I've returned to the Toyota Prius four years after my initial review, and it's still more than viable despite its age and all the other hybrid models that have come since — including a hybrid Camry. Its excellent reliability certainly hasn't hurt, and the Prius owes no small number of its sales to states like California and Virginia, where officials have allowed hybrid owners to drive in carpool lanes even when the driver is the only occupant. In Los Angeles, that would be reason enough to buy a car, no matter what kind it was.
My contention is that this second-generation Prius (third, if you include the original, which wasn't imported to the U.S.) will take its place among names like Model T, Jeep, Mustang and Caravan — so great has its impact been on motoring and culture worldwide. All of the workings and technical details in my original review still stand, so I'll concentrate here on what will make the Prius a lasting success: price, mileage, styling, size and versatility.
Exterior & Styling
Like it or not, the Prius' styling has driven the car's success in more ways than one. The gradually sloping line from hood to roof to tail contributes to a low, 0.26 coefficient of drag. The same is true of the broad sides and comparatively small wheels. With increased pressure on automakers to improve gas mileage, you're likely to see more of this silhouette on future models. The Honda Civic sedan already has a similar domelike profile, and not just in the hybrid version.
If you didn't know there's a hybrid Civic, you're onto another secret of the Prius' success: Its distinctive look has made clear to all who see it that it's a hybrid — or at least that it's unique. There are now about 20 hybrid models either on sale or soon to be, yet most people would be hard-pressed to name more than one or two. That's because, since the Honda Insight was discontinued in 2007, all hybrids except the Prius have been versions of existing gas-only models. Over the years, automakers have learned that it's easier to sell a car when people know it exists. Some have begun to offer large "HYBRID" decals for exactly this reason, but a dedicated hybrid-only model seems to do the trick better than a festooned regular model can. Honda has acknowledged that its Civic Hybrid should instead have been — or been accompanied by — a lower-priced hybrid-only model.
Being designed from scratch as a hybrid has paid off in other ways, and a major one is the interior's roominess and versatility. Put simply, non-hybrids are built to accommodate conventional drivetrains, gas tanks, etc., so anything extra a manufacturer adds — like a high-voltage battery pack and other electronics — has to be put somewhere. Too often that somewhere sacrifices passenger or cargo space. A clean slate allowed Prius designers to "package" the car with all its components in mind. Both the car and these components were shaped to work together.
The result is a surprisingly roomy interior, given the car's relatively small exterior size. It also has generous cargo capacity. The hatchback body style alone plays a part, and a folding backseat gives flexibility that other hybrid cars lack. With the exception of less-efficient, mild hybrids like the Saturn Aura Green Line, hybrid sedans have either eliminated the folding backseat found in their gas-only models or greatly diminished the size of the opening between the trunk and the cabin.
One complaint I hear about the Prius — and from it — is a noisy cabin. Though the car is designed to cheat the wind, you still get road noise and engine noise under heavy acceleration. Overall, I think it's acceptable because of the car's price and its mission, which of course is efficiency. Noise abatement in a car means added weight, and additional weight cuts into mileage.
Another caveat: I recommend against the optional auto-dimming rearview mirror. The problem here is that the liftgate splits the car's rear window with a beam. There's glass above it and below it, but the beam is high enough that sometimes the headlights of following traffic line up with it perfectly, and this casts a shadow on the mirror. The mirror lightens up, and then if you go over a hill or the car gets closer to your rear bumper, suddenly the light hits your mirror and blinds you before the mirror can dim.
The Most Efficient Hybrid
The Prius' triumph would be less of one if it didn't deliver on the promise of efficiency. Using the EPA's earlier calculation, which was finally replaced for 2008, the Prius rated 60/51 mpg city/highway. This, like most EPA ratings, was wrong (your tax dollars at work...). There was some backlash, but you can't fault Toyota, which wished the ratings were more accurate but was required by law to publish the official EPA numbers. (Apparently no one ever thought a manufacturer might want to use a lower number, so the law simply said the official specs must be used.)
By 2008's more reliable method, the Prius' rating is 48/45 mpg. This is pretty damn good, especially in city driving. Most full hybrids give better city than highway mileage because the drivetrain relies more on the electric motor and best captures and reuses energy in stop-and-go situations. Among other models, where comparisons can be made between hybrid and gas-only, the advantage is even more clear. This is where Honda loses out, as its Integrated Motor Assist doesn't favor city driving as much. The 2008 Civic Hybrid model is estimated at 40/45 mpg.
