Pretty in Prius
By Scott Corlett
In 2004, Toyota gave its Prius sedan an extreme makeover. At the unveiling of the overhauled Prius, the previously plain-Jane hybrid emerged a sleek sheet metal vision of the future. Prior to transformation, the sedan hardly received a second glance from either buyers or the press, but since the redesign, the Prius has held the media’s attention – and has brought buyers to Toyota’s showrooms. The Prius’s now distinctive ovoid design proudly proclaims its driver’s eco-friendly credentials, whereas competitors’ hybrids are in the automotive closet – you really have to hunt for that little ‘h’ on the rear end of a Honda Civic to know if it is a fuel-sipper.
We recently spent a week in a 2005 Toyota Prius in San Francisco. We were in good company – it seems every other car in Oz is a Prius. With added power but few cosmetic changes from 2004, the five-door Prius ferried us with economy to the beach, around town on errands, and down wide California freeways.
The heart of the Prius is its Hybrid Synergy Drive system which mainly consists of a gasoline engine, an electric motor that doubles as a generator, and a storage battery. Depending on the car’s power requirements, the Prius draws energy from the electric motor, the gasoline engine, or a combination of the two. During stops and times of low power consumption, the gasoline engine shuts off. This intermittent fuel usage greatly improves the mileage. Further boosting efficiency is the energy captured during braking and coasting which is stored in the battery for use by the electric motor.
Futuristic gadgetry and quirky-but-loveable mannerisms help set the Prius apart from other cars. The optional Smart Key System garners oohs-and-ahs – just leave the key fob in your pocket or purse and the car, sensing your approach, unlocks as you reach for the door handle. Climb into the driver seat and push the ‘Power’ button and the Prius, aware of the key’s presence, is quietly ready to go. The dashboard schematic readout illustrates the flow of power between the hybrid system’s components and the drivetrain. The gasoline engine’s slight shudder when cycling on and off provides a gentle, idiosyncratic reminder of its presence. The near-silent whir as you are propelled by electricity alone is the sound of dollars, otherwise spent on gasoline, adding to your bank account. At journey’s end, press the ‘Power’ button again and the Prius is off.
Interior dimensions such as headroom, legroom, and cargo space are similar to those of other midsize sedans like the Toyota Camry. The Prius also handles like a Camry – the steering is too uncommunicative and the suspension is too soft. With 76 horsepower coming from the 1.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine and 67 hp from the electric motor, acceleration is adequate but uninspiring with, according to Toyota, a zero-to-60 mph time of just over 10 seconds. The silky smooth automatic transmission is continuously variable – meaning no fixed gear ratios and no hard shifts.
Many of us would happily haul Leonardo DiCaprio to the Oscars. Unfortunately, that duty is assigned to the Prius. Hollywood royalty’s obsession with the Prius and the resulting media exposure have helped make it a cultural phenomenon akin to the Volkswagen Beetle in the 1970s. To the delight of Toyota’s executives, the sedan is seen as more than another trendy celebrity accessory – the Prius is synonymous with fuel efficiency in the minds of many car buyers. The 2005 model earned an EPA fuel economy rating of 60 miles per gallon in the city and 51 mpg on the highway. Stop-and-go city driving when compared to steady freeway cruising allows greater down time for the Prius’s gasoline engine – hence the unusual higher city mileage figure. While we found the EPA’s numbers overly optimistic, the average mid-40s mpg we experienced is a relief to wallets strained by current fuel prices. For comparison, a four-cylinder Toyota Camry has an average fuel economy of less than 30 mpg.
You do need to invest some of that fuel-cost savings in additional crash protection. With only two air bags standard, you can bet Leo sprang for the optional front-seat side air bags and the two-row, side curtain air bags. While the cabin is spacious, keep the six footers in front where headroom is more generous. Oddly, if you ever wish to pretend you are driving a garbage truck, the Prius’s annoying beeping reverse gear indicator is there to help.
Conservation does not come cheaply for the buyer or for Toyota. A base price of $20,875 plus delivery charges and options like added bags easily push the bottom line to $25K. Even at that price, the Prius generates little profit for its maker because of the cost of the added components and the complex electronics. Nor does the Prius come quickly – waitlists at some dealers run upward of six months. For 2006, Toyota will freshen the exterior, add MP3 capacity, and tweak the performance of the standard air bags. We say—instead of fiddling with the standard bags—make more bags standard.
Looking for a car more futuristic than fast? Just be ready to give your best movie-star smile as the Prius’s fuel gauge drifts so, so slowly toward empty while you drive past gas stations busy with motorists fueling their ordinary cars.
Toyota is a gay-friendly company.
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