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Up Close: 2010 Toyota Prius

Certainly the most anticipated car at the Detroit auto show was the redesigned Prius; at today’s unveiling, more rabid journalists surrounded it than any other car at any show I can remember. Even at a show rife with extended-range electric cars and lithium-ion batteries, a 50-mpg gas-electric hybrid with old-school nickel-metal hydride batteries is nothing to sneeze at. Especially because the new Prius suggests that Toyota, a company responsible for recent disappointments like the Corolla and Land Cruiser, could be back on track.

The front end looks busier but more enticing than before, with Scion-like shapes in the headlights and grille. From the side and rear, the car looks much like its predecessor, which, given that car’s iconic stature, is probably a good thing. Toyota doesn’t have any specs yet on exact volume, but the cargo area looks comparable to the Honda Insight’s, and, like before, there’s a large storage bin underneath the load floor, above the spare tire. The Insight has only an oddly contorted cubby around the spare tire.

Interior quality is very good. Though the dash and doors have mostly hard plastics — normal for smallish cars, though soft-touch plastics are starting to appear in some — there’s a textured finish that looks very high-rent, even up close. Both rows of seats generally offer plenty of room, with legroom and headroom in the backseat being especially decent. The floor hump in back is minimal.

The dashboard’s wraparound styling places instruments top and center; it looks similar to the outgoing car’s interior, and so does the steering wheel, but a couple changes should make things more user-friendly. Toyota added climate controls to the center dash, where they reside in most cars, rather than relegating them to a dedicated screen on the center display as the old Prius did. As before, there’s a rocker switch on the steering wheel for the driver to adjust the temperature. Also like before, a double glove compartment and long, narrow center console should provide plenty of storage space. One quibble: Buttons for the heated seats sit inconveniently at knee level and lack high/low settings.

The litany of high-tech options — from the solar-cell moonroof to lane-change warning and prevention systems, and even the Lexus LS’ self-parking feature — will put most Prius cars upmarket of the Insight, I suspect. It also means the competition has a new target, and my early impressions put this one well beyond the second generation in terms of quality, technology and styling. Driving issues could prove otherwise, but after a string of less-than-stellar redesigns, I’m finally tempted to say it: Welcome back, Toyota.

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