Toyota Prius — Gains in size, efficiency and applications

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Toyota brought us a Japanese spec right-hand-drive first-generation Prius hybrid not long before the turn of the century. It was a unique experience. Driving from the right side in a left side country was strange enough. But stopping for the first time on a busy street was even more interesting. The engine cut off. We were told this would occur, but as we waited for the light to turn green, we couldn’t help but wonder if we would be holding up a long line of honking traffic.

We were assured that by simply hitting the accelerator the small four- door hybrid would surge ahead from either battery power or through the energy provided by the small gas engine.

So you say, what’s the big deal? You must remember this was before the general public knew what a hybrid was. Before virtually anyone had ever experienced a vehicle that operated both on batteries and a traditional gas engine.

It wasn’t until 2000 that Toyota introduced a more powerful version of that original Japanese market hybrid to U.S. drivers, making the Prius and hybrid technology commonplace in America.

The first North American Prius arrived in showrooms as a 2001 model, was an instant success promising astonishing gas mileage in the high 40s and low 50s. The EPA mileage posted on the window sticker was wildly optimistic. 

That’s because EPA testing procedures, dating back to the early ’80s, was not equipped to accurately measure true mileage. Nonetheless, early Prius buyers were rewarded with mileage in the low 40s.

The second generation Prius, introduced as a 2004 model, improved on everything offered in the first generation including mileage, size, performance and comfort. It made the Prius the most popular hybrid in the world.

The third generation, which reached showrooms this summer as a 2010 model, continues those improvements. The new Prius, although with interior measurements about the same as second-generation car, seems more spacious, it is quieter, it has enhanced performance and perhaps best of all it actually delivers better gas mileage.

The biggest questions most people want answered  — is it affordable, is it a decent-driving and performing sedan that can carry my family and their luggage, and does it get exemplary gas mileage in case pump prices once again rise through the stratosphere? The answers to those three basic questions are yes, yes and yes.

It’s also more expensive and more cumbersome to operate. And it can be outfitted with a myriad of optional equipment that will send the purchase price above $30,000. So while it has the attributes above there are also pitfalls as you move up trim levels.

Initially expect to pay a little more for the 2010 Prius, but you can still purchase a well-equipped sedan for a reasonable price. The Prius comes in four trim levels — II, III, IV and V.

Base trim level I for retail will be added later in the model year (think Honda Insight fighter). Pricing for the level I model, which will now be made available in limited quantities to fleet buyers, will be $21,750. The Prius I model will come equipped with all of the standard features of Prius II, less: Cruise Control, Touch Tracer Display, Smart Key, EV mode, a rear wiper, rear tonneau cover, heated side mirrors, satellite radio antenna and satellite capable radio, rear armrest with two cup holders, two rear-door speakers, rear heater duct, passenger-seatback pocket, foldable rear headrests and underbody spoilers and spats. That’s right – all the equipment listed here is not available on the base Prius I.

We think most people would be happy with trim II for a base price of $23,150 including destination charge. For this price you get all the safety and power equipment that people have come to expect as well as a decent six-speaker sound system, remote keyless entry, cruise control, and climate control.

Navigation cannot be added to trim II, so if that’s on your “must have” list you will need to move to trim level III, starting at $24,175 and check off the $1,800 navigation package pushing the price to $25,975. We however don’t recommend navigation even though the Toyota system is one of the best and the software is up to date. Our biggest complaint is that the audio controls have to be accessed through the navigation system and are cumbersome at best, especially while driving. The standard audio system has push button presets and old-fashioned easy-to-use controls.

A recommendation is to buy a good portable navigation system — there are dozens now on the market — for many hundreds of dollars less and forgo the navigation option and pocket the money for better uses.

The other option — the solar roof package, which includes navigation — is loaded with features that offer more bragging rights than practicality for $3,600. It includes a sunroof with a solar-powered ventilation system that cools the car when parked, a backup camera, and an upgraded audio system. Unbundled some of that equipment would be nice to have but as a package it seems expensive.

Also available on the top trim V model starting at $28,420 including destination is a technology package that bundles navigation with dynamic radar cruise control, lane departure warning system and automated self parking for $4,500. One word – nonsense!

Our biggest concern with the standard audio system is the availability of satellite radio. Toyota says not to worry: it is satellite compatible on all trim levels except I.

We were pleased with the sedan’s performance from a 1.8-liter 4- cylinder gas engine combined with a pair of electric motors, one for propulsion and one used as an electrical systems generator resulting in 134-horsepower output.

We had no problem in daily driving, merging and passing. Zero to 60 can be achieved in about 10 seconds.

What we did have a problem with is a setting that allows you to drive economically and another that gives peak performance. The Econ setting results in sluggish performance while yielding slightly better mileage. Our problem was that every time the car was restarted the system defaulted to Econ and Power had to be re- accessed. We consider that a case of Big Brother insisting we do the “right thing.”

Perhaps when gas reaches $4 a gallon we might be more inclined to save a drop of fuel here or there, but with only 134 horses available, you will find you need all the forward momentum you can muster.

The Prius is spacious with scads of rear-seat legroom. Luggage capacity is also generous at 21.6 cubic feet. When no one is using the rear seats, the split seatbacks can be folded forward to yield up to 40 cubic feet of cargo space.

And perhaps most importantly, the new Prius is very fuel efficient rated at 51 mpg city and 48 mpg highway. We found even under lead-foot driving that getting a healthy 45 mpg is not a difficult task.

Recently we also experienced the Prius as an airport limo taking advantage of the large rear space and trunk. Operated by a shrewd owner operator named “Y” (don’t ask). She believed that many of her clients would appreciate the eco-friendly ride and she was right. She noted that when clients were asked over 90-percent choose to use the Prius. “Y” also does quite well driving ecology minded entertainers to such posh events as the Oscars and Emmys. We paid $45 not including tip for our ride to the airport.
Our test car was a trim III with a base price of $24,175. A few options including the $3,600 solar roof package brought the bottom line to $29,321.

Note that all prices reflect a $400 price increase on port arrivals as of October 18, 2009. So you can save a few bucks if you’re inclined to purchase current inventory out of dealer stocks. Also note, because of the recent government CARS program Prius inventory appears to be somewhat limited in certain markets.

Again if you bypass the handful of expensive options you will be rewarded with a comfortable, fuel-efficient sedan for less than 25 grand. That’s the way we would go unless you want to go into the limo business.

Base price: $24,175; as driven, $29,321
Engine: 1.8-liter 4-cylinder, 2 electric motors
Horsepower: 134 @ 5,200 rpm
Torque: 105 foot-pounds @ 4,000 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: continuously variable
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Length: 175.6 inches
Curb weight: 3,042 pounds
Turning circle: 34.2 feet
Luggage capacity: 21.6 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 40 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 11.9 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 48 mpg highway, 51 mpg city
0-60: 10.1 seconds (Edmunds)
Also consider: Ford Fusion Hybrid, Honda Insight, Toyota Camry Hybrid

The Good:
• Sparkling fuel economy
• Large interior for mid-sized car
• Smooth ride and consistent handling

The Bad:
• Overly busy and complicated switchgear

The Ugly:
• Can be loaded with expensive options