The $25,165 Toyota Prius Two Eco member of the Prius family handily illustrates Toyota's long experience with gas/electric cars.
In fact, this fourth generation Prius enters its second year and celebrates the 20th anniversary of the car's debut in Japan in 1997.
List prices of the 2017 Prius go from $24,685 to $30,015. The most expensive ones just have more equipment. They look sleek and are 2.4 inches longer, nearly an inch wider and almost an inch lower than the previous generation Prius.
I drove the first Prius models in America, which arrived here in 2000, and they resembled boxes.
The gas engine, electric motor and seating positions of the new-generation Prius were lowered to increase front/rear head room while also achieving a low, aerodynamic stance. Still, the beltline (where the windows meet the body sides) is low, so occupants don't feel "buried" beneath the window line.
The new design gives a clearer view of the rear, but there are still blind spots back there. Thankfully, the outside rearview mirrors are nicely sized.
All Prius models are roomy front-drive four-door hatchbacks with a gas/electric powertrain setup that delivers 121 hybrid system net horsepower. I found that's enough for quick 65-75 m.p.h. passing and also enough to make my 3,010-pound test car a comfortable highway/freeway cruiser.
In fact, I sometimes found speed "creeping up" on me on freeways. I occasionally found it going 15 or so m.p.h. faster than I thought.
The Prius Hybrid Synergy Drive combines the output of a 1.8-liter four-cylinder gas engine that uses regular-grade gasoline and two motor/generators. It has a responsive electronically controlled planetary-type continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). Shift-by-wire technology uses electric signals to transmit shift operations.
Under certain circumstances, the Prius can operate in battery mode alone up to about 25 m.p.h.
My test car's only annoyances worth mentioning were some tire noise and an awkward (although space-saving) tiny gear selection lever near the steering wheel for the efficient CVT transmission. It can be a hassle to operate that lever, especially when in a hurry.
Some expensive conventional luxury cars also have a similar type of shifter, which I wish they all tossed.
Once underway, one can almost forget he or she is behind the wheel of a hybrid because it drives so flawlessly--just like a well-designed "regular" car.
After about a week of driving the Prius Two Eco during an even mix city/suburban driving, I found gas stations to be almost an afterthought because the car came close to delivering its EPA-estimated 58 miles per gallon in the city and 53 on freeways.
Handling was agile, thanks partly to stability and traction controls. The ride was firm, but supple enough not to cause complaints from occupants.
The Prius has the current-generation model's first double wishbone independent independent rear suspension, also found on top sports sedans; it helps handling and ride quality. As a bonus, it allows more luggage space because it replaces the torsion beam type suspension used on the previous Prius generation.
The electric power steering was on the heavy side, but accurate.
Step on the brake pedal and instead of a cable, your foot pressure signals the electronically controlled brake system to apply appropriate braking force through the active hydraulic brake booster.
The system coordinates control between the hybrid system's regenerative braking and the hydraulic brake force to provide optimal performance and feel. A regenerative brake system switches the motor into a generator to recover the wheels' kinetic energy as electrical power, storing it in the hybrid battery.
The front seats provided good lateral support in curves. My test car had a convenient push-button start, large digital speedometer and other brightly lit gauges that could be quickly read.
Instruments could be easily used, and a climate control system, tilt-telescopic wheel, 6-speaker sound system and a touch-screen display were were among comfort and convenience features.
The Prius connects with an owner's devices and music through its Entune audio systems
The mildly upscale and sensibly designed cabin is quiet because it has lots of sound insulation, including a sound-insulating laminated windshield. It provides comfortable space for four adults and a child, and the trunk is decently sized.
Although mostly fun to drive, the Prius Two Eco is primarily a family car, which means it must offer advanced safety features. Thus Toyota has made its Safety Sense P (TSS-P) driver assist technology standard on all Prius models.
Using millimeter-wave radar and a monocular camera sensor to help detect pedestrians, vehicles and lane markers in the surrounding area, TSS-P is designed to identify obstacles and automatically apply braking if necessary to help avoid collisions.
Most Prius owners eventually will have to parallel park, and many aren't familiar with good parallel parking. Toyota thus offers its optional Intelligent Parking Assist. The system is designed to use ultrasonic wave sensors to automatically steer the Prius into--or out of--parallel parking spaces--or reverse it into perpendicular space.
Toyota's Intelligent Clearance Sonar provides visible and audible warnings if a driver gets too close to detected obstacles on the vehicle's side, which is a handy tool for navigating tight parking garages.
The Prius Two Eco looks so sleek it doesn't visibly whisper "hybrid." Nor, for the most part, does it drive like one.