While Honda was seeking conservation with its purpose-built, two-place Insight hybrid, Toyota was taking a more mainstream approach with a small sedan. Decidedly Japanese in its styling quirks, the original Prius was an excellent proof of concept: Hybrids were here to stay. Last year, with the second-generation Prius, Toyota raised the bar, creating a midsize car with fuel efficiency greater than that of most compacts. In addition to enabling the Prius’ extreme performance and cargo-toting ability, the distinctive styling made an instant political statement.
In its first year, the Prius garnered industry accolades — Motor Trend’s Car of the Year, IntelliChoice Best Overall Value, and International Engine of the Year. Likewise, the public embraced the Prius with such fervor as to make it hard to find one to buy in 2004, especially in California, prompting Toyota to increase production by 50 percent. By this year, the fanfare has settled down, allowing us to take a more measured look beyond the hype at the car line that has demonstrated how high technology can bring fuel efficiency to market in an affordable, appealing package.
The funky five-door Prius is one of the most distinctive shapes on the road–a truly futuristic piece of car design. Love it or hate it, you can’t miss it. The slippery shape achieves an extremely low drag coefficient of 0.26 Cd, besting almost every other production car ever sold. By pushing less air than even most sports cars, the Prius hatchback requires less fuel to attain and hold highway speeds. With all exterior elements, choices were made to maximize efficiency. Each part was shaped with aerodynamics in mind, from the slender grille and smooth headlamps, to the underbody shields and rear Kamm-back shape. Unfortunately, the 15-inch wheels look positively tiny under the Prius’s ample flanks. Larger wheels are available in the aftermarket, but they require giving up the low-rolling-resistance tires that come on the car, so fuel economy will suffer.
Because the new Prius runs on a platform with a wheelbase six inches longer than the previous model’s, the EPA now rates it as a midsize car. The 96.2 cubic feet of passenger space isn’t far behind the 101.7 cubic feet in the very spacious Toyota Camry. The trunk houses 16.1 cubic feet of luggage, and a 60/40-split folding rear seat gives the Prius a lot of versatility and load-hauling ability for such compact exterior dimensions.
One of the most striking features of the car is its interior design, which has a large central monitor more typically seen on luxury cars. This screen showcases the enlightening vehicle information system, as well as the optional navigation system. There’s no gearshift lever as such, just a small joystick mounted on the dash that allows gear shifting by tapping your finger. The steering wheel houses controls for both the audio and air-conditioning systems.
Another feature of the Prius is that it’s remarkably well equipped for a midsize car, with many standard features that are either optional or unavailable on comparably priced competitive vehicles. Automatic air conditioning is standard, along with cruise control, heated power side mirrors, power windows and locks, and remote keyless entry. Options include an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, a garage door opener, a JBL Premium stereo with nine speakers, a navigation system, and Bluetooth connectivity. Another neat option is a smart entry and start system that allows hands-free keyless entry and startup.
Dual front airbags and seatbelt pretensioners are standard, with full-length curtain airbags available on the options list. Anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist are standard, as is traction control. You have to pay extra for Toyota’s electronic stability control system known as VSC.
There’s only one powertrain in the Prius: Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive, a third-generation full hybrid system composed of a gasoline engine and an electric motor. The gasoline engine is a 1.5-liter four-cylinder unit that makes 76 horsepower and 82 lb-ft of torque. The permanent magnet electric motor produces a maximum of 67 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. According to traffic conditions, the system can operate as an electric motor only, a gasoline engine only, or as both. The Prius uses a continuously variable transmission.
In city driving, the system shuts down for extended periods–at stoplights, for example–and restarts automatically, using fuel only when truly needed for motive force. The Prius has a regenerative braking function, whereby the electric motor acts as a generator when the car is coasting or the brakes are applied, capturing kinetic energy that would normally be lost as heat and transforming it into usable electricity to recharge the batteries.
The powertrain is not only very efficient–the EPA rating is 60/51 city/highway mpg–it’s also very clean. The Prius is certified as a Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle in California.
Inside the Prius, the first things you notice are the lack of a conventional gear shifter and the electronic instrumentation, which looks like the kind so trendy in the 1980s but long faded from dashboard design. The large central display is prominent, too, and it’s fun to see how the drivetrain is distributing the work between electric and gasoline elements. The electric and gasoline powertrain team transition smoothly through their modes at speed, leaving the on-screen animation as the best way to monitor this high-tech process. The screen effectively teaches the driver the techniques for extracting maximum fuel economy, turning driving into a kind of video game.
The vehicle is quiet, smooth riding, and fast enough to keep up with traffic most of the time, but it’s hardly going to please enthusiastic drivers. Noticeably quicker than the first Prius, the 2005 model has a claimed 0-to-60-mph time of 10 seconds, and the vehicle feels quite sprightly when both the engine and motor are working together. In town, the engine shuts down at stoplights and restarts automatically, which takes a little getting used to. The lack of an exhaust note under acceleration is eerie at first, but your passengers will appreciate the calm inside. Just be careful of pedestrians–they may not hear you coming, particularly in parking lots.
The electric-system-intense Prius lacks the kind of feedback from the steering, brakes, and suspension that enthusiast drivers seek. Also, the narrow tires relinquish grip very early compared with most sedans. The flip side is that the Prius is a terrific highway car and coddles its occupants with a supple ride.
The Prius is covered by Toyota’s standard three-year/36,000-mile warranty on all components other than the powertrain, which has additional six-year/60,000-mile coverage. The hybrid elements, including the expensive battery, battery control module, hybrid control module, and inverter, are covered for eight years/100,000 miles. There’s also 24/7 roadside assistance for three years. Although the Prius isn’t cheap, Toyota is underwriting the true cost of the program, meaning that consumers are getting more hardware than they’re paying for, literally. The Prius earned two awards from IntelliChoice in 2005, adding further validation to the vehicle’s appeal. On the Prius mantel rests Best Overall Value- for Midsize Under $21,000 and Best Car Value Under $23,000. Hybrid drivetrain aside, the Prius is a solid value on its own merits.
The Toyota Prius is science fiction made reality, in a practical, livable form.
For the 2005 model year, Toyota made minor trim package changes.
Side curtain side airbags are an important stand-alone option. An alarm system, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, a garage-door opener, and a smart key system compose a desirable package of options. Stability control is part of another package with the curtain airbags, foglamps, and Xenon high-intensity discharge lamps. A Navigation system comes with the smart key, curtain airbags, and the premium audio system.