The Toyota Prius
--the world's first mass-produced gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle--seems ideal, considering recent controversy about vehicles that use lots of gasoline.
The $19,995 Prius
sedan delivers an impressive, estimated 52 mpg in the city and 45 on the highway. However, frigid weather results in slightly lower economy because it causes the Prius
' gasoline engine to work longer. Warm weather better suits the Prius
, which sells best in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The four-door Prius
has been a success for a hybrid, considering many car buyers probably are wary about its new technology. This model is far outsold by conventional high-mileage economy cars, but it's still fairly new and Toyota
only ships a certain number from Japan. The automaker expects to sell about 20,000 Prius
models in America this year.
Most drivers will have to own the Prius
a time to have its fuel economy make up for its initial price--although there's a one-time $2,000 federal tax deduction for hybrid vehicle buyers.
Consider that the $18,490-$19,675 Volkswagen Jetta sedan with a refined diesel engine gets an estimated 42 mpg in the city and 49 on the highway with a manual gearbox and 34 and 45 with an automatic transmission. And that the $10,105-$11,495 gasoline-engine Toyota
Echo delivers a 34 city and 41 highway with a manual gearbox and 32 and 38 with an automatic transmission.
has only a continuously variable automatic (CVT) transmission, although it's a very efficient one. Toyota
has sold 41,237 Prius
models here through 2002 since its introduction in July 2000--after being introduced in Japan in 1997. Toyota
said it sold 1,606 in this country last month. The car does especially well in large metropolitan areas including Chicago and New York where there's lots of stop-and-go driving. (Prius
city economy is higher than highway economy because its electric motor is used more often in town.)
powertrain utilizes a 1.5-liter, 70-horsepower four-cylinder gasoline engine and a 44-horsepower electric motor. Electronic controls that make up the Toyota
Hybrid System allow the car to operate on either electricity or gasoline, or a combination of both. The gas engine constantly charges the batteries, so thus there is no need for plug-in charging.
Sophisticated electronics keep power management fairly smooth, although occupants can sometimes feel and hear when the gas engine cuts in and out, and there are occasional sags in momentum when the motor goes in and out of battery-recharge mode during, say, braking--when regenerative braking cycles on and off.
There are few fuel stops. The gas engine draws fuel from an 11.9-gallon tank, and the electric motor gets energy from a battery pack. A second, smaller electric motor-generator is used to charge the batteries and control the car's CVT transmission through a power-split device.
The transmission blends the output rpm of the gas engine, electric motor and electric generator in response to desired acceleration and deceleration.
Whew! Lots of advanced engineering there!
But never mind all that--just slip the Prius
' transmission into "drive'' and use it like a conventional vehicle--although the oversized transmission shifter lever obscures part of the audio controls.
The fairly light, 2,765-pound Prius
is lively in town, but highway acceleration is rather slow, with a mediocre 65-75 mph passing time. Steady cruising is no problem on flat Midwestern highways, but there are above-average levels of wind and road noise because sound reduction materials add weight, which is a major fuel economy enemy.
The steering is quick, making the Prius
easy to maneuver and fun to drive in town. But the steering doesn't offer much road feedback through the narrow tires, which also are needed for high fuel economy. Those tires wander on road grooves and reduce handling to strictly average levels. Expect lots of tire squeal and marked body roll when entering turns quickly. Also, the tall body is sensitive to crosswinds.
A supple suspension delivers a smooth ride, with none of the jerky motions expected from such a small car with only a 100.4-inch wheelbase. Stopping distances are short, but the regenerative brakes are rather touchy.
The subcompact Prius
swallows four 6-footers, partly because occupants sit upright in seats that aren't very comfortable after a few hours of driving. However, legroom gets rather tight behind a tall driver who moves his seat all the way back.
Digital instruments are high on the dashboard and can be easily read without changing eye focus from the road. A video-type screen that displays power sources in use, fuel economy and radio presets can be distracting, but can be turned off; the images vanish with the sun at your back, taking away the touch-activated radio presets.
The trunk is large. But it's taller than it is long. And it has an average width and a rather small opening. Location of the battery pack eliminates a folding rear seat for more cargo space.
is fairly well equipped, with such standard items as air conditioning, AM/FM/cassette, anti-lock brakes, tilt steering wheel, console, rear defogger, heated power mirrors and power windows, door locks and remote keyless entry.
The 2003 Prius
is basically unchanged because it got an optional ($1,900) navigation system last year, along with $250 front side airbags and $250 cruise control. New options are $40 daytime running lights, $335 CD player (or $589 in-dash six-disc CD changer) and a $372 accessory package with items including a glass-breakage sensor, floor mats and cargo mat.
The market is crowded with less expensive sedans that have high fuel economy and better performance. But the Prius
has impressive engineering and is practical and pleasant.
TOYOTA PRIUS HYBRID
Very fuel stingy. Lively in town. Fairly roomy.