The Prius has such good numbers in part because Toyota hybridized a four-cylinder engine. It's powerful enough for cruising, and the electric motor helps it out at low engine speeds where it's least powerful. The most impressive gains in other hybrids seem to come from this combo, too. The improvement is less dramatic with V-6 hybrids, even when Toyota and Lexus build them.
The Buyer is the Advantage
That leads us to the role of buyers, who share responsibility for the Prius phenomenon. What do they do? They didn't just buy the car; they bought a car with modest acceleration and had the sense to recognize that it's powerful enough. The reason so many hybrids aren't more efficient is that manufacturers have designed them to be quick — often as quick as the non-hybrid version with the larger of two engine choices. The new Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid pickup truck retains all of the gas model's capabilities. I suppose that makes sense for a pickup truck. For the passenger-oriented models, like Saturn's upcoming Vue Green Line 2 Mode Hybrid, it simply doesn't.
Perhaps manufacturers' game is to teach consumers that they needn't give up anything to own a hybrid. If so, message received; hybrids are universally accepted and in high demand. The next step is to make them more like the Prius: only as powerful as they need to be, with much higher efficiency the result. The Prius is arguably the only hybrid that stands a chance of saving you money within a reasonable number of years or miles. Shortening the break-even interval will make hybrids more attractive as well as more ecological.
Cold, Hard Truth
A major drawback of the Prius and all other hybrids I've tested is their winter performance. Cold temperatures decrease battery capacity, just as they do for the average 12-volt battery (which is why older batteries that were OK in summer may not start the car when it gets cold out). As a result, the engine must run at first to top off the battery and then more often throughout use to keep it charged. The mileage hit is not small. We're talking several mpg on average. Chicago's maddening weather actually came in useful in this test because I drove for days in temperatures below freezing and at times near 0 degrees. The trip computer said I was getting between 30 and 40 mpg in mixed driving. Then the temp shot up close to 60 degrees, and suddenly I was getting more than 50 mpg without even trying.
Mother Nature even threw some snow at the Prius, and in that situation it performed fine. The only drawback is that my car's traction control was a bit intrusive. The electronic stability system definitely made for safer travel, but the electric motor's high torque easily spun the drive wheels. Every time traction broke, the system would intervene, keeping the car in control but resulting in halting acceleration.
Otherwise the Prius operates like any other car. One quirk I notice is that the brakes still feel a little unnatural because of the by-wire system and the sometimes nonlinear hand-off between regenerative braking and the conventional brake system. Here the Prius' age is showing, because performance has improved in more recent hybrids. Shoppers should also be aware of what I call the parallel-hybrid fallacy: the belief that you can drive around on electric power alone up to 30 mph or so. You can do it in most parallel hybrids, but it requires acceleration so gradual and slow that if you do this in traffic, you're just begging for a five iron through your windshield. On the flip side, the gas engine turns off more than you'd expect when coasting and braking, so the end result is still high efficiency.
Ride & Handling
I often hear the Prius criticized for its ride quality, which many claim is too firm, but my Base test car was livable, to say the least. If you test-drive the Prius, be sure to find out what trim level you're trying — Standard, Base or Touring. The Touring version, which is the most full featured and likely to be a dealership's demo of choice, has a sport suspension, so it rides rougher.
Toyota isn't doing itself any favors with the Touring's sport tuning. The Prius isn't a particularly sporty car, and a taut suspension doesn't make it one; it only turns off many would-be buyers. The regular suspension is more appropriate and better matched to the car as a whole.
Hybrids went untested for many years, but the Prius has been subjected to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's frontal-offset and side-impact crash tests and has scored Good on both, the highest score. Side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtains for both rows of seats are standard, as are antilock brakes.
Prius in the Market
There are more refined hybrids on the market — specifically the Camry Hybrid. But the best combination of performance, efficiency, roominess and all that other stuff — for the money — is the Prius, by far. Many hybrids based on gas-only models are equivalents of high-trim-level versions or ones loaded with features, not the affordable base ones. So when you see hybrids cited as, say, costing $2,000 more, that's usually compared to a "comparably equipped" non-hybrid version of the same model. If you compare the hybrid's price to that of the entry-level gas-only version, the difference is often dramatically greater. Because of this, calculations that reveal the break-even point where fuel savings make up for the premium price are actually optimistic. Compare the cheaper gas-only car to the hybrid and you're likely to give up on the hybrid altogether.
The Prius may be the exception. Tax deductions and credits for this model have run out, as have the HOV stickers in Los Angeles. On the positive side, increased supply is keeping Prius sale prices in check. The Prius' value is in the eye of the shopper. As hybrids go, even four years after this generation's introduction, you could do worse than a Prius.
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