EXPERT REVIEW

washingtonpost.com's view

Compromise works.

The proof is in the 2001 Toyota Prius, which combines a gasoline engine and electric motor to get high mileage and low emissions in a likable family sedan.

It is the first vehicle of its kind to qualify as a mass-market automobile.

That assertion upsets fans of Honda Motor Co.’s gas-electric Insight; but the Insight is a two-seat coupe. It can neither carry a family of five, nor its cargo. The Prius can. That makes the Prius a mass-market player, while consigning the Insight to a niche.

But the Prius has more going for it than utility and a clean, fuel-efficient drivetrain. It’s cute. It has star appeal.

That might seem unimportant to clean-air activists. But underestimating the power of red — the color of passion — in the pursuit of green is one of the biggest mistakes made by environmentalists.

Look at automotive history. The Prius is not the first gas-electric car. That honor goes to the 1917 Woods Dual Power Coupe, briefly manufactured by the Woods Motor Vehicle Co. of Chicago.

Numerous other low-emission, super-low-emission and zero-emission vehicles were introduced between the Woods coupe’s departure and the Prius sedan’s arrival. With the exception of the Honda Insight, those hybrid mobiles were rejected by the marketplace because they failed to meet consumer needs, expectations and desires. Toyota designed the Prius to avoid those pitfalls. It is a believable, affordable, fun-to-drive car. It also has 94 percent fewer tailpipe emissions than a comparable gasoline-only powered car.

“Believable” means the Prius offers the same peace of mind provided by traditional, gas-engine automobiles. For example, on one highway run, I drove the Prius 60 miles, consuming a tad more than a gallon of the regular unleaded gasoline in its 11.9-gallon tank. I got similar mileage on the return trip in more congested, stop-and-go traffic.

None of the electric-only vehicles I’ve driven in recent years could complete that trip without stopping for an hours-long battery recharge. But I drove the rest of the week, nearly 300 miles total, without refueling the Prius. The car’s fuel tank was better than half-full at week’s end.

The Prius works through power switching and sharing. Primary boost comes from a 1.5-liter, 70-horsepower, in-line four-cylinder engine. An electronically controlled transfer device sends engine power to the front wheels at highway speeds. The same device splits power — shares it — between the engine and an electric drive motor at lower speeds. When the Prius brakes or coasts, the electric motor acts as a generator by converting heat energy (braking produces heat) into usable electricity to recharge the batteries.

The use of aluminum and other lightweight materials, as well as low rolling-resistance tires, also contributes to the Prius sedan’s fuel economy.

All of this has been accomplished without turning the Prius into a nerd-mobile, one of those works of techno-wizardy that have little appeal outside of a convention of automotive engineers. This is a spirited, attractively styled car. It has a sloping front end and high rear with jewel-like lights front and rear. Its instrument panel is a simple, clean, easily readable and usable affair.

The car’s long list of standard features includes antilock brakes, power windows and locks and an anti-theft system with engine immobilizer — an impressive package for a $20,000 automobile.

Is the Prius perfect? No. But it’s a darned good peace offering in the long-running battle to protect and improve personal mobility without trashing the environment. It’s a compromise. It could teach the men who would be president a thing or two.

Nuts & Bolts

2001 Toyota Prius Concern: The gasoline engine shuts off when the Prius comes to a full stop. Battery power takes over. But to the uninitiated, the car feels as if all drive power is off because the electric motor runs quietly. Prius buyers should thoroughly familiarize themselves with the car’s operating characteristics before driving in heavy traffic.

Praise: This is, to date, probably the most practical, likable, high-mileage, super-low-emissions vehicle available in the United States.

Engine and electric motor: The cars gasoline engine works in conjunction with a permanent magnet electric motor that has a capacity of 6.5 amperes with a peak torque of 258 pound-feet between zero and 400 rpm. That means lots of oomph when moving from “stop.” The motor is powered by an automatically rechargeable, 274-volt battery pack.

Tested miles per gallon: On the highway, I got an average 50 miles per gallon, two mpg less than Toyota’s advertised claim for the Prius. City driving yielded about 44 miles per gallon, one mpg less than the advertised claim.

Price: The introductory base price on the Prius is $19,995. Dealer invoice price is $18,534. The destination charge in most of the country is $455. It’s $30 higher in the Gulf states and Southeast. All of these prices are subject to change.

Purse-strings notes: Some states offer buyer incentives for super-low-emissions cars. But, frankly, the quality and engineering of the Prius are incentive enough. Compare, loosely, with the Honda Insight.

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