It has long been fashionable in auto-enthusiast and auto-journalist circles to dismiss the Toyota Prius as a precious affectation of misguided Al Gore devotees, people who find automobiles something to endure – for the sake of pure transportation – rather than enjoy. According to this mind-set, Prius drivers clog the carpool lanes, dawdle in intersections lest they ignite the internal-combustion component of the Hybrid Synergy Drive powertrain too quickly, and undeservedly bask in the glow of a conviction that they are helping the planet and their fellow human beings. That Prius owners are self-satisfied idiots, hypocrites, and anticar zealots until proven otherwise is taken as writ by Prius critics, including some members of Automobile Magazine’s editorial staff.
Central to the Prius critique is the notion that it, along with most vehicles with hybrid gasoline/electric powertrains, is no fun to drive and is simply not a match for a well-tuned car with a conventional internal-combustion engine, preferably one mated to a slick-shifting manual transmission. Indeed, there is more than a germ of truth to this. The outgoing, second-generation Prius suffers from an indifferent chassis; vague, lifeless steering and braking responses; weak accelerative power; and an utter lack of visceral, sensory feedback. The main fun to be had in the 2009 Prius is in monitoring the energy-consumption display and trying to increase the average miles per gallon, one tedious digit at a time.
With the new, third-generation Prius, Toyota is aiming to broaden the car’s appeal beyond the green set. At the media preview in Napa Valley, Toyota laid out a prescribed route designed to highlight the car’s fuel economy. I figured plenty of others would be bragging about hypermiling at that evening’s dinner (and, in fact, several drivers exceeded 70 mpg), so I decided instead to drive a 2010 Prius as hard and as fast as prudence and nerve allowed along the two-lane roads in and above Napa Valley. I set off in a Prius with optional seventeen-inch wheels along Silverado Trail, which runs through some of the most valuable tracts of grapevines in North America. Turning onto Sage Canyon Road, I pushed the new-for-2010 “power” button, which provides more aggressive throttle operation, and hit the go pedal. As the road grew curvier and climbed farther up into the hills, the Prius did not stumble. The give-and-take between internal combustion and electric power was far less apparent than before, and the car actually seemed eager to gobble up the tarmac. A new, more energetic, more enthusiastic Prius was emerging.
Near Lake Hennessy, the road forked, and I veered left onto Chiles Pope Valley Road, following a tip from another journalist. What unfolded was a hard-driving sports car lover’s dream: a challenging stretch of twisting, heaving, off-camber, dipping road interspersed with enticingly empty straights. It’s the perfect road for a Mazda Miata, but it turned out to be a surprisingly good route for the Prius as well. The biggest revelation was the Prius’s electric-power steering, which was direct and accurate, making the car easy to place in corners. Although it’s still lacking in feel and communicativeness, it’s a major advance over the outgoing car’s disconnected setup. Four-wheel disc brakes are now standard on all Prius models, and braking feel has lost much of its artificiality, but there’s a somewhat unexpected, abrupt final bite from the rotors when you hit the pedal hard. Perhaps most surprising? The Prius was not overly susceptible to understeer and had loads of grip, thanks in part to its 215/45VR-17 Michelin Pilot HX MXM4 rubber.
The result after a 57-mile loop starting in the village of Yountville was an indicated 34 mpg. Before you shrug your shoulders, consider that the fuel economy indicator graphic in the driver information display was basically in meltdown mode during most of the drive, meaning that the car was being driven in a most eco-unfriendly manner. Yet I achieved fuel economy on par with a nonhybrid subcompact driven placidly on the freeway. This is a notable achievement, even if my results fell far short of the 51-mpg city, 48-mpg highway, 50-mpg combined EPA ratings.
When driven normally, the Prius should have little trouble meeting these figures, which exceed the last-generation’s ratings of 48 mpg city and 45 mpg highway (adjusted for the latest EPA procedures). That’s despite weighing about 110 pounds more and having a gasoline engine that’s 1.8 liters, up from 1.5 liters. In fact, the larger engine, according to chief engineer Akihiko Otsuka, actually helps raise the highway mileage figure because it runs at fifteen percent lower rpm. The coolant pump and the A/C compressor are now electrically driven, reducing frictional losses, also helping economy.
The Prius interior is not what you’d call luxurious, but it still represents an upgrade over the previous car’s and is certainly roomier and more plush than the cabin of the new Honda Insight. The roof’s peak moves four inches farther rearward than before, which increases rear-seat headroom. Cabin ergonomics and the displays that monitor the activities of the Hybrid Synergy Drive system are top-notch. The front seats are noticeably wider, more adjustable, and more supportive, addressing a major customer complaint. In terms of safety, forward visibility once again is excellent, a more sophisticated stability control system is standard, and an available Advanced Technology package includes brake assist, radar cruise control, and a lane-departure system that nudges you back into your lane should you stray.
Let’s be clear. The Prius has not been transformed into a sport sedan, but it’s no longer a penalty box to drive. And, like it or not, we’re all on a long journey away from internal-combustion and toward electric vehicles, so any progress made toward building some fun into this new generation of vehicles is to be applauded. This year, the Prius joins the new Honda Insight and the new Ford Fusion Hybrid to prove that hybrid cars don’t have to be soulless appliances for eco-weenies. They can also be for you and me.
On sale: May
Price: $23,000 (est.)
Engine: 1.8L I-4, 98 hp, 105 lb-ft
Batteries: Nickel-metal-hydride, 1.31 kW-h
motor/generators: Two AC, 56 and 80 hp
Total power: 134 hp