Sporting a similar shape but a completely new drivetrain and interior, the third-generation Toyota Prius arrives as a conventional hybrid that uses existing nickel-metal hydride battery technology. Toyota says it will eke out a combined 50 mpg.
The company calls its Prius an "Eco-Icon," and the latest generation should have plenty of available gadgets for technological and environmental diehards. Among them are a solar-panel moonroof that powers modest air conditioning in hot parking lots, LED headlights that use less energy than conventional halogen lamps, and the self-parking system from Lexus' flagship LS sedan.
The Prius will face new competition in Honda's 41-mpg Insight; there could also be an indirect competitor in Volkswagen's 34-mpg Jetta TDI.
Riding the same 106.3-inch wheelbase as its predecessor, the new Prius adds less than an inch in overall length and width. Height stays the same. At 175.6 inches long, it's 3.3 inches longer than the Insight. Overall styling, particularly from the rear, looks similar to that of the previous Prius, complete with a bar that splits the hatchback window widthwise. The biggest difference is up front, where the bumper has a busier, more squared-off look. The headlights sport arrow-shaped lenses that are a bit like the Nissan Maxima's.
Fifteen-inch alloy wheels are standard; uplevel models have 17-inch alloy wheels and fog lights. Toyota says the overall design is the most aerodynamic of any mass-produced car in the world, with a drag coefficient of 0.25 — slightly better than the outgoing Prius.
The dash keeps some elements, including instruments that are high atop the center portion, two glove compartments and a nub-like shifter. Chief among the differences are the center controls, which now stretch down toward the center console. The shifter itself has been moved closer to knee level. The dash and doors have a matte-like finish, and the steering wheel gains a telescoping adjustment.
Uplevel options include heated leather seats, a backup camera and a navigation system. Toyota's Safety Connect, an accident-notification and vehicle tracking service that's not unlike GM's OnStar, will be available beginning in the second half of 2009.
The steering wheel has touch-sensitive audio and climate controls that display a replica of the actual controls and highlight the driver's choices in the instrument display. Toyota calls it Touch Tracer, claiming it helps drivers keep their eyes on the road. Other information on the display includes fuel and energy consumption meters, as well as a depiction of power flow between the drivetrain's gasoline and electric components.
Though the Prius' roofline retains its well-recognized hump, Toyota moved the crest 3.9 inches rearward for better aerodynamics and more backseat headroom. Redesigned front seatbacks increase rear legroom, and the cargo area is slightly wider and longer, too.
Under the Hood
Last year's 1.5-liter four-cylinder has been replaced by a 1.8-liter engine augmented by a number of high-efficiency tricks — among them an electric water pump, exhaust gas recovery, a more efficient automatic transmission and optimized regenerative braking. Coupled with an electric motor, the drivetrain makes 134 horsepower, versus 110 hp in the outgoing Prius. Toyota says the new car hits 60 mph in 9.8 seconds; its predecessor made the run in about 11 seconds.
Being a "full" hybrid, the Prius can drive on electric-only power, gasoline power or a combination of the two. There's no need to plug it into a wall outlet. Like other full hybrids, the car's electric motor draws power from a trunk-mounted battery, which recharges using braking friction. Drivers can switch between four driving modes: regular Drive; Eco Mode, which optimizes settings for better mileage; Power Mode, which increases gas-pedal sensitivity for better acceleration; and EV-Drive Mode, which attempts to stay in electric mode as long as possible, provided the battery has enough juice. (If you need extra power in a pinch, flooring the gas pedal kicks on the engine even in EV-Drive, Toyota says.) On a full battery charge, the Prius can maintain gas-free electric cruising for up to a mile.
The Prius has seven standard airbags, including a driver's knee airbag, front seat-mounted side airbags and front and rear side curtain airbags. Active head restraints, all-disc antilock brakes, traction control and an electronic stability system are also standard. Optional radar-based adaptive cruise control maintains speeds based on the speed of the car ahead; other options include a lane-drift warning system and a pre-collision system that cinches up seat belts and applies the brakes in situations where it deems a crash unavoidable.
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