2002 Toyota Prius

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2003 Toyota Prius

This 2003 review is representative of model years 2001 to 2003.
By Ann Job of MSN Autos
Rating: 9

Bottom Line:

Toyota's Prius ranks as the best-selling mass-production hybrid vehicle worldwide—and for good reason. This small sedan has decent power, reasonably nice interior and easily gets more than 40 miles a gallon, even on the highway.
Pros:
  • Big savings at the pump
  • Techie image
  • No mainstream look
Cons:
  • Light handling feel at times
  • High-priced for entry-level, small sedan
  • Improved Prius due later in calendar 2003

If you're like me, you get tired of being looked down on—in many ways—by the drivers of big sport-utility vehicles.

So, it was a refreshing change to be the one with the smug feelings—and I was driving a small sedan!

The 2003 Toyota Prius doesn't tower over the big SUVs physically, but when gasoline prices shot up early in calendar 2003 because of concerns over the Iraq war, the status of the fuel-efficient, gasoline-electric Prius hybrid was instantly elevated.

Status and consumer interest in this car—which has a government fuel economy rating of 52 miles a gallon in city driving and 45 mpg on the highway—weren't all that rose.

Toyota saw a jump in Prius sales nationwide as this, the world's first mass-produced gas-electric hybrid, naturally became a sought-after alternative to a regular, gas-only-powered four door.

Distinctive styling
The Prius is one of only three gas-electric hybrids sold in the United States. The other two are Hondas—the Insight and Civic Hybrid. All are priced around $20,000, which is higher than regular, entry-level cars of similar size.

I characterize the Prius as looking a bit impish in its outer styling; there's nothing here that looks elegant, rich or sporty. Most people also think the Prius' 14-inch tires look diminutive and the Prius hood seems short—shorter than that on other cars.

Remember, under the Prius hood is a small, 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine capable of just 70 horsepower and 82 lb-ft of peak torque, so the car doesn't need to accommodate a big powerplant under the hood.

What it does need—and have—is Toyota's smart Hybrid System that manages how and when this engine operates in conjunction with an onboard, 33-kilowatt, electric motor that can generate 44 horses and an amazing 258 lb-ft of torque right from the get-go.

Electric motors are marvelous for providing instant torque, and it's obvious from the first moments of driving the Prius the electric motor here adds special power.

Depending on what the driver needs, the electric motor may be the sole power source, like when I was prowling for a parking space in a parking deck, or it may supplement the internal combustion engine, as it did when I was passing other cars on the interstate.

Notice a difference
I won't say the on-and-off engine and motor workings are seamless. I could tell—both in the car's character and sounds—that things were going on.

The large, informative display in the middle of the dashboard keeps riders abreast of the high-tech workings, too.

There was a bit unsettling sense of lightness in the Prius