There has been breathless demand for the Toyota Prius
hybrid gas/electric sedan since gasoline hit $4 per gallon. The fickle, car-clueless Hollywood movie crowd loved the first paramilitary Hummer, but switched to the Prius
when it became more chic to do so.
It seems hard to believe that not long ago the Prius
was a slow-seller because of little demand for it. All along, though, it's been the star of the hybrid car field since its 2001 introduction in America.
Touchy brake pedal. Sunlight washes out dashboard screen readings.
The first-generation model -- sold in Japan since 1997 -- wasn't very impressive in America, outside of its high fuel economy. But it cost only $19,995 and its sole competition was Honda's tiny two-seat Insight hybrid, which had a limited-appeal design. I wrote that the first Prius
(Sept. 18, 2000, AutoTimes) was "neither a futuristic nor exciting experience," but also said it was fuel-stingy, fairly roomy and "nimble and fun to drive in town." It was better than the slower, right-hand-drive Japanese version I drove in 1999.
Estimated fuel economy of that first U.S. model under the old optimistic EPA rating system was 52 mpg in the city and 45 highway. Those figures jumped to 60 city and 51 highway for the 2004 model. However, the 2008 Prius
delivers an estimated 48 city and 45 highway under the tougher new EPA rating system that more realistically calculates fuel economy.
The second-generation Prius
that arrived here for 2004 was much-improved --and little changed for 2008. It was 5.4 inches longer, with a wheelbase (distance between axles) stretched from 100.4 to 106.3 inches for a roomier interior. Width increased 1.2 inches and height went up half an inch.
All that allowed the new-generation Prius
to become a mid-size auto, and its switch to a very aerodynamic new four-door body with a hatchback design also made it more practical than the first-generation model, which had a conventional trunk.
The new Prius
also got additional power, which significantly improved performance. Its Hybrid Synergy Drive system combines a 1.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine with an electric drive motor. The system is capable of operating in gas or electric modes, as well as in a mode that combines the power of the gas engine and electric motor.
The gas engine occasionally can be felt cutting in and out, but the operation is fairly seamless. The system turns off the gas engine at stoplights to save fuel, but there are quick restarts when the accelerator pedal is depressed.
Combined horsepower is 110, but the instant torque of the battery side of the powertrain makes the car feel like it has more power. It's moderately heavy at 2,932 pounds, but is quick off the line and when merging into fast traffic -- at least with just a driver and no cargo aboard. The 65-75 mph passing time on highways also is pretty good. No plug-in charging is required and only regular-grade fuel is needed.
The transmission is a continuously variable automatic (CVT) that doesn't have conventional upshifts or downshifts and works well with the hybrid system. However, its tiny shift lever is rather awkward to use.