The redesigned third-generation Toyota Prius hybrid feels much like an appliance, but is a technological marvel.
This 2010 sedan has impressive estimated fuel economy of 51 mpg city and 48 highway. It offers good acceleration, and is quieter and roomier than its predecessor, which has put Toyota on the map as a technology leader.
However, the highly aerodynamic car's generally supple suspension causes occupants to feel lots of bumps, especially sharp ones. The electric power steering is quick but feels mushy, and the tiny shifter near the steering wheel has a Goldbergian shift pattern that makes it tricky to even find neutral. Also, you need to push a console button to put the car in park mode.
The central instrument display with a digital speedometer, fuel gauge and shift-lever indicator is easy to read, except when bright sunlight causes numbers to wash out..
The top Prius has 45-series tires on 17-inch wheels, but other models have rather skinny, hard 65-series tires on 15-inch wheels designed more for fuel economy than ride comfort or handling. It's not meant to be driven hard.
The second-generation Prius was a big improvement over the first-generation model, which arrived in America for 1970 after being sold in Japan since 1997.
The new Prius is slightly larger than the 2009 model and is relatively light at 3,042 pounds. Its larger (up from 1.5 to 1.8 liter) 98-horsepower four-cylinder engine works with an 80-horsepower electric motor. Combined horsepower is 134--up from 110. (Hybrid technology doesn't allow adding the two horsepower figures for a combined total.)
The computer-controlled powertrain switches between the gas engine and electric drive motor, or seamlessly combines output of the two.
Honda says the 0-60 mph time of the 112-mph Prius is 9.8 seconds. But it feels quicker and provides strong 65-75 mph passing. Brakes provide secure stops.
Power is transmitted through a responsive continuously variable automatic transmission., and you can switch via a console button from "economy" to "power" mode for better responsiveness.
The 11.9-gallon fuel tank can swallow 87-octane gasoline.
There's 8-year/100,000-mile, unlimited-mileage hybrid-related component coverage, and the hybrid battery is warranted for 10 years/150,000 miles.
The new model is slightly larger than its predecessor, with a rather long 106.3-inch wheelbase (distance between axles) and overall length of 175.6 inches. That results in a roomy interior, although some tall, long-legged drivers will want their seat to move back farther and the center of the rear seat is too stiff for comfort.
There are five trim levels. First comes a new base model--the $21,000 Prius I, which Toyota says has a "lower level of standard equipment" and isn't scheduled to be sold until later this year. It's probably designed to compete with Honda's new Insight hybrid, which starts at $19,800.
Seven exterior colors range from "Blizzard Pearl" to "Barcelona Red Metallic." .
I tested the $22,000 Prius II, which is expected to be the most popular model. It's followed by the $23,000 Prius III, $25,800 Prius IV and, finally, the top-line $27,270 Prius V.
Many need go no farther than the well-equipped Prius II. It has standard items including automatic air conditioning, AM/FM/MP3 CD player with six speakers and satellite radio capability, tilt/telescopic wheel, push-button engine start/stop, cruise control, manual adjustable driver's seat, power door locks with remote keyless entry, power front/rear windows, color-keyed foldable power heated side mirrors and a 60/40 split rear seat.
Safety items include seven air bags, including a driver-knee air bag. There also are standard stability control and traction control systems, besides electronic brake force distribution and brake assist systems for serious stops.
The Prius III adds a JBL AM/FM/MP3 six-disc CD changer with eight speakers and integrated satellite radio capability, along with hands-free phone capability.
A leather-trimed interior and heated front seats with driver lumbar support are added to the Prius IV.
The Prius V gets the larger wheels and tires, besides LED headlights with automatic leveling and washers.
Options? How much do you want to spend? There's an $1,800 Navigation System with a backup camera, a $3.600 Solar Roof Package that includes the navigation package and has a power moonroof with a solar-powered ventilation system and remote air conditioning to cool the interior before getting into the car.
The ultimate option is the $4,500 Advanced Technology Package that includes the navigation package plus Dynamic Radar Cruise Control if you get too close to a vehicle ahead, Pre-Collision System, Lane Keep Assist to warn if you inadvertently wander into an adjoining lane and Intelligent Parking Assist, which takes over much of the effort of parallel parking.
Large door handles help make it easy to enter the quiet interior, which looks high-tech, but has a lot of plastic. Assembly is good, but bumps brought out some rattles from my test car's dashboard area. A large, dual-level glove compartment is among a decent number of cockpit storage areas.
The dashboard is filled with small control buttons, but they're arranged for easy operation. Outside mirrors are decently sized. A driver peers through a large windshield, but can't see where the front bumper ends. The low front end can easily scrape even moderate-size curbs or other such obstructions in parking areas. The instrument panel's dull-green digits are hard to read in bright sunlight, and the prominent rear deck spoiler can always be seem in the inside rearview mirror.
The hood is held open by a short manual prop. Most fluid filler areas are easy to reach, but you can't get to the brake fluid container partly hidden at the rear of the neat engine compartment unless you push in a concealed tab and lift that container's cover.
The cargo area has a wide but high opening. The cargo compartment is fairly large, but not especially deep. At least the rear seatbacks can be flipped forward and sit flat for added cargo room. A fairly large, shallow cargo bin can be reached under the cargo area's floor.
The Prius has become a fully mainstream car, with more than 1.2 million buyers worldwide. It's not something you'd want to be in if stranded far from a Toyota dealership service department, but has proven to be pretty reliable.
The cleverly engineered car has little soul, but what can you expect from an auto that's mostly designed to provide high fuel economy?
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