In the 2010 model year, Toyota celebrates the third-generation makeover of Prius, a name synonymous with gas-electric hybrid technology...and by far the genre's best seller.
Prius loyalists will applaud this third-generation effort. Advanced engineering remains reliable while fuel economy keeps growing.
"Prius accounts for more than half the hybrids on U.S. roads today, "said Ed La Rocque, National Small Car Manager for Toyota. The United States is the world's largest market for Prius sales. Since its introduction 9 years ago, more than 700,000 Prius cars have been sold in the U.S. out of 1.2 million worldwide.
For 2010, the front-wheel-drive Prius registers 51 miles per gallon in city driving and 48 mpg highway, currently the highest-mileage vehicle sold in the United States. Mileage is up from 48 mpg city and 45 mpg highway produced in the previous generation. Production of the 2010 model starts this month in Japan. Expect the 2010 Prius to hit U.S. shores in late spring or early summer.
Prius first entered the U.S. market in 2000, a few months after Honda's two-seat Insight arrived. While Insight was more of a gas-electric novelty, the four-door Prius hit the heart of the family segment ready to embrace this gas-sipping technology. A second-generation Prius arrived in 2003. Insight returns in 2009 (as a four-door model) after a two-year hiatus.
From the outside, Generation III looks strikingly similar to Generation II. Some aerodynamic tweaks under and to the sides of the vehicle have helped increase fuel economy, but no one will have any trouble recognizing it as a Prius. While a pinch longer and wider, dimensions are close to 2009 measurements. The most striking new outside nuance is the apex of the curved roof moves rearward a bit providing more headroom for second-row riders.
What's noticeable is what's new inside is. More supportive and comfy front bucket seats join a new harmonious instrument panel layout. The short electronic transmission shifter (which resembles a video game joy stick) is now found in between the more ergonomically supportive, back-friendly front buckets. The elongated oval instrument panel, with three digital areas, is not directly in front of the driver, but slightly to the right and a top the center dash. Steering wheel audio controls are now available in some trims.
For those Prius drivers annoyed with poor rear-mirror visibility, no relief is in sight. The rear spoiler (longer this year) still features prominently when peering into the mirror. While this design helps minimize the coefficient of drag, the extra mile-per gallon gained may not offset what could be missed when backing up or changing lanes because of impeded rear view visibility.
Gen III excels in what most folks don't see... improved technology. The higher output nickel metal hydride battery is now more compact as are the two motor generators assisting the intricate process. Motor Generator 2 drives the front wheels and helps recapture power during the braking process. The smaller Motor Generator 1 acts primarily as a starter for the gasoline engine. Toyota has refined, not reinvented Prius technology. The nickel metal hydride battery now more effectively charges and discharges. Although the hybrid drive system weighs less, the car is 100 pounds heavier (3,042 pounds).
More combined horsepower is available. A new 1.8-liter four cylinder 16-valve gas engine replaces an outgoing 1.5-liter. The new gas engine alone cranks out 98 horsepower and the combined hybrid system pumps out 134 horses, 24 more than Gen II. Trunk dimensions are larger, and an 11.9-gallon conventional fuel tank replaces a bladder-type design that caused some concerns in earlier generations.
Mix and match
Prius simplified mix and match equipment packages...a bit. A single grade is available in four equipment levels: II, III, IV and V. Trim III features advanced sound system with satellite radio. Trim IV adds leather trimmed interior and heated front seats. The top trim sports 17-inch alloy wheels and fog lights. Once digesting the trims, shoppers must decide whether or not to add any of three option packages: Navigation, Solar Roof or Technology.
The intriguing new Solar Roof Package (which must be purchased along with the Navigation option) includes solar sun roof panels able to capture energy from the sun. This added sun energy does not juice the battery, but is used to operate a solar powered ventilation system that circulates interior air on hot days. Shortly after the ignition is turned off, outside air is circulated inside Prius. This doesn't necessarily cool the car, but generally keeps the interior from reaching triple digits. The solar panel (made up of 36 small cells) is the same Poly-silicon type available in home solar systems.