Toyota, a company that prefers the role of casino owner to that of poker player, took a chance with its Prius gasoline-electric hybrid in 2000. Over the past three years, the Prius steadily has gained acceptance and even has become a bit of a Hollywood celebrity anti-status status symbol-something akin to the original Volkswagen Beetle. Sales have grown each year the Prius has been on sale, culminating with 20,000 units sold in 2002. Toyota hopes a new, larger, and more efficient Prius will make the jump from ecologically aware oddity to viable mainstream choice.
Powering the new Prius are a 78-horsepower, 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine and a 67-horsepower electric motor. The electric motor makes its horsepower from 1200 to about 1500 rpm, whereas the gasoline engine produces peak power at about 5000 rpm. The two powerplants work well together, with the torquey electric motor boosting low-rpm acceleration and the gasoline engine taking over at higher revs.
In the previous-generation Prius, gently pushing the throttle would allow the electric motor to get you rolling, and then very quickly the gasoline engine would come online. The new car spends far more time running solely on electric power, thanks to an electric motor that's 50 percent more powerful than before and to a new, electrically powered air-conditioning compressor. (Previously, the gasoline engine would not shut down if the A/C was on.)
With the electric motor operating more and the gasoline engine doing less, the fuel economy of the Prius has increased to an estimated 60 mpg in the city and 50 mpg on the highway. (The higher city number is typical of hybrids, because that's when the gasoline engine often shuts down.)
In addition to greater fuel economy, the new Prius boasts improved performance. Toyota claims a 0-to-60-mph time of 10.1 seconds, a two-second improvement over the last Prius, and a 4.9-second 30-to-50-mph time, which puts it on a par with the four-cylinder Camry. The Prius's acceleration won't cause tunnel vision, but the steady stream of power from the two sources and the continuously variable planetary transmission call for little compromise on the part of the driver.
Where you will find compromise is in ride quality. Even on well-groomed roads, the Prius feels stiff-legged, and road imperfections jar the structure, sending cabin materials twittering. The ride and structural rigidity are most un-Toyota-like and let down the otherwise well-executed driving experience.
A new, larger platform-not shared with other Toyotas-allows for a roomier cabin. No longer a compact, the new Prius boasts 94 cubic feet of passenger space, moving it into the mid-size class. Most of the added space goes to the rear seats, where occupants have more head, shoulder, and leg room. Interior materials, colors, and textures differentiate the Prius from other Toyotas. A larger touchscreen in the center of the instrument panel operates radio and climate control as well as an optional navigation system.
The larger size is all part of Toyota's plan to make the Prius more appealing to mainstream buyers. And if supersizing it and improving its fuel economy don't lure customers, holding the price at $19,995 will. Although generally conservative, Toyota is betting that the public will embrace hybrid technology, and, judging by the increasing acceptance of the Prius, the company may be right. Already in its second generation when most manufacturers have yet to introduce their first hybrids, the Prius represents the engineering might of Toyota and perhaps the future of gasoline-powered automobiles.