No shoes were flung when the 2010 Toyota Prius debuted at the recent Detroit auto show. Considering the grim mood in the Motor City – with domestic automakers on death watch and frozen credit paralyzing sales – and the fact that a gallon of gas costs little more than a can of beer, that’s remarkable. Detroit was hardly the opportune place for a fuel-scrimping, technically advanced Asian import to bow. Then again, consider the Latin meaning of the word Prius: to go before. Defying skeptics is this car’s cause. The Prius’s mission has always been venturing ahead of the gas-saving, earth-hugging curve.
Toyota calls this the third generation of the Prius (not counting one sold in Japan from 1997 to 2000 but never imported here), but the gist of the world’s best-selling gas-electric hybrid hasn’t changed an iota. It rides on the same 106.3-inch wheelbase as its predecessor, and its external dimensions are longer, lower, and wider by smidgens. The fresh but still nerdy-looking skin smites the wind with a drag coefficient trimmed from 0.26 to 0.25. The front wheels are again energized by a compound powertrain consisting of one four-cylinder engine, two motor/generators, one planetary gearbox, and a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack.
The rumored plug-in lithium-ion batteries are a no-show for now, yet Toyota engineers overhauled the rest of the Prius’s propulsion system. The DOHC sixteen-valve I-4 engine grows from 1.5 to 1.8 liters in displacement, upping peak output from 76 to 98 hp at 5200 rpm. One carryover feature is the use of the Atkinson cycle, a delayed intake-valve closing arrangement that yields a longer expansion stroke and reduced fuel consumption. The most notable engine innovation is the elimination of belts under the hood; all accessory equipment (A/C compressor, coolant pump, power-steering pump) is now directly driven by the engine or by an electric motor.
A new transaxle brings a 20 percent reduction in friction. About seventy pounds have been trimmed from the hybrid drive system. Gearing revisions supported by a 28 percent increase in peak engine torque (to 105 lb-ft at 4000 rpm) and a 22 percent gain in total hybrid system power deliver improved acceleration and better mileage. Expect an EPA combined rating of 50 mpg (versus 46 mpg for the outgoing Prius), with a city figure just over and highway mileage a bit under the nifty-fifty mark.
Even though the battery pack is essentially carryover, electronic controls have been reprogrammed to increase the amount of regenerative braking. Three driving modes can be selected by pressing the appropriate button. According to Toyota, the PWR (power) mode “increases sensitivity to throttle input for a sportier feel.” The ECO mode provides various display aids to help the driver achieve maximum mileage. The EV (electric vehicle) mode allows driving at low speeds for about a mile with the engine shut down.
Chassis changes are minimal. One notable change is the rear brakes, where drums have been supplanted by discs.
Radar-based cruise control, a lane-departure alert system, reverse assist, and Toyota’s first safety and security service have been added to the options list.
The Prius’s interior volume remains at the low end of the EPA’s mid-size category, but its sweeping roofline and high-flying hatch provide ample room for five passengers and their gear. The chair-high rear seat is more commodious than your average limo. Split-folding backrests allow bulky freight to be transported. Thanks to a new layout for the battery-cooling system, the trunk is 2.2 inches wider.
An elevated center control console sweeps between the Prius’s front bucket seats. Designers may have been ex-posed to a few too many Star Trek episodes. The shifter is a dainty toggle that’s shuttled through an h-shaped gate to select the mode of travel. Park is engaged by pressing a button. Upholding tradition, the driver receives a blank stare from the dash space circumscribed by the steering wheel. Instead, all digital gauges, system reports, and warning icons glow out of a wide slot centrally located at the base of the windshield. Each touch of the steering-wheel-spoke audio system control is now confirmed in the central display cluster.
The cabin is roomy and thoughtfully arranged, but its ambience is intentionally low-rent. Noncontact surfaces are as unyielding as granite. The shades-of-gray molded plastic has a grainy texture not found in nature. Seats, elbow pads, and roof surfaces are trimmed in mouse fur. The low-nap carpets and floor mats deserve accommodation from the recycled materials council. This is a Toyota for ascetics, not a low-consumption Lexus.
Priuses equipped with the optional moonroof also come with overhead photovoltaic (solar cell) panels. The electricity that’s so generated powers a fan that automatically removes heat from the cabin to reduce the need for air-conditioning. (Audi and Mazda have offered similar systems in the past.) The Prius’s battery-powered air-conditioning can be programmed to pre-cool the interior for a comfortable commute home.
Although we can truthfully brag that we’re the first journalists to drive the new Prius, our trip consisted of but a short run within the confines of a photo studio. The maximum velocity achieved was 4 mph. Pressing the power button lights the electronic gear several seconds in advance of the engine softly shuffling to life. Outward visibility through the steeply raked windshield and the miniature front quarter windows is better than the view out the nearly horizontal glass hatch.
Will the new Prius hold its own against mounting hybrid competition, not to mention the diesel’s return to grace? Is it good enough to counter growing interest in plug-in electric cars? Will it maintain Toyota’s green lead until plug-in electrics arrive? We’ll let you know the minute we plant our seats in the mouse fur for a longer test drive.
BASE PRICE: $23,000 (est.)
ENGINE: DOHC 16-valve I-4
DISPLACEMENT: 1.8 liters (110 cu in)
HORSEPOWER: 98 hp @ 5200 rpm
TORQUE: 105 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
BATTERIES: Nickel-metal-hydride, 202v
motor/generator: Permanent magnet AC, 80 hp, 153 lb-ft
TOTAL HORSEPOWER: 134 hp
TRANSMISSION TYPE: Electronic continuously variable automatic
STEERING: Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
SUSPENSION, FRONT: Strut-type, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR: Torsion beam, coil springs
BRAKES F/R: Vented discs/discs, ABS
TIRE SIZE: 195/65SR-15
L x W x H: 175.6 x 68.7 x 58.7 in
WHEELBASE: 106.3 in
FUEL MILEAGE: 50 mpg combined (est.)
BLAME IT ON BILL
In 1993, during the Clinton administration, the federal government and U.S. automakers signed what amounted to a peace treaty. In exchange for reduced regulatory pressure and federal resources, the car companies agreed to more vigorously pursue advanced fuel-saving technologies. This agreement, called a Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, set a goal of producing 80-mpg concepts by 1999, followed by production-feasible prototypes by 2004.
The big surprise was Toyota’s request to join the party. When that appeal was denied, chairman Eiji Toyoda encouraged the creation of a task force in Japan called G21 – a global car for the twenty-first century. Toyota’s engineering vice president, Akihiro Wada, set a target of doubling small-car fuel efficiency and assigned engineer Takeshi Uchiyamada the task of preparing a credible concept car for the 1995 Tokyo Motor Show.
Uchiyamada’s team proposed more than eighty technologies as a means of achieving G21 goals, with inspiration drawn from research both inside and outside Toyota. The twenty best ideas were narrowed to the top four concepts. What was initially called the Toyota Hybrid System (THS) was selected in June 1995. The first Prius ran in December shortly after the Tokyo show closed.
THS is identical in concept to a powertrain TRW engineers patented in 1970. The name Synergy (as in Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive) was an outgrowth of a joint GM/Toyota research effort begun in 1999 to study fuel cells, electric propulsion, and hybrid systems. When Toyota asked to use the name for production models, GM magnanimously granted permission to do so.