Although Toyotas hybrid-powered four-door, five-passenger sedan might look a little strange, its attracting more attention than expected and not just from environmentally concerned drivers. The Prius is a little more mainstream now, says Don Esmond, vice president and general manager of the Toyota Division. It wasnt just launching a car, it was launching a new technology, he said. In summer 2001, anyone seeking a Prius faced a three- to four-month waiting list.
For 2002, the Prius gets some new factory options: a navigation system, side-impact airbags, cruise control and daytime running lights. Options also include a CD player, CD changer, cargo net, carpeted floormats and wheel locks.
If you can find a Prius available at a dealership, expect to pay the sticker price of $19,995 a cost unchanged from the 2001 model year. An eight-year/100,000-mile warranty covers the electric motor and gasoline engine. The Prius purchase price also includes three years of free maintenance.
More than 11,000 Prius sedans were sold between July 2000 and May 2001, a sales figure that is on track for the planned production of 13,000 units per year. Toyota provided 300 of them to the state of New York in April 2001 as part of a program to cut emissions from city- and state-owned vehicles.
Toyota was the second automaker to introduce a gasoline/electric hybrid car, following on the heels of the two-passenger Honda Insight. Toyotas Prius is a conventionally styled subcompact that seats five occupants. In June 2001, Toyota President Fujio Cho announced in Tokyo that the company has a goal of producing and selling 300,000 hybrid vehicles per year a goal thats set to be achieved by 2005. Toyota also is developing a four-wheel-drive hybrid Estima minivan for the Japanese market.
A sloping hood gives the Prius some visual kinship to the Toyota ECHO, at least up front. It looks a lot like a conventional small car with a stubby profile. Measuring 169.6 inches long overall and 57.6 inches high, the Prius is more than 6 inches longer than the ECHO and just a tad lower than it. It is taller than most other subcompacts.
Upright exterior styling provides ample headroom for taller passengers in the front and rear. Despite a stated five-passenger capacity, the backseat isnt really wide enough to comfortably accommodate three adults a drawback common among small, four-door cars. Cargo volume is 11.8 cubic feet, which is comparable to other small sedans, but the rear seatback does not fold for extra space. Air conditioning, a cassette player and power windows, locks and mirrors are standard.
Under the Hood
Toyotas Prius differs from the two-passenger Honda Insight in that electric power is dominant in the Prius. An electric motor powers the Prius until it reaches about 12 mph. At that point, the 70-horsepower, 1.5-liter gasoline engine generally takes over and serves as the primary power source in a seamless transition. When necessary for passing, the electric motor kicks in to furnish additional propulsion power.
A continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) sends power to the front wheels. It has an infinite number of ratios, operating something like a dimmer switch instead of a three-way light switch. The gasoline engine turns itself off when the car stops and while it is coasting and braking. During that period, the engine serves as a generator to recharge the battery pack, so the car never requires overnight recharging like a full-electric vehicle would. Surprisingly, the Prius earns a higher, 52-mpg city mileage estimate than its 45-mpg highway rating from the Environmental Protection Agency. Batteries are mounted behind the rear seat. Antilock brakes are standard, and side-impact airbags are now optional.
Life behind the wheel of the Prius isnt much different than driving any small sedan. Operating an automobile that consumes far less fuel than the norm can be satisfying in itself, but fortunately the Prius scores high on more conventional attributes as well.
Acceleration is nothing to shout about, but the Prius is more than capable of keeping up with traffic, both around town and on the expressway. The gasoline engine starts and stops so subtly that its presence or absence becomes almost unnoticed. Still, the existence of two power sources when an extra burst of energy is needed makes passing and merging at least as confident as in any small automobile.
Handling is on par with other subcompact models, and the ride is pleasing throughout. Because the Prius is bigger inside than some regular-engine rivals, its more likely to be comfortable during lengthy travels.
One potential obstacle is fighting the urge to concentrate on the fuel-consumption display, which changes according to your driving pattern. Though it is fascinating, its obviously not a good idea to divert your attention from the road while driving. Just be confident that even without focusing much on fuel consumption, the gas mileage will be thrifty and even more frugal in city driving than on long highway journeys, according to EPA figures.