Toyota Prius Review

By Paul Riegler on 27 February 2010
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From time to time, The Diesel Driver test drives non-diesel powered fuel-efficient automobiles. Here is one such review.

The Toyota Prius, the world’s first mass produced gasoline-electric hybrid automobile, was first introduced to the domestic Japanese market in 1997 and launched worldwide in 2001.  055_2010_PriusBuyers in the United States have comprised more than half of the more than 1.5 million Prius (the plural of Prius is Prius according to Toyota) sold worldwide thus far.

The all-new 2010 Prius is the third generation of this eco-trendsetter.  It’s a bit sleeker and sportier than its predecessors and has a larger engine and revised electric-assist steering system that result in even better fuel economy and greatly improved handling (earlier models gave the driver the unsettling feeling of playing a video game with a joystick instead of steering an automobile).

Indeed, it’s clear that Toyota is aiming to give the car mass appeal from the option list alone, which now includes radar cruise control, the automated self-parking system (Toyota calls it the Intelligent Parking Assistant), heated seats, and Bluetooth with support for audio streaming.   Safety features abound, including a lane-departure warning system that nudges straying drivers back into the correct lane.  One option not in our test car but worthy of note is the solar-powered ventilation system that provides ventilation to keep the car cooler when parked.   On the minus side, Toyota doesn’t offer iPod or USB integration and the navigation system is relatively slow.

The 2010 Prius is available in four trim levels. The Prius II($22,800)  includes keyless entry and ignition, cruise control, a six-speaker sound system, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, and a hybrid display. The Prius III ($23,750) adds Bluetooth connectivity and an upgraded sound system. The Prius IV ($26,550) further adds leather upholstery, heated front seats, an auto-dimming mirror, and driver-adjustable lumbar support. At the top  of the lineup is the Prius V ($28,020), which also gets 17-inch alloy wheels, fog lamps, and LED headlights.

Driving a Toyota Prius continues to be unlike driving almost any other car.  With an EPA rating of 50 mpg (combined), it is the most fuel-efficient car available in the United States.

The Prius starts out under electric power, silently moving ahead at low speeds, and the gasoline engine turns itself on when needed, a transition which is extraordinarily seamless.  The 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine provides power in conjunction with a pair of electric motors (one for propulsion, the other an electrical generator) through a planetary-type continuously-variable transmission, providing 134 horsepower in total.

Thanks to the electric motor and application of sound deadening material, the interior is virtually silent.

The Prius driver has a choice of three modes in addition to normal: EV (battery power for up to half a mile), Eco (sluggish but very economical), and Power (the accelerator pedal’s sensitivity is increased and it provides decent acceleration).  I selected the driving mode based on the current driving scenario.  EV is good for local trips as driving is limited to 25 mph (40 km/h) and the battery must be at least half charged.  Power mode is absolutely necessary for merging into highway traffic and passing.  Eco of course is where the Prius and its miserly fuel usage shine.

There is no conventional dashboard behind the steering wheel. Instead the driver has to look to the digital display just below the center of the windshield, which combines the speedometer, fuel consumption, and the fuel gauge with an energy monitor, fuel consumption history, hybrid system information, and additional fuel economy information.   The display is not only off-center but competes with the road for the driver’s attention, despite a touch sensitive display for its steering wheel controls, which Toyota says is designed to help keep the driver’s eyes on the road.

Seats were reasonably comfortable and interior space is more than sufficient.    Cargo space has been increased to 21.6 cubic feet and the split rear seats fold down.

For the center stack, Toyota has adopted the floating console that Volvo has been using for the past few years. It took me a while to realize that the switch for the heated seats was (inconveniently) placed in the open space below the console.  It also took me a while to get used to the gear shift lever mounted on the center console.

All in all, the 2010 Prius provides better fuel economy and a greatly improved driving experience compared to its predecessors, as well as more interior space and more cargo room.

[Editor’s note: this review was completed before the unintended acceleration problem surfaced.  The jury is still out on the root cause of the problem.]