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.