By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
It’s hard to believe but the Toyota Prius has been around for a decade now. It is both the first successful mass-market hybrid and — by far — the best selling hybrid.
Arguably, because it’s the only hybrid that makes any sense.
Critics will say the car’s ongoing popularity is due mostly to greenie-geek posturing and there is some truth to this. But the Prius can make a solid case for itself — on the merits, not just the image — and I think that’s what accounts for its enduring success more than anything else.
WHAT IT IS
The Prius is Toyota’s hybrid gas-electric hatchback sedan. It’s been in continuous production since the 2001 model year. The current version is roughly mid-sized, bigger than a Corolla and just a bit smaller overall than a Camry. Five trims (I -V) are available, with a starting price of $22,120 for the economy-minded I. A top-of-the-line V has an MSRP of $28,790.
There are several other hybrids on the market, including the Ford Fusion hybrid and the Honda Civic hybrid — but they’re either not as efficient or a lot more expensive (sometimes both) and besides, the iconic Prius continues to be in a class by itself — like Coke or Elvis.
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2012
The hatchback sedan received a total makeover in 2010, so the 2012 will be mostly a carryover. However, something is afoot at the Circle K. A sporty (and smaller) Prius c (for “city centric”) hatchback sedan with a lower price tag (reportedly under $20k) and higher fuel economy will be added to the lineup in spring 2012. A wagon version of the standard-sized Prius will also be available.
Low price/high economy equals a hybrid that makes economic sense.
Peppier than you’d expect.
Seamless transition from battery to IC engine power.
Ten-year track record. We know this car is reliable.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Hybrids still not as good on gas as they could be.
Gas mileage of some non-hybrid IC cars is approaching real-world mileage of hybrids.
Ear-splitting back-up buzzer needs an “off” switch.
UNDER THE HOOD
All Prius trims come with the same drivetrain: a 1.8 liter gas engine teamed up with a pair of electric motors and a battery pack. Combined output is a claimed 134 hp, enough to get the Prius to 60 in about 10 seconds flat.
A CVT automatic transmission is standard equipment.
All versions are front-wheel-drive.
The window sticker says the Prius is capable of 51 city and 48 highway — making it (by far) the most fuel-efficient thing on four wheels you can buy. For some perspective, the similar-in-size Ford Fusion hybrid (which starts at $28,600) manages just 41 city and only 38 on the highway. The $23,950 Honda Civic hybrid is also more expensive — and a physically smaller car — yet only gives you 44 city/44 highway.
Even the wretched little (not-so-smart) Smart car — a two-seater that could probably fit in the Prius’ trunk — only gets 33 city and 44 highway.
On fuel economy, nothing can touch the Prius that isn’t also a motorcycle or a scooter.
ON THE ROAD
Toyota has infused the Prius with enough power (on demand) to give it acceptable acceleration when you need it — along with exceptional economy almost all the time.
Zero to 60 in 10 seconds is actually better performance than several current-year economy cars deliver. But the key point, not often mentioned in most reviews, is that the Prius’ highway mileage (a hybrid weak point, historically) is nearly 10 MPG better than the original 2001 model’s — and as good (or better) than comparable diesel-powered cars can achieve.
The early Prius just barely crested 40 MPG — and that was the best-case scenario, meaning driven with an eggshell under the accelerator and at least 10 MPH slower than the flow of traffic. If you kept up with traffic, your real-world mileage would be in the low-mid 30s, nothing especially spectacular. The current Prius can do much better, though you still need to drive it just right to maximize its potential.
Toyota helps you to do this in several ways. The first is via driver-adjustable powertrain settings. Choose “Eco” mode to rely less on the gas side of the powertrain — and to switch on engine/transmission calibrations that make the most of the gas side when it’s running. Or, at speeds up to about 30 MPH, select “EV” mode — which cuts off the gas engine entirely and lets the car operate solely on its batteries. There’s also a digital bar graph display you can call up that lets you monitor economy from minute to minute, or in 5-10-15 minute intervals. Do it right and you can indeed meet or even beat the published mileage figures. I recorded highs of 52 MPG, driving to maximize economy by keeping a light right foot and, as much as possible, maintaining a steady speed without too much hard braking or acceleration. It’s actually fun to use the instruments to make the most of the Prius’ economy capabilities.
And even when driven not so economically — on the highway at 70-ish MPH — the Prius still pulled consistent high 30s/low 40s, which is right there with a current diesel-powered car like the $23,965 VW Jetta TDI (42 highway). And while the diesel Jetta is efficient on the highway, in stop-and-go city driving, it only rates 30 MPG — 21 MPG less than the Prius. It also costs about $1,800 more to buy the Jetta TDI.
