my next car based purely on economics. My only complaint was that the handling was DREADFUL -- it leans in turns like an 80s japanese minivan. While you guys are much more into it (all my modifications are on a track car), I've never modified any of my daily drivers (the audi and the accord are both bone stock). It makes me laugh but I will likely replace the suspension on the Prius (either with aftermarket springs+rear sway) or if that makes me lose too much ground clearance (i live in hilly SF after all), I'll replace the suspension completely with coil overs so I can adjust ride height.
Bottom Line: higher CAFE requirements will benefit all of us by compelling the mfgs to push technologies. While I agree that some of this has caused vehicles to increase in price, the vast majority of car cost increases are due to all the features that Americans want as standard now: Power windows, fancy climate control, fancy infotainment systems.
The march of technology makes the stuff I "want" and had to add to my accord (and even my audi) via the aftermarket standard stuff now.
Back on the comment about "slow Priuses on hills". They really aren't that slow (compared to the avg econobox). The electric motor really helps with off the line acceleration if you floor it. The reason that you see them going slow is that they make it almost like a game to keep the fuel consumption down (even the lowest end one has a nice screen to show you this in realtime). This gamification makes people drive like grannies... because they want to not because the car can't make it up the hill as you perceive. We aren't talking about an 70s Diesel Merc or an early fox body 4cyl non-turbo Mustang w/ aftermarket AC here. Both of those cars couldn't get out of their own way.