Fantastic fuel economy, Comfortable ride, Good passenger and cargo room given the exterior size
Lackluster acceleration, Spongy handling, Nondescript interior fittings
When Toyota introduced the Prius hybrid in 2001, the Asian automaker changed the game. Prius wasn't the first gas-electric hybrid vehicle, that honor goes to the Honda Insight, but it was the first mass-produced gas-electric hybrid that offered the usefulness of a compact car. The Prius platform was unique in the Toyota lineup and eco-conscious buyers, drawn in by 50-plus mpg city rating, flocked to dealers. That first Prius proved that consumers were growing ever wary of rising fuel prices and environmental issues and were willing to make a statement with their wallet--as long as they didn't have to make too many compromises.
Just three short years later, Toyota introduced a completely new Prius--larger and more useful than before, but still as fuel efficient. Optimistically, Toyota forecast annual sales of 150,000. As it turned out, those numbers proved conservative and sales topped 180,000 mark in 2007. The Prius had brought hybrid technology to the masses.
Looking slightly more streamlined than your typical compact car, Prius is a five-passenger, four-door hatchback. It competes with vehicles like the Dodge Caliber, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra, and Toyota's own Corolla. For 2008, Toyota added a lower-priced Standard model to the line up.
Prius' gas-electric powertrain consists of a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine, two electric motors, and a nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery pack. Together they combine to produce 110 horsepower and drive the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission. The hybrid system has the ability to run in electric mode at slow speeds and never needs to be plugged in because the electric motors charge the battery pack when cruising and decelerating.
Standard safety equipment includes antilock brakes with brake assist, tire-pressure monitor, and dual front, front-side, and curtain-side airbags. Stability control and rear-view camera are optional.
2008 Toyota Prius
Base Price: $22,325
As-Tested Price: $24,118
Built in Japan.
Package Number 2
Carpet Floor Mats
V.I.P. Plus Security System
Engine: DOHC 1.5-liter inline four
Transmission: CVT automatic
Drive Wheels: front-wheel drive
The new Standard model lists for $20,950 and comes with automatic climate control, tilt steering wheel with radio and climate controls, cloth upholstery, center console, split-folding rear seats, power mirrors, power windows, power for locks, keyless entry, AM/FM/CD player, rear defogger, intermittent rear wiper, automatic-off headlights, theft-deterrent system, rear spoiler, and 15-inch alloy wheels.
Stepping up is the Base. It sells for $22,325 and adds cruise control, heated power mirrors, and cargo cover. Topping the line is the $23,220 Touring. It adds HID headlights, fog lights, sport suspension, and 16-inch alloy wheels.
Options include keyless starting, JBL audio system with MP3-player connection, Bluetooth cell-phone link, keyless starting, navigation system, leather upholstery, and satellite radio. All models have a $660 destination charge and are manufactured in Japan.
Get Up and Go
No one will ever confuse Prius with a hot rod. Foot-to-the-floor acceleration from 0 to 60 mph takes a little more than 10 seconds. That's not bad by economy-car standards, but far from ideal when passing on two-lane roads or merging onto a crowded expressway.
The hybrid powertrain generally starts in electric mode and then switches to a combination of gas and electric power as more acceleration is needed. This leads to slightly uneven acceleration. The engine also automatically shuts down at stoplights. This fuel saving feature only operates in mild weather when there isn't much demand on the climate control system.
The automatic transmission does its best to balance power and economy. It doesn't downshift like a traditional transmission, so it feels a little sluggish around town. Once on the highway the transmission does a good job of delivering more power from the hybrid powertrain.
The Prius is EPA rated at 48 mpg city and 45 mpg highway and runs fine on regular-grade fuel. The fact that Prius gets better city fuel economy can be attributed to its electric motors providing assist at slow speeds and the stoplight shut-off feature. In routine driving expect to average between 43-45 mpg. With a little practice, it's easy to nudge economy to near 50 mpg.
