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Expert Reviews 1 of 8
By David Thomas
March 25, 2009
In the world of hybrids, there has always been one clear winner in terms of public perception, mileage and car sales: the Toyota Prius. The third generation of the gas-electric hybrid goes on sale later this spring, and it's a huge improvement over the outgoing model. Not only is the interior vastly improved, the car gets even better mileage: It's now rated at 51/48 mpg city/highway, 50 mpg combined.
Strangely enough, my one pet peeve with the old model — its exorbitant road noise — has not been addressed in the newest Prius. It's doubtful, however, that even a relatively off-putting problem like that will turn away hybrid buyers in search of the greenest car on the road. Mileage There's a lot to talk about when reviewing the 2010 Toyota Prius, but there's one thing in particular people want to know: Does it really get 50 mpg? I drove the new Prius for the better part of a day in Napa Valley, Calif., in February — a tough assignment, leaving Chicago in the dead of winter for sunny skies and temperatures around 60 degrees. Not only was it refreshing weather for a Chicagoan, it was ideal for getting good mileage in a hybrid. It wasn't so hot the air conditioning needed to strain too hard, nor was it so cold that a chilly battery would impact mileage.
I took detailed notes of each route my driving partner and I took. Besides one specifically designed "hyper-miling" route, we drove like any typical driver would. On our first trip, we paid more attention to the car's interior and tech features and didn't turn on the A/C. It was a mix of city and highway driving lasting 20 miles. The trip computer registered 53.7 mpg.
Next, I got behind the wheel, turned on the A/C and radio, and drove a similar course, with a mix of highway and city driving over 23.2 miles. I drove with a lead foot, too. Mileage registered at 51.8 mpg.
We took a number of other trips, and the only time we didn't get 50 mpg or better was on one 12-mile uphill stretch in the mountains with no A/C. That particular trip also happened in a Prius with larger, 17-inch wheels that engineers said would return 5 percent worse mileage than the standard 15-inch wheels. On that run, the computer registered 44.5 mpg. On the way back down the mountain, my driving partner thrashed the Prius like a Corvette through the mountain passes — it bordered on scary, how fast he was driving the little hybrid. How did it do going down a mountain at high speeds? 57.4 mpg.
As for the hyper-miling route, Toyota held a contest to see who could get the best mileage over a longer course. Using a number of techniques, including the Prius' EV mode, which allows you to drive on electric power alone up to 25 mph, we managed to return 70.5 mpg at an average speed of 28 mph. A few others returned similar numbers, with one slowpoke returning more than 90 mpg, but his speed only hit 18 mph. On our trek, our driving style reminded me of trips with my grandfather in Boca Raton when I was a child. We certainly didn't drive like typical drivers, but we didn't drive ridiculously slowly, either. Performance Now that we have that pesky mileage question out of the way, how does the Prius hold up as a regular, everyday car? In almost all areas, the answer is, surprisingly well. There's still a slight hesitation when you lift your foot off the brake and start to accelerate, as the engine kicks on, but getting up to speed doesn't take noticeably longer than it does in other four-cylinder Toyotas, like the Corolla.
The Prius is surprisingly nimble, and the standard leather-wrapped steering wheel feels great in your hands; it's a perfect size and easy to grip. Feedback is a bit springy and tight — more like a subcompact car than a typical midsize sedan — and it doesn't require much effort. The steering wheel also telescopes for 2010 (the previous generation's only tilted), which helped me get into a better driving position.
Handling is much improved over the old Prius, and the car feels more composed overall on the road. Add the optional 17-inch wheels and tires on the top trim level, and things in the handling department get even better. It's no sports compact, but it certainly will satisfy the average driver.
Braking will still feel odd if you're not used to driving a hybrid. Like most hybrids, the Prius employs regenerative braking. That means when you hit the brakes the hybrid system captures energy as the car slows down and sends it to the battery, recharging it. That's one of the reasons you get such great mileage. Unfortunately, you can feel this happen when you apply the brake. There's a slight squish, then the brakes kick in with relatively good grip. After that initial squish, the brakes are actually more responsive than recent Toyotas I've tested, including the non-hybrid Venza crossover.
There are four driving modes: the default Standard mode, EV, Eco and Power, which you can select using buttons near the shifter. The most interesting is the EV mode, which lets the Prius run solely on electric power up to 25 mph as long as the battery has enough charge. Toyota says the Prius will only travel a half-mile in EV mode, but I thought we managed to go farther than that during our hyper-miling course. Regardless, if you hit 25 mph, the EV mode cuts off immediately and the engine kicks on. If you want to keep driving in EV mode, you can re-engage the system by pressing the button once you've slowed back down. Obviously, this mode will greatly increase your mileage, as the car isn't using the gas engine at all. The best times to use EV mode would be in parking lots and other low-speed zones.
