When Toyota introduced the gasoline/electric-powered Prius hybrid for the 2001 model year, it became the second automaker to offer a hybrid car, following on the heels of the two-passenger Honda Insight. Later, when it debuted as an early 2003 model, Honda’s Civic Hybrid seemed poised to steal away some sales from the Prius.
For 2004, Toyota has rolled out a second-generation Prius. Unlike the first version, which was a sedan, the redesigned model is a five-door liftback. Both the prior model and the new Prius feature five-occupant seating.
The first Prius sedan was unconventional in appearance but noteworthy for its gasoline/electric powertrain. From the start, the high-tech high-mileage sedan attracted more attention than some observers may have expected. The Prius differed from the two-passenger Insight and the Civic Hybrid in that electric power was dominant. An electric motor powered the Prius until it reached about 12 mph. At that point, the 1.5-liter gasoline engine took over in a virtually seamless transition and served as the primary power source.
The electric motor would kick in when needed to furnish additional power while passing. The gasoline engine turned itself off when the car stopped and while coasting and braking. During that slowdown period, the engine served as a generator to recharge the battery pack; therefore, the Prius never required overnight recharging or access to an electrical outlet.
Toyota’s redesigned 2004 Prius has a more conventional and aerodynamically stylish appearance, as well as a five-door liftback body style. Its wheelbase has grown by 5.4 inches, and increased interior space moves it from a compact to a midsize model.
Hybrid Synergy Drive, a new high-voltage/high-power system, is used in the 2004 Prius. The full hybrid system can operate in either gas or electric mode, or both. Engine output has increased, yet the new version produces nearly 30 percent fewer emissions than before. Fuel economy is expected to shift from the high 40s to the low 50s, even though acceleration has improved.
A new Smart Entry & Start option can recognize the driver as he or she approaches; it then automatically opens the doors. The use of by-wire technology reduces weight and also permits programmable response.
Nearly 100,000 Prius sedans have been sold worldwide. “Even Leonardo Di Caprio drives one,” said Fujio Cho, president of Toyota Motor Corp., during the new Prius’ unveiling in New York. Cho noted that the new model is “bigger, more powerful, more stylish and fun to drive.” Toyota claims the new Prius is “greener than ever before” by yielding 30 percent lower emissions.
Toyota seeks to “move hybrid technology into the mainstream consumer market,” said Don Esmond, senior vice president and general manager of Toyota. Initial buyers of the Prius tended to be innovators and early adopters. Women bought more than half of Prius sedans during 2002. Technically speaking, comparing the original Prius to the 2004 model is like matching a 10-inch black-and-white TV set to a 42- inch HDTV installation, Esmond suggested. Hybrid Synergy Drive will also be available in the Lexus RX 330 hybrid model during 2004.
The second-generation Prius is more aerodynamically styled than its predecessor. It has a coefficient of drag of only 0.26, which makes it one of the most aerodynamic production vehicles in the world, according to Dave Hermance, Toyota’s executive engineer. The all-new platform has a 106-inch wheelbase, and the overall length has increased from 169.6 to 175 inches.
The new Prius’ weight has grown by 90 pounds. Toyota says that passenger volume is comparable to a high-line midsize sedan, while the hatchback body style promises great cargo-hauling flexibility.
Five people fit inside the new Prius, but they’re likely to enjoy more elbowroom than they would in the original model. Standard equipment includes electric inverter air conditioning and power windows, locks and mirrors. Interior space has grown by 9.6 cubic feet. Cargo volume in the revised version totals 16 cubic feet vs. 11.8 cubic feet in the prior Prius.
Under the Hood
The 1.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine develops 76 horsepower, which represents 6 hp more than the previous model. A new 500-volt 50-kilowatt motor replaces the prior 33-kw motor, which operated near 300 volts. Electric power is dominant. The gasoline engine takes over after the car gets rolling, and the electric motor kicks in when extra energy is needed. The total hybrid-powertrain output is 110 hp.
Antilock brakes are standard.
The latest Prius takes the lead over the Honda Civic Hybrid in terms of performance. Acceleration from a standstill and for passing and merging is enthusiastic, but it’s weaker at higher speeds. Ride comfort is another bonus. Though occupants can feel rough spots and hear them beneath the hatch lid when sitting in the backseat, they’re subdued for the most part.
A solid bar across the back glass impairs visibility to the rear. While the interior doesn’t appear to be quite midsize in dimensions, rear legroom is abundant but headroom is sparse. The seats are comfortable enough, but they’re positioned in an odd way. In contrast to the Civic Hybrid’s conventional layout, the cockpit comes across as modern but unfamiliar.
Mounted to the left of a long sliver-shaped dashboard recess, the digital speedometer, odometer and gear indicator are easy to see. But some of the controls — including the new electronic gear selector, parking brake and start button — are confusing at first.
Toyota claims that a lot of braking takes place regeneratively and without input from the car’s actual friction-operated brake pads. This phenomenon is noticeable while driving, but it’s not intrusive. The Prius’ steering is slightly more precise than the Civic Hybrid’s.