Toyota Prius becomes a performance hybrid for 2004

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The future of the automobile industry can be found at a Toyota store near you.
The industry may be reluctant to admit it, but the leading Japanese automaker has a running start on the field with its new second-generation hybrid car, the Prius.

It is a dazzling design, a technological tour-de-force that offers up to 60 miles to a gallon of gas, room for five adults and luggage and performance nearly equal to the millions of Toyota Camry and Honda Accord 4-cylinder sedans populating the nation’s highways.

And it can be purchased for $20,000, about the price of a stripped-down Camry or Accord.

Toyota is going to take things one-step farther within the next year, producing a hybrid Lexus RX330 luxury sport utility vehicle shown at the Detroit Auto Show as an RX400h. And at the LA Auto Show Toyota announced a hybrid version of the Toyota Highlander is in the works as well.

Toyota has been working on hybrid technology - the combining of a gas engine with an electric motor and battery pack - for nearly a decade. The first Prius, a smaller compact version, was introduced in Japan in 1997 and in the United States in 2000.

General Motors and Ford have been struggling to get a hybrid vehicle to market. Nothing has come out of Detroit yet. Ford promises a hybrid version of its popular compact Escape SUV this fall. Originally, Ford had said the Escape hybrid would be released in the fall of 2003. General Motors is still more than a year away from introducing a hybrid Saturn Vue SUV. Only Honda, another Japanese company, has been able to mass- produce hybrid vehicles.

But even Honda does not have a dedicated hybrid sedan, yet. It has outfitted its popular compact Civic with hybrid technology. And it has a two-seat sporty hybrid called Insight. An Accord hybrid is on the way.

The 2004 Prius takes hybrid technology into the mainstream.

After driving a Prius in Miami a couple of months ago and then for two weeks in a variety of situations and weather conditions in eastern North Carolina, we found it a car that is easy to live with and easy to like.

If a mid-sized five-door hatchback this compelling, from its space-age styling to its ease-of-use, can derive 60 miles per gallon in city driving and 51 miles per gallon in highway driving while at the same time offer the performance expected of an American car, then our nation’s gas problems can be solved without any sacrifice. (Yes, that’s a stretch).

There has been a lot of buzz about the 2004 Prius. For instance, it just won
Motor Trend’s 2004 Car of the Year Award and the North American Car of the Year that was announced at the Detroit show.

But there should be more celebrating, there should be dancing in the streets.

If someone would have announced the invention and then backed it up with a product such as the Prius during the gas crisis of the mid-1970s, it would have made banner headlines in every newspaper across the country.

Perhaps a quick definition of a hybrid vehicle and why it is so energy-efficient is now in order:

The new Prius uses what Toyota calls Hybrid Synergy Drive. It consists of a 1.5-liter gas engine generating 76 horsepower and 82 pound-feet of torque, a permanent-magnet electric drive motor developing 67 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque, a continuously variable transmission and a 202-volt nickel-metal-hydride battery pack.

When the Prius is at rest, the gas engine cuts off. On take-off the electric motor provides the impetus to get the car rolling.

A highly sophisticated computer determines when the electric motor and the gas engine are needed or if they are required in tandem.

One of the biggest misconceptions of the hybrid car is that it needs to be plugged into an electrical outlet to recharge the batteries similar to standard electric cars. That’s not the case. The batteries are continuously recharged through gas engine power and by a regenerative braking system with the brakes functioning as a generator, capturing kinetic energy that would normally be lost as heat through the brakes.

The transition from electric only to gas and back is virtually seamless. The driver does not feel the vehicle changing operational modes. A large Energy Monitor picture on the dashboard display screen depicts the constantly changing power flow and the draining and recharging status of the battery pack. It’s the only clue that something is going on.

One disconcerting aspect of driving the Prius for the first-time is coming to a stoplight and feeling the gas engine cut off. It’s a helpless experience. You wonder if the car is going to move once the light has changed. But it never fails to surge ahead when the accelerator is depressed, with power coming from the electric motor.

Performance of the first-generation Prius can be categorized as relaxed at best. The new Prius has a new wealth of energy, knocking more than two seconds off the 0 to 60 time of the previous version. The new, larger model can accomplish the feat in around 10 seconds. And it can handle all traffic situations with aplomb.

The Prius is easy to drive. Some quick instructions will have the first-time driver on the road. The hybrid cranks up via a starter switch, and a joystick is used to send the car forward or backward. Steering requires little effort and the Prius has an excellent on-center feel.

Seating is comfortable and back-seat passengers are afforded excellent legroom. The hatchback design allows for a voluminous 16 cubic feet of storage space behind the rear seats.

In addition to cutting-edge technology, the Prius is loaded with standard equipment for a $20,560 including destination charge.

Among the standard features are antilock brakes with electronic brake force distribution, traction control, remote keyless entry, hill acceleration control, automatic climate control, power windows and locks, radio with CD player and cruise control.

There are several options including navigation system, but even with all options the price does not exceed $26,000.

Our test vehicle had package #7 that included intermittent rear wiper, side curtain airbags, vehicle stability control, fog lamps and high intensity headlamps for $2,225. That brought the price of the test Prius to $22,815.

If you are worried about replacing the batteries or repairing the hybrid components, you can rest easy. The system is covered by an 8-year, 100,000-mile warranty.

If you desire exceptional gas mileage but do not want to sacrifice performance or creature comforts, your next stop needs to be at a Toyota store for a test drive.

The new Prius is indeed an engineering marvel. But a word of caution - supplies are tight and you may have to get on a waiting list. And expect at the very least to pay list price.