Review: 2005 Toyota Prius

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.

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