2001 Toyota Prius
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
The Toyota Prius sedan—world's first mass-produced hybrid car—finally reached the United States last summer after being sold for several years in Japan.
The $19,995 gasoline-electric Prius can be used just like a regular car without extra effort. And, no, you don't have to plug it into an electric outlet to recharge its batteries. The gasoline engine and regenerative braking internally recharge the car's thin battery pack.
Electronic controls allow the Prius to run on electricity or gasoline alone, or on a combination of both with very low emissions. The ratio of power supplied by each system is constantly controlled, depending on speed and load, to keep the Prius in an efficient operating mode.
How It Works
The only other hybrid auto is the new, small Honda Insight 2-seater. The $18,880-$20,080 Insight looks racier and is more fun to drive than the Prius, partly because it has a manual transmission. But it's far less practical.
Toyota plans to sell 1,000 Prius models monthly here. The car couldn't have been introduced at a better time, considering stiff gasoline prices in the summer of 2000.
High Fuel Economy
Fuel economy figures for the Insight are an estimated 61 mpg in the city and 70 on the highway.
While new to this country, the Prius has racked up more than 35,000 sales in Japan since December, 1997. But the American version is more lively than the Japanese right-hand-drive Prius I tested for a week in June, 1999.
Changes for U.S.
Horsepower of the car's sophisticated 1.5-liter 4-cylinder gasoline engine thus has been increased from 58 to 70, and the electric motor's horsepower has been boosted from 40 to 44.
The Prius has rather bland economy-car styling—I didn't see anyone giving it a second look. It's about the size of a Toyota Corolla and drives about the same as a typical small Japanese car.
Like the highly refined Corolla, the Prius has a supple "family car" ride. But its quick power steering has an odd artificial feel. The hard, skinny tires are needed to help deliver high fuel economy, but allow only average handling and braking. The brake pedal has a decent feel, although the brakes are a little touchy.
Fun to Drive
Front seats are supportive, but it may take some drivers awhile to get used to the location of the instruments, which are in the center of the dashboard. Still, they're easy to read. Controls work with typical Toyota smoothness. A high seating position, big windshield and sloping hood allow a driver excellent forward visibility, although rearview mirrors are a little small.
The big shift lever is awkward to operate and blocks some radio controls. Front cupholders look and feel cheap, but the interior has high-grade materials and rear windows roll all the way down.
Battery-powered electric cars haven't been very successful in warm-weather areas of the country and can't handle cold-weather driving. But the Prius can be driven in any weather and should especially appeal to drivers who want cutting-edge technology—and who dislike stops at gasoline stations.