This second-generation Prius, introduced as a 2004 model, is larger than the original, and is now a midsize car. It's roomy, with adult-size back seats and lots of cargo space. It's pleasant to look at, with sleek, futuristic styling, easy to spot in a parking lot.
The Prius is rated 60/51 mpg City/Highway by the federal government's Environmental Protection Agency, with a Combined rating of 55 mpg. You're more likely to see less, maybe 41 to 48 mpg. Don't blame the manufacturer for the difference. Hybrid powerplants do well in EPA testing and your driving style will determine your mileage.
The real justification to buy a Prius is its extremely low emissions. The Prius produces almost no pollution and is one of the most environmentally friendly vehicles you can drive. It's an excellent choice for buyers who want to reduce air pollution and America's dependence on oil. The Prius isn't cheap, but it's an amazing piece of engineering.
It's important to understand that the Prius is not an electric car. You never plug it in. And there's no worry about driving beyond the range of the battery. A small, highly efficient four-cylinder gasoline engine charges the battery as you drive. No special knowledge is needed to drive this car. It works just like a regular car: You get in, you twist the key, you put the lever in Drive and you go. When it gets low on gas, you fill it up.
The Prius is the best-selling gas-electric hybrid in the United States and in the world and it's only gaining in popularity. When it debuted as a compact in 2001, Toyota sold just 5,600 in the U.S. By 2003, U.S. sales had expanded to nearly 25,000. For 2004, Toyota redesigned the Prius, turning it into midsize car and completely re-engineering its mechanical and electrical systems. It's now much more attractive to many more people. Toyota sold nearly 54,000 Prius models in the U.S. in 2004 and nearly 108,000 in 2005. It was praised by the press and was named 2004 North American Car of the Year by a jury of 50 independent automotive journalists, including the editor of New Car Test Drive.
The 2006 Toyota Prius is not only an impressive technological statement, it's a car that's easy to like and live with.
For 2006, the headlights and taillights have been redesigned, the interior has been improved with nicer materials and more features. A host of safety improvements for 2006 make this feature-packed technological wonder that much more enticing. Among them: new advanced airbags, a tire-pressure monitor, and an optional rear back-up camera.
Toyota Prius ($21,725)
The pinched-down nose is helpful for knifing through the air with little resistance. The quarter panels and doors are sleek and clean. The sole character line is a tasteful indentation in the lower region of the doors, visually connecting the creases marking the lower limits of the working area of the front and rear bumpers.
The side view makes clear the stylists' devotion to aerodynamics. A steeply raked windshield carries the hood's acute angle rearward. An even more steeply raked backlight (rear windscreen) ends in a high spoiler that trips the air stream as it leaves the car, maximizing the aero advantage of the car's almost-vertical back end. Sleek rear quarter windows do more to visually enhance the aerodynamic look than they do for outward visibility.
The Prius looks under-tired, almost as if the tires were left out when the rest of the car was made larger. The narrow tires probably help fuel ecnomy, but they clash visually with the proportions.
The headlights and taillight clusters have been restyled for the 2006 models. The headlights are compound units that house the running lights, side marker lights and turn indicators. Vertically stacked, compound taillights wear modish clear lenses and bookend the lower section of the liftgate. Integrated into the liftgate, and running its width beneath the rear spoiler, is a strip of glass adding critical rearward visibility for the driver.
The first-generation 2001-03 Prius was classified as a compact by the EPA, but the current, second-generation Prius is considered a midsize car. Its wheelbase (the distance between the centers of the front and rear wheels) is about 6 inches longer than before, yielding a more stable ride and more leg room inside.
The seats are comfortable for commutes and short weekend trips. Their forte is not the multi-hour, multi-state drive. The cloth upholstery looks durable and is grippy, compensating somewhat for the minimalist bottom and back side bolsters. Head restraints are adjustable in all five seating positions. The interior finish is up to Toyota standards, with pleasingly close tolerances between body panels and interior plastic pieces, and plastics that look and feel better than the word plastic connotates.
The speedometer, fuel gauge, trip meter, and transmission selection indicator are tucked into a long, flat, eyebrow-like opening draped across and centered on the top of the dash where it meets the windshield. The primary gauges are located in the left half of the opening, but are closer to the centerline of the car than to the driver.
Climate controls are managed via an LCD screen at the top of the center stack. This panel also displays user preferences and maintenance needs. Most entertaining, however, is that it allows tracking of the power and recharging flows, monitoring battery and gasoline usage. And it serves as the focal point for the optional navigation system.
Directly beneath the screen is the control head for the sound system. Toyota deserves high praise for keeping the stereo's most-used functions outside of the onboard computer's labyrinth and, equally important, for giving it buttons and knobs that are easy to see, read and use. The base AM/FM/CD six-speaker sound system is quite capable. We'd have been better able to enjoy the premium JBL system to its fullest if there had been a bit more sound deadening in the floorpan and doors, but sound deadening adds weight, the enemy of fuel economy.
