Because this tiny sedan is a precursor to what will be the norm for all automobile in the near future. More importantly, with this Prius, it is a way to see how well Toyota, and other manufacturers, are doing to make this technology more efficient and less expensive without sucking the fun out of driving.
After a week and 700 miles of seat time, the concept is improving.
The Toyota Prius, now in its third-generation, has turned a frumpy, boring ultra-economy car into a sleeker, slightly more involving vehicle. It is not the greatest looking vehicle, with a long hood, high roof and a rear end that looks like it was flattened by a semi. Yet, it is a refined, yet futuristic look that may work for some, while others may think it looks far too geeky and cute.
However, underneath that dark blue body lies a purposeful, mostly useful passenger vehicle with the most technically-advanced heart beating under the hood. The advanced propulsion system uses a trifecta of powermakers: a 1.3-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine underneath the sloping hood, nickel-hydride battery pack underneath the trunk floor,and a permanent magnet AC synchronous motor connecting the two. A Continuously-Variable Transmission provides the power to the road.
Combining all three produces 134 horsepower, which may not seem like a lot. However, around town, the Prius is a peppy performer. Pulling away from a stop, the 103 horses from the gas engine combine with the 80 from the electric motor and 36 from the batteries provide seamless acceleration. First, with the engine off, the electric motor provides initial acceleration. If you need more power, the gas engine will fire up and provide additional thrust. It won’t be able to challenge anything short of a golf cart in a drag race, but that’s not the point. Maximum fuel saving is the main goal.
To be honest, there can be great fun driving an electric car like a Prius. One example is when cruising at low speeds, such as your local grocery store parking lot, the car can be run on electricity only. It can run up 25 miles per hour on pure battery power before the gas engine fires to assist. But be careful, as putting more than a feather’s weight on the gas pedal will turn on the gas engine prematurely, but once you get it right, it can be diabolically fun to coast behind an unsuspecting pedestrian.
Another nerdy way to have an enjoyable drive is to try and keep the economy display in the digital dash to get optimal fuel savings while not pissing off the line of vehicle behind out. It is a good game to not only use the Prius the way it was designed to, but test your right-food modulation as well. It’s not easy, believe me.
One cool feature to control the powertrain is inside. At arm’s length on the center console lies three buttons and a stubby gear selector. The three buttons allow the driver to select which mode the car will be in, whether it is for creeping around a parking lot in EV mode, Eco mode for most driving situations, and Power for when you need everything working. And yes, there is a difference felt between each setting, so don’t think this another cheesy ploy to trick people into believing they work.
However, there is a notch that allows the car to engine brake, which is to be used mostly in stop and go traffic and going down steep downgrades. The reason to use the engine braking is to help with energy recapture. As with any other vehicle, when you are coasting, the kinetic energy created created by the engine is lost. But in hybrids like the Prius, the system recaptures that usually wasted energy and sends it to the battery pack. Another example of being efficient.
So what does this efficiency get you? During my time with the Prius, I averaged about 48 mpg overall. I did see over 50 mpg during surface street via the digital readouts. Quite impressive if I must say.
Outside of the odd transmission controls and the digital gauges, the Prius feels like any other small sedan. Behind the oblong steering wheel is a large sea of vinyl where the gauges used to be. The gauge pod now reside in the middle of the dash, right below the windshield .Below the gauges are an optional navigation system, automatic climate control, and the joystick controller to control the transmission.
The interior itself is surprisingly roomy, with 93.7 cubic feet of passenger space. Four full-size people can fit in both rows without the usual scooting up of seats. There are dual gloveboxes and an open storage bin below the center control. The trunk is the only let down, as it may seem roomy with the large rear hatch covering the space, but the large battery pack underneath the floor raises it and limits overall height for luggage.
While the Prius seems like everything is all hunkey-dorey, there are a few issues. The main issue is the handling, which feels like someone connected a steering wheel to the crispest television screen on the market. The brakes are hard and unmanageable at higher speeds, the steering has less feeling than a Logitech wheel used to play Gran Turismo 5, and the car understeers quicker than anything on the road.
Pointing to the interior, there are a few flaws as well. While the rest of the interior is well-made, the gauges are from another Pong-era. They are not as crisp as they should be and look terribly dated for this day and age. If Ford, of all companies, can create innovative and useful gauges in its Fusion Hybrid, Toyota should be able to at least match them. And don’t expect to carry a lot of anything under the hatch, as the batteries raise the floor level far too much.
People will argue forever about whether these vehicles are worth the price. The way this Prius was equipped, with navigation, climate control, and Bluetooth, is a deal compared to other hybrids, as well as when comparing it to a comparable Jetta Clean-Diesel. Each of those vehicle cost a couple thousand more than this Prius. But that is getting away from my point, which is this car can and is livable to drive everyday without many compromises.
Yes, it may not be as involving to drive in the normal sense, and it may not be as sexy as the public is used to, but there is a greater sense of fun and enjoyment with this car. I can see the appeal of this car and why owners enjoy it. And that alone proves this technology will not only be here for the duration, but get better as time goes along.
Base Price: $20750
As Tested: $25739
Architecture: Front-engine, front-wheel drive five passenger compact sedan.
Drivetrain: 1.3-liter, four-cylinder with a permanent magnet AC synchronous motor
Length: 175.6 inches
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Mileage: 51 mpg city, 48 mpg highway
Weight: 3,042 lbs.
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