Expensive gas is today’s black cloud of despair for motorists, but there is a ray of light shining through the gloom. Costly energy drives higher efficiency and environmental interest, and it also provides car companies with the motivation to design better products. Toyota began its serious quest for higher mileage and lower exhaust emissions in 1997 with the release of the Prius in Japan. Since its launch in the U.S. market in 2000, the Prius has set the standard for fuel-efficient midsize sedans by delivering exceptional mileage with little comfort or convenience sacrifice. Automobile Magazine test drove the 2008 Prius Touring.
The design of the Prius is nothing like the rest of Toyota’s fleet and also is distinctive from every other car on the road. This five-door hatchback’s egg-shaped profile does more than rouse pedestrian interest; it also offers function and utility. The sweeping raised roof is an effective means of maximizing interior volume. The Prius provides 96.2 cubic feet of passenger room and 38.6 inches of legroom in the rear seat. Standard 60/40-split fold-down rear seats offer the opportunity to increase the 14.4-cubic-foot trunk’s volume on demand. In addition, the airfoil-like shape gives the vehicle low drag, helping minimize both interior noise and fuel consumption. The 2008 Prius Touring trim level differs from the standard model with 16-inch aluminum wheels, a larger rear spoiler, High Intensity Discharge (HID) headlamps, and integrated fog lamps.
Inside, occupants encounter a high-tech, user-friendly interior. An animated display panel reports energy flow, fuel consumption, climate control, outside temperature, and audio settings. Redundant climate and audio controls are located on the steering wheel – a nice touch especially since the dash control knobs are totally lacking in tactile feedback.
Four of us toured Ann Arbor in the Prius, enjoying its ample room for lanky arms and legs. As college teens, we weren’t disappointed by the humble cloth seats or vast expanses of molded plastic on the dash. We did, however, find the front seats’ lack of lumbar support annoying. Overall, the Prius’s interior is serviceable as basic transportation but not something likely to impress friends and neighbors. The 2008 Prius earned EPA ratings of 48 MPG city, 45 MPG highway, and 46 MPG combined, making it the most fuel efficient midsize car in America. Thanks to Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive System, which combines a 1.5-liter four-cylinder Atkinson Cycle gasoline engine with two electric motors, the Prius accelerates to 60 mph in about 10 seconds. That’s too lackadaisical for those seeking something fun to drive but quite adequate for commuters focused on low operating costs and impeccable dependability.
During a back-road trip to Cabela’s, an outdoor equipment superstore located 20 miles from Automobile’s home base, a friend and I experienced a touch of environmental bliss. As we glided to a stop, the gasoline engine automatically shut down to conserve fuel, so we motored gently forward, running only on clean, smooth, and nearly silent electric propulsion. This is one of many efficiency measures that helped us achieve 40 MPG over our 200-mile test drive. Another is called regenerative braking; step on the left pedal and energy that’s usually wasted is captured for storage in the trunk-mounted battery pack. Then, when it’s time to go again, the electric motors draw that energy out of the bank to minimize the power needed from the gasoline engine.
I like to think of the as a successful laboratory experiment. What it lacks in sex appeal and driving fun, it more than makes up in the clever way it uses electricity and electronics to move us farther down the road while consuming less petroleum. Best of all, the Prius is now well known and respected by consumers who never placed much emphasis on fuel efficiency.
The Prius name has Latin roots and means ‘to go before.’ Considering the role hybrids will surely have in saving energy in the near term, the name Toyota picked for this car is a perfect fit.
Toyota Prius Touring Edition
Base Price: $ 21,500
As-Tested: $ 24,438
Engine: 4-cylinder aluminum DOHC 16-valve VVT-i
Horsepower: 76 hp @ 5000 rpm
Torque: 82 lb-ft @ 4200 rpm
Electric Motor: Permanent Magnet Synchronous AC
Power Output: 50 kW (67 hp) @ 1200-1540 rpm
Torque: 295 lb-ft @ 0-1200 rpm
Battery Type: Nickel-Metal Hydride
Transmission: Electronically Controlled Planetary Type Continuously Variable
L x W x H: 175.0 x 67.9 x 58.7 in
Legroom F/R: 41.9 / 38.6 in
Headroom F/R: 39.1 / 37.3 in
Cargo capacity: 14.4 cu ft
Curb Weight: 2932 lb
EPA Rating (city/highway/combined): 48/45/46 mpg