Eco Mode maximizes fuel savings across all driving conditions, which means it's a bit of a nanny that makes sure acceleration is smoother than any human right foot could manage on its own. Why a dedicated hybrid like the Prius doesn't just start off in this mode is beyond me. Official EPA mileage estimates for the Prius were calculated using the default Standard mode, however, so if you diligently remember to use both the EV and Eco modes, you should see better mileage. I kept Eco on during most of my driving time in the Prius.
The Power mode is supposed to provide a sportier driving experience by increasing throttle response and acceleration. Neither my co-driver nor I noticed any change in acceleration when using the Power mode. Fortunately, the Prius feels peppy no matter what mode it's in, so there's no real loss there.
My one negative with the Prius — and it's a big one — is road noise. The last-generation Prius had a similar problem, and despite its redesign this car is one loud ride on anything but pristine blacktop. If you're on especially rough pavement, the noise can be grating. I wasn't alone in this observation; on one bad stretch of road I asked my experienced co-driver if he thought a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution (a performance-tuned car known for its rough ride and cabin noise) would be as loud as the Prius we were in. He had to agree with me, saying no, it wouldn't be as loud as the Prius.
Much of the noise is caused by the low-rolling-resistance tires that help the Prius get its vaunted 50 mpg. I recently spent time in a Honda Civic Hybrid equipped with low-rolling-resistance tires, and it too had a lot of road noise. Personally, I would rather have a car that gets 45 mpg and has a quieter cabin. Still, the past generation had the same problem, and plenty of people bought it and didn't complain about its loud ride. This issue just might not dissuade Prius shoppers like it would Camry buyers. Interior While excessive road noise made the Prius seem unrefined when driving it, its upscale interior will surely impress everyone who takes a seat in it. Automotive journalists often struggle to describe how one interior feels more upscale than another, or how one type of plastic can feel cheap and another won't — these things just are. With the Prius, Toyota made a number of good choices on both materials and eye-pleasing color combinations.
On the materials front, the center control panel's black plastic has a slight grain to it that I really liked. Toyota has done this on other models, including the Venza, but it seems even nicer on the Prius. The gearshift, which used to be a tiny stalk near the steering column, now sits in the center console. This more traditional approach works well; its location doesn't make the car feel more upscale, but its jewel-like blue knob and substantial weight look and feel terrific. The steering-wheel buttons are made of soft rubber and have the perfect amount of feedback to them.
The front seats have really been upgraded, a project Toyota says it spent a lot of time on. The new model is definitely more comfortable. Even with the base model's fabric seats, there's plenty of cushioning on the bottom and plenty of support for the back. The leather seats in the top two trim levels are quite nice, and they definitely up the ante in terms of luxury.
The backseat has plenty of legroom, so knees don't encroach on the front seats. There's also plenty of headroom despite the roof's new, more aerodynamic angle. Cargo space is plentiful, with 21.6 cubic feet of room, which is significantly more than the new Mazda3 compact hatchback's 17 cubic feet of space.
Three interior colors are available: Dark Gray, Bisque (tan) and Misty Gray. Dark Gray was my favorite, but going with tan wouldn't be a mistake, either. All three feature a darker dashboard of black or dark brown for the tan interior.
Unlike the new Venza and redesigned Corolla, I didn't notice any gaps or misalignments between panels in the Prius, and overall fit and finish were flawless. If you slapped an "L" on the hood and steering wheel, a Prius with leather seats could easily pass for a Lexus. Exterior Even though the entire Prius has been redesigned, from behind it's tough to tell anything has changed. Move around to the front, though, and the nose has a new arrow-like peak to it. The headlights flow rearward and wrap around the sides of the car, and the profile is augmented by a styling line running the length of the car that Toyota says helps with aerodynamics. Is it the best-looking car on the road? Not even close. But the Prius continues to stand out as something unique; it greatly resembles the outgoing model, which has something of an iconic look. Features & Trim Levels One confusing aspect of the new Prius is its odd trim levels. While there won't be any trim badges on the car's exterior, the names Prius II, III, IV and V will be used on window stickers to differentiate models. Pricing wasn't available as of publication.
The base Prius is called Prius II. It features numerous standard features, including electronic stability control. All four power windows have automatic up/down controls, which you rarely see in non-luxury cars. Cruise control and push-button ignition are also standard. Steering-wheel controls for the stereo and climate systems are also standard, as is something called Touch Tracer display, which I'll detail in the Technology section.
