2001 Toyota Prius

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2001 Toyota Prius

By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
Rating: 8

Bottom Line:

World's first production gasoline-electric hybrid can be used like a regular car.
Pros:
  • Highly economical
  • Easy to live with
  • Roomy
  • Nicely equipped
Cons:
  • Bland styling
  • No track record here
  • Skinny tires
  • Awkward transmission shifter

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 car begins moving with electric power, and seamlessly switches to its gasoline engine at higher speeds. A dashboard display clearly and continually shows when gasoline and/or electric power are being used. Here's betting new owners will have a hard time keeping their eyes away from that fascinating display—at least for the first week of ownership.

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.

Long Warranty
Toyota likely is under pricing the Prius to help it get a good reception here. To reassure potential buyers, it's given the car an 8-year/100,000-mile warranty on the battery and hybrid power system.

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
The Prius' EPA-estimated fuel economy is 52 mpg in the city and 45 on the highway. This is the only car that delivers higher fuel economy in the city than on the highway because its electric motor powers it much of the time in the city.

Fuel economy figures for the Insight are an estimated 61 mpg in the city and 70 on the highway.

Decently Equipped
Many high-economy autos are rather stripped to hold down fuel-eating weight and accessories. Not the Prius, which Toyota knows must offer popular items to help it get a good reception. Standard items thus include air conditioning, AM/FM/cassette, anti-lock brakes and power windows.

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.
I found the Japanese model to be acceptable for U.S. driving. But Toyota didn't want to take any chances and consequently has modified the American version for this country's higher speeds, longer driving distances, more dramatic climate changes and tougher emissions requirements.

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.

Unusual Transmission
Some new Prius owners may wonder why the car's automatic transmission doesn't upshift or downshift. That's because the Prius has an unconventional continuously variable automatic transmission. It acts as if you're driving in one gear all the time, but works very efficiently.

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.

Roomy
However, the Prius provides good room for four 6-footers, which is something that can't be said for the Corolla with its rather tight back seat. And the Prius has a large, nicely shaped trunk, although the lid has space-eating manual hinges.

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
Still, the Prius is so small and light at 2,765 pounds that it's nimble and fun to drive—especially in town. There's moderate wind noise at highway speeds, but the Prius is a pretty comfortable long-distance cruiser, with a decent 65-75 mph passing time.

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.

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BB02 - 8/29/2014 5:20:25 PM