Remote switches for the audio, climate and cruise controls are conveniently mounted on the steering wheel. There are two accessory power outlets. Dome lights grace the headliner, front and rear. Both sun visors have illuminated vanity mirrors. These may seem small matters, but they distinguish between value and cheap.
A tall glasshouse yields exemplary outward visibility. As is the case with many of the latest aerodynamic designs, the driver can't see the front of the car or the hood without leaning forward.
Storage spaces are abundant and flexible. The glove box is a two-parter, with an upper and lower bin opening like a clamshell. The upper glove box is good for long, narrow items, like gloves. The lower compartment holds bulkier items. The front part of the center console opens up, also clamshell-like, into two cup holders. Door-mounted map pockets, expandable magazine holders stitched into the back of the front seat backs, and an unexpected, semi-secluded storage bin below the stereo offer additional storage.
Two cup holders pop out of the rear of the console for back-seat riders. An armrest folds down out of the rear seat back. The rear seats are split 60/40, each part of which folds to yield an almost-flat floor, without having to remove the head restraints. There are hidden spaces beneath the cargo floor, both below and on top of the mini-spare.
Gas pressurized struts ease opening and closing the hatchback. Doors close with a solid, if not truly impressive clunk; then again, weight savings have to come from somewhere.
Standing on the accelerator produces a pleasant surprise. The Prius launches without hesitation thanks to the electric motor's 295 pound-feet of torque from almost a dead standstill. Merging and overtaking at freeways speeds are accomplished with little fuss. Those wishing to experience the car's outer limits, however, should expect more leisurely progress to a top speed of around 100 miles per hour. Speeding calls for horsepower, and as the Prius approaches its maximum velocity, it relies increasingly on its small gasoline engine for motivation. Toyota says the Prius can accelerate from 0-60 mph in about 10 seconds, anemic by modern expectations, but then we've come to expect a lot. As recently as the mid-1950s, legends like the Chrysler 300 and Buick Century didn't reach 60 mph much quicker than that.
Prius gets its power from a gasoline engine supplemented by an electric motor. In a bit of hyperbole, Toyota calls the combination the Hybrid Synergy Drive. Hybrid it is, synergistic it isn't, not by the strictest definition of the word, which would mean that the total power output would be more than the sum of the outputs of the gas and electric motors individually. This is not the case. The Hybrid Synergy Drive does, however, rely on the electric motor even more than the system in the first-generation Prius, which is how Toyota was able to make the Prius larger and more practical without compromising its low emissions or fuel economy. The current model is 30 percent cleaner than the squeaky-clean first-generation (2002-03) Prius. Toyota claims the Prius produces about one-tenth as much pollution as the average new car. Some have described Toyota's hybrid system as an electric motor with gasoline engine assist, and Honda's system as a gasoline engine with electric motor assist.
By complementing the gasoline engine's horsepower with the electric motor's torque, the Prius makes better use of the energy stored in each gallon of gasoline, while leaving fewer nasty chemical compounds in its wake. The electric motor, which begins cranking out its maximum torque virtually the moment it starts spinning, gets the car moving and helps it accelerate while it's underway. The gasoline engine steps to the fore at more constant speeds, especially during highway driving, where horsepower is more critical for maintaining a car's momentum.
The hybrid system improves fuel economy further by turning off the gasoline engine when it's not needed, like when you are waiting at a stop light or even when puttering around town at low speeds. Any time the driver's right foot requests more motivation than the electric motor alone can provide, the gasoline engine fires up and joins in.
The transmission is non-traditional, too. Prius uses an electronically controlled, planetary gear transmission that functions much like a continuously variable transmission. This system constantly and automatically selects the most efficient drive ratio to get the car moving and to keep it moving.
The EPA gives the Prius a City/Highway fuel economy rating of 60/51 mpg with a Combined rating of 55 mpg. These numbers have generated controversy, however. Hybrid-powered cars tend to achieve high ratings on EPA tests because the cars run on rollers, face no wind resistance, and run with the air conditioning shut off. The electric motor plays a bigger role in these laboratory conditions than it does in the real world. In one of those strange twists of logic often produced by law, Toyota is legally barred from advertising any mileage numbers other than those released by the federal government. Most Prius owners report much lower fuel economy, while others argue this point. Pu
The Toyota Prius sets the standard for environmentally friendly transportation. It also delivers extremely good fuel efficiency for a four-seat car with an automatic transmission. Just ignore those EPA numbers. Buyers can expect to average something north of 45 mpg. Toyota is clearly the leader in hybrid technology. The Prius is an amazing piece of engineering yet driving one and owning one is not much different from a conventional car. That's impressive.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard is based in Northern California.