The next level up is the Prius III, which adds an eight-speaker stereo with XM Satellite Radio and Bluetooth. I found the sound system to be fairly robust in terms of having a wide range of mid-levels and highs. However, no USB input is available for an iPod or other MP3 player. Instead, there's a standard auxiliary jack and the ability to stream music via Bluetooth. The only device we've heard of that can do that, though, is the updated iPhone that's due this summer. You can buy a $50-$150 adapter to do so from your iPod, but the handful of name-brand units we could find in a quick search online were all out of stock.
The next trim is the Prius IV, which adds a more sophisticated keyless entry system that unlocks doors upon touch. This is also the trim that adds leather upholstery and heated front seats. The switch for the seat heaters is hard to reach, though; it's located behind the center console. The top trim level is the Prius V, which comes with 17-inch wheels, fog lights and LED auto-leveling headlights with washers.
There are also three option packages:
Navigation Package with backup camera (available on Prius III, IV, V)
Solar Roof Package, includes Navigation Package and adds a solar ventilation system and remote A/C system (available on Prius III and IV)
Advanced Technology Package, includes Navigation Package and adds pre-collision system, adaptive cruise control, Lane-Keeping Assist and Intelligent Park Assist (available on Prius V); it does not include the Solar Roof Package, and the two cannot be combined
Like the Prius itself, these packages had not been priced as of publication. Technology Toyota has showcased a lot of technology in the new Prius because of the high-tech halo the hybrid holds in the market. There's all-new technology featured for the first time in a passenger car, as well as luxury features, like a self-parking system, generally found on much more expensive vehicles.
The one piece of technology most hybrid fans are all atwitter about is the solar-panel roof. The panel doesn't actually provide power to the car or its electrical systems, but rather powers a ventilation fan when the car is parked and turned off; the fan keeps the cabin's ambient temperature down. This is a first for any car, and while it's a nifty use of technology, it seems like a bit of overkill when you look at the end result.
One of the standard features I thought was a terrific use of technology is what Toyota calls the Touch Tracer display. When you place your finger on the steering-wheel control for the radio or climate system, a display pops up in the dash where vehicle speed and other readouts are housed. The Touch Tracer's two circles frame the speedometer, momentarily replacing things like the fuel-level display, but never your current speed. The display highlights what control your finger is over, and once you visually confirm which button your finger is on, all you have to do is press down slightly harder to make your selection.
The system might seem a little redundant, but it keeps your eyes much closer to the road, as the dash readouts are so close to the windshield. It worked flawlessly with no real time lag, so it felt natural to me.
The Prius will also come with an optional self-parking feature that can automatically steer the car into a parallel-parking spot or a traditional mall-parking-lot spot. Drivers must control the brakes, and it takes a bit of time to get the hang of it — meaning other folks on the road are likely to honk at you. You also need a fair amount of clearance for the system to work, which to me is more of an inconvenience than having a car with a computer to help you park is a convenience. If it doesn't help with tight spots, what good is it? Safety The 2010 Prius comes with seven airbags, including front-seat-mounted side airbags and side curtain airbags for both rows. There's also a knee airbag for the driver. Active head restraints in front — which help prevent whiplash — are also standard.
The Prius features a cut-off function for the high-voltage battery when an airbag is deployed. This helps prevent shock to passengers or first responders after an accident.
Optional safety equipment includes a pre-collision system, which uses a radar sensor to determine when an object ahead isn't moving fast enough to avoid a collision. The system then retracts the seat belts, increases brake pressure and reduces brake reaction time so the brakes will be more responsive when the driver hits the pedal. There are audible and visual warnings when the system goes into effect, but if the driver doesn't react quickly enough it automatically brakes to reduce speed. Prius in the Market The 2010 Prius continues this model's reign as mileage king. The recently released Honda Insight hybrid, which is smaller and starts at $19,800, returns "just" 40/43 mpg. These two hybrid models will hold very different places in the market, with compact-car shoppers likely leaning toward the Insight and midsize-car shoppers gravitating toward the Prius.
Without knowing the new Prius' price — though I imagine it will be more than the outgoing model's $22,000 base price — I'd say it has a high-enough level of interior refinement and everyday usability to challenge the venerable midsize sedan in car shoppers' hearts. That segment of the market includes not only the Honda Accord and Nissan Altima, but also Toyota's best-selling Camry. With comfortable seats and admirable performance, only the intrusive road noise really hurts the Prius compared to those midsize models. Its 100 percent better gas mileage, however, should drown out most concerns.