The Toyota’s CVT automatic is operated via a futuristic (but not awkward to use) toggle on the center console. There is no physical sensation of putting the car “into” Drive or Reverse. To engage Park, you press a button and the transmission does that automatically. It’s very video game-like, but works as well as a conventional shift lever with a physical (cable) connection to the transmission. The silent drive (at start-up) does take a little getting used to, if you’re not familiar with the operating characteristics of hybrid vehicles. You get used to it quickly, though — and otherwise the car is as simple/easy to drive as a standard car. With one exception. Toyota fits the Prius with a god-awful, piercingly loud back-up buzzer that comes on whenever you put the toggle selector in Reverse. Perhaps the thinking is that because the Prius is often silent when operating at low speeds, a buzzer is necessary to alert pedestrians. I can see that, I guess. But the buzzer assaults the driver/occupants of the Prius, inside the cabin. It is maddening — and arguably, very distracting and thus potentially dangerous. This is the only thing about the Prius I personally could not live with. An off switch for this buzzer is an essential that’s not there.
AT THE CURB
The Prius continues to tout its hybridness via its unusual appearance. For many buyers — whether they admit it or not — this is part of the appeal. Everyone knows the Prius is a hybrid and this scores points in today’s “be green to be cool” culture. And really, it’s no different in concept than buying a BMW or Cadillac for the curb appeal those brands come with.
The inside of the Prius is as distinctive as the outside. Directly ahead of the driver, there’s nothing but dashboard. The gauge cluster — all digital — is centered in the middle of the dash and recessed deeply into a nacelle. There aren’t individual gauges as such. It’s a flat panel LCD multi-function screen that can be toggled through different displays, including the “power flow” monitor that shows you whether you are operating on the gas engine by itself, with an assist from the electric motors, or on electric-battery power only.
Another unusual feature is the little vent mounted on the lower rear seatback that you may hear “inhaling” sometimes. This is a cooling vent for the hybrid battery pack, which is located underneath the rear seats.
Front and rear seat head and legroom is generous and a virtual dead heat with the much more expensive (and less fuel efficient) Ford Fusion hybrid, as well as the more expensive and also less fuel-efficient Honda Civic hybrid. All three have about 42 inches of front seat legroom, almost 39 inches of front seat headroom and about 38 inches of rear seat headroom. The Ford does have about 3/4 of an inch more backseat legroom (36.7 inches vs. 36.0). But the Prius punches back with a much bigger trunk — 21.6 cubic feet vs. 11.8 for the Fusion and even less (10.7 cubic feet) for the Civic hybrid. Both of the latter are conventional sedans with conventional trunks while the Prius is a hatchback sedan. The hatchback layout lets you expand the total available cargo area to almost 40 cubic feet while the Fusion’s max is 11.8 cubic feet.
The “floating” center console is stylistically interesting but can make getting at the storage area (and 12V power point) underneath the main shelf awkward sometimes. Getting at the power point, in particular, is something you learn to do by feel rather than sight. The flip-open cup holders are pretty cool, though.
Toyota gets it. Which is why people buy the Prius.
It is the only hybrid that doesn’t cost significantly more than a comparable-in-size economy sedan (unlike, for example, the $28k Ford Fusion hybrid) yet it gets much better mileage than a conventional economy sedan. That makes it make sense. The GM Volt is a $41,000 vehicle. Absurd. Even with a $7,000 tax deduction, it still costs as much as entry-luxury cars such as a Lexus ES350 or BMW 3 series. People who are concerned about the cost of fuel do not buy $41,000 (or $31,000) cars. The Volt may be many things — some of them good. But it does not make sense. Not as economy-minded transportation. The Prius does. Hence, it sells.
Another thing: We have a ten-year track record to refer to. The Prius has proved itself to be reliable and durable. It is common to see the older models still in use, no apparent major problems with either the electric motors or the electric batteries. It’s not unreasonable or pie-in-the-sky to anticipate getting 10 or more useful years of service out of a new Prius — which adds to the car’s commonsense appeal. If you average roughly 10 MPG better in a Prius over that period vs. what you’d have gotten in an otherwise similar sedan, you will have saved a large amount of money that you’d have otherwise spent on fuel. The key is (in my opinion) to buy the $22k Prius I and skip the more luxury-minded higher-trims… if your goal is to save money, which is really the only sensible reason to buy a hybrid anyhow. You can’t get factory GPS in the base I and II versions, but — so what? Aftermarket GPS units do the same thing, cost a lot less and can be used in multiple vehicles, too. The I (and II) trims come with all the necessaries, including power windows, locks and AC. It’s nice that Toyota offers equipment such as heated leather seats, 17 inch wheels, automated parking assist, JBL premium stereo and auto-leveling lights on the higher III, IV and V trims — but, again, if the whole point of the exercise is to save money, why would you buy all that stuff?
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Prius is still the pick of the hybrid litter — and maybe the only hybrid car that makes any sense.