Despite all of the Prius’ supposed run-away dreams in California and elsewhere, the high-tech wonder from Japan continues its reign as the best-selling hybrid of all time, with over 1.3 million sold to date. Ten years ago, it defined what a practical four-door high-efficiency car could be. Now in its third-generation, the Toyota Prius still rides on top of the segment it created.
I drove two versions of that original model. It was a good car, but lived on the edge of what was acceptable on the freeway. It was also small and had a tiny trunk. The second-generation model was a dream by comparison — and one of my favorite cars of all time. It kept the cool factor, but added a hatchback, fold-down seats, roomy interior, and peaceful controls. I averaged 42mpg hauling myself through the mountains of Tennessee at 80mph. The latest edition is even more efficient, but has enough power to surprise some sport coupe drivers.
Toyota developed a more powerful 1.8-litre Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine that mates with a continuously variable transmission and electric batteries/motor in the hybrid system. The gas engine produces 98 horsepower at 5,200 rpm, but when combined with the electric system, generates 134 horsepower – about 24 HP more than the previous model. Toyota claims the mid-size sedan can zip from 0-60 mph in 9.8 seconds, and when driven more conservatively, achieve 51/48-MPG city/highway.
Power to the Prius!
As a “full” hybrid, the 2010 Toyota Prius can run on the gas engine alone, batteries alone, or use a combination of both for the ultimate efficiency. The car can creep short distances through traffic without burning fossils and is never plugged in. Batteries are recharged through the brakes and by using excess power from the engine. While the new Prius has three power modes — EV, Eco, and Power — it can only run as an EV for less than a mile, under 10mph. Eco mode causes the Prius to behave much like previous models, straining every ounce of energy from its drivetrain. When you’re feeling spunky, press the Power button to make the throttle more responsive and the Prius almost fun to drive.
To discover the 2010 Prius’ inner athlete, step on the gas, and put the Prius into a hard corner. The car is infinitely more fun to drive than the previous model. Optional 17″ wheels and low-profile tires look great and enhance the car’s cornering grip. Four-wheel disc brakes and electronic stability control also help. On the flip side, the bigger wheels and stiff suspension will shake the jiggles out of everything inside the Prius over rough roads. I might skip the upgrades and go for the standard wheels with more absorbent tires.
Beyond comparable fuel economy ratings are possible in part from the Prius’ famous shape. Designers updated the previous car’s styling by moving the roof peak back 3.9 inches, giving rear passengers more headroom. You might also notice the sharper corners, which part and unite the wind more effectively, lowering the car’s coefficient of drag from 0.26 to 0.25. LED headlamps and taillights use less energy and look great on the hyper-futuristic Prius. The car’s shape is almost as famous as the VW Beetle’s; Toyota designers were right not to mess with it much.
Slide inside and you’ll have no doubt that the Prius was designed for the next decade. It continues tradition with a center mounted digital speedometer below the windshield while adding a diagram to show in real time where power is coming and going. The dashboard flows down into a flying bridge panel that includes the audio, climate, and gear controls. There is plenty of space for large drinks, phones, etc. iPODs can be connected to the vehicle with an AUX jack in the console, but unfortunately a USB was not deemed necessary — a BIG omission for a car this advanced. Lane keep assist (provides steering resistance to keep drivers from accidentally crossing lanes), dynamic (radar) cruise control to maintain a set distance, heated leather seats, steering wheel buttons for audio/climate controls, JBL speakers, auto up/down windows, and voice controls for the navigation system are all available.
Over the course of the past ten years, Toyota completely re-thought and re-engineered the automobile. Many competitors have followed, and more are coming, but to most people, Prius = Hybrid. At the end of my first review ten years ago, I stated, “The Prius is no toy showcase. It IS a real car, and a very enjoyable one at that.” I couldn’t describe the newest one better myself. Competitors include the Ford Fusion Hybrid and Mercury Mariner Hybrid.