On the Road
For all its powertrain gadgetry, Prius has a very pedestrian suspension--MacPherson struts up front and torsion beam rear axle. This setup is common among budget-priced compact cars and produces a ride that's comfortable if somewhat nondescript. Large bumps are well absorbed with only a slight bit of bouncing. The relatively long wheelbase helps even out the ride on choppy roads.
Thanks to the soft suspension and skinny, economy-champ tires, Prius' handling limits are modest. Quick lane changes trigger a too much body lean, and the brake pedal has a non-linear feel that makes for uneven stops. The steering has little road feel, but is precise and nicely weighted at highway speeds.
Despite the Touring model's firmer suspension, there's little difference in ride quality or handling ability.
The cabin is relatively quiet, especially when compared to like-priced compact cars. Wind noise is modest, even at extra-legal speeds, and road noise is only a problem on coarse concrete surfaces. The engine has an unpolished groan in hard acceleration, but cruises quietly.
Behind the Wheel
Thanks to a huge black dash top, the interior of the Prius comes off as stark. In reality, cabin materials and seat fabrics are similar to those found in other compact cars but upper surfaces like the door window sills and dash top should be padded.
The speedometer is positioned at the top of the dashboard near the center of the base of the windshield; this unconventional location takes some getting used to, but proves to be quite convenient. Sadly, both the gauge cluster and center display screen wash out in direct sunlight.
Radio controls are independent of from the climate-information display screen and both are augmented by secondary, steering-wheel-mounted switches. The navigation system isn't the easiest to program, but does a good job of selecting the fastest route.
NHTSA Crash-Test Results, 2008 Toyota Prius
|Front Impact, Driver ||4 stars|
|Front Impact, Passenger ||4 stars|
|Side Impact, Driver ||5 stars|
|Side Impact, Rear Passenger ||4 stars|
|Rollover Resistance ||4 stars|
Prius doesn't have a conventional shift lever. Instead there's a stubby stalk to the right of the push-button ignition. It's not as intuitive as it could be and doesn't incorporate the parking brake. Instead, drivers must push a separate button above it. A conventional shift lever would make more sense and ease confusion for drivers unfamiliar with the Prius' hybrid powertrain.
Front seats are skimpy and fall short on comfort on longer trips. Head room is generous and leg room adequate. Taller drivers might want a few more inches of rearward seat travel. Getting in and out is a snap and forward visibility is good. The view to the rear is blocked by the split rear glass, but it's still better than in today's conventional bustle-back sedans.
The rear seat is no more comfortable than the front, but passengers are treated to first-class leg room. Head room is tight for those taller than six foot thanks to the sloping roofline. Seating three across is easy because the driveline hump is quite small.
Given the hatchback design and split-folding rear seats, Prius is plenty versatile. Cargo space is generous with the seats up and cavernous when the seats are folded. However, the cargo floor is higher than you might expect and that precludes loading tall items. Interior storage is generous thanks to twin glove boxes, front-door map pockets, and a bunch of center-console bins.
What makes Prius unique among gas/electric hybrids is not the fact that it gets great gas mileage, but the idea that is was designed solely to accept a hybrid powertrain. That means that the interior package can be tailored to make maximum use of the available footprint. In other words it's roomy without being overly large. Add to that the fact that it has a large cargo area and you end up with a reasonably priced vehicle that a family of five can use on a daily basis.
At the same time, Toyota forces buyers to make a few compromises. The interior isn't as user-friendly as it should be and the skinny tires, spongy regenerative brakes, and electric steering relegate sporty road manners to the trash bin.
Given Prius has little competition, it's hard to offer direct comparisons. Civic Hybrid is less expensive, but also smaller. The plug-in Chevrolet Volt is still a few years away. And, conventionally powered compact sedans are half as fuel efficient. In reality, Prius makes a lot of sense and the recent surge in sales suggest that buyers would agree.