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.