The Toyota Prius is the future. This may sound like an odd statement regarding a car that’s been on the worldwide market since the year 2000, but spend a little time with this hybrid machine and you’ll understand why.
The Prius was redesigned for 2004, and became a mid-size car as opposed to the 2000-2003, which was classified as a compact car. Dimensions went up, as did curb weight. The Prius also received a body style more appropriate to its mission as a sophisticated, fuel-sipping jellybean on wheels. The five-door hatchback body is more aerodynamic, and the singular silhouette makes the Prius stand out as a paragon of forward thinking. This distinctive style is what makes the Prius the nation’s best-selling hybrid car, despite the presence of worthy competitors from Honda.
Environmentally conscious buyers want to be reminded that they are buying a hybrid, and since such a vehicle is a statement of environmental consciousness in itself, they also want the car to be instantly recognizable as a hybrid. Honda’s Insight is recognizable to be sure, but is too small and too space-age for mainstream buyers. The Civic hybrid sedan is just as practical as its non-hybrid siblings, but isn’t visually differentiated enough. Cue the Prius, with its distinctive looks and practicality rivaling any hatchback.
In terms of size, the Prius stands above Toyota’s Corolla sedan in the automaker’s lineup, and the interior is cavernous. Four six-foot adults have no problem fitting into the Prius, and we actually crammed six people in on one occasion.
The interior of the Prius is a nice place to spend time. It’s a bit Spartan, since a ton of luxury features would inflate the Prius’ curb weight (along with its price tag) and bring fuel economy down. Still, though, there is enough equipment to get you through the day. Our tester Prius, like all Toyotas, came well-equipped, and serves its options in packages rather than a la carte. In our case, option package #3 gave us a nine-speaker audio system with a 6-disc CD changer, an auxiliary audio input, WMA/MP3 playback capability, satellite radio capability, and Bluetooth.
The package also included vehicle stability control, a smart-key system, an anti-theft system, and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror equipped with Homelink. The coolest single feature, however, was the backup camera. We’ve tested this feature in other Toyota vehicles like the full-size Tundra pickup, and we must say Toyota’s camera is among the industry’s best. Not that the Prius needs it, since rearward visibility is excellent, but it does help.
That excellent rearward visibility is due to a wonderful feature pioneered on Honda’s CRX – a smoked-out section of the tailgate under the rear spoiler, which appears black and opaque from the outside, but from the inside offers increased visibility of what’s behind you.
Cool features abound inside the Prius. One of our favorites was the shifter, which is located just to the right of the steering column. It has a tiny, ergonomic lever, and has only three positions – Reverse, Neutral, and Drive. “Park” is activated by pressing a button above the shifter, much the same as in BMW’s new X5.
The Prius’ audio controls are covered in a black lacquer, similar to the material used on the console of the new Tundra, for a very futuristic look. The Prius lacks a gauge cluster on the driver’s side, and vital information is displayed in either a blacked-out display where the dashboard meets the windshield (vehicle speed, gear selection), or on the Prius’ LCD screen. This LCD screen displays the Prius’ energy monitor and fuel consumption, as well as the controls for the climate control and audio system. On Priuses like our tester equipped with the backup camera, sliding the shifter into reverse changes the LCD into the viewfinder for the camera.
All this aside, the real story with the Prius is not its styling or features, but rather the technological wizardry that allows it to achieve such high mileage. Our tester came with an EPA rating of 60mpg city/51mpg highway. Yes, you read it right – higher mileage in the city than on the highway, which is the exact reverse of how basically any car on the road will return miles-per-gallon figures.
Normally, highway driving uses less fuel, since the loads on the engine are lighter. Stop-and-go traffic is worse, from a fuel-economy standpoint, than cruising on the highway, even at high speed. The Prius uses what Toyota calls an IMA – “Integrated Motor Assist,” for the uninitiated. There is an electric motor, in addition to the 1.5L inline-four engine with Toyota’s variable valve timing (VVT-i). The electric motor is used for low-speed driving, and the gas engine kicks in at higher speeds.
There are a couple of neat things about this system. The first is that the electric motor produces a hell of a lot of torque – 295 lb.-ft., to be exact. And it produces all 295 at 0 rpm. Talk about low-end response! Our Prius scooted off the line pretty darn well, and is never found wanting for power around town.
The second is that the Prius employs something called “regenerative braking.” That means that heat normally lost in the braking process gets converted into energy, for the purposes of recharging the Prius’ electric motor. Efficiency is the name of the game here.
The transmission fits into this equation quite well. Toyota has elected to use a continually variable transmission (CVT), which is a good fit for this car, given the CVT’s reputation for excellent fuel economy. There are no gears in the traditional sense of four or five speeds, but rather a dizzying number of ratios. The transmission is constantly adjusting to give the driver the best acceleration and the best fuel economy. Neither power nor fuel are wasted between shifts, simply because there aren’t any.
All of this means that the Prius is truly in its element in the city. Roadfly is based in the Washington, DC metro area, which is known for its snarling traffic and frustratingly low speeds – in other words, the perfect place for a hybrid vehicle with a focus on urban fuel economy. For the most part, we hardly used the gas engine, which makes 76 horsepower and 82 lb.-ft. of torque.
A cool byproduct of this is that the Prius is extraordinarily quiet. The electric motor hardly makes any sound, so bopping around at less than 40mph involves very small noise levels.
On the highway, the Prius is competent, but not nearly as exceptional as it is in the city. Maximum acceleration is just adequate, and the low-resistance tires that maximize fuel economy are not conducive to high-speed handling. But that’s not what you buy this car for. On the plus side, however, many states (including Virginia) will allow a single Prius driver access to their HOV lanes. So from a commuting standpoint, the Prius is a strong contender.
Given that the Prius is now a mid-size car, the price tag is pretty reasonable. Our tester had an MSRP of $22,175, with an as-tested price of $25,598. Package #3 with all its electronic wizardry accounted for most of the difference, at $2,555. We also had carpeted mats for the floor and cargo area ($199) and a cargo net ($49). It’s more expensive than a Corolla, but it’s larger, more fuel-efficient and more practical. For a green-minded city-dweller, this Prius is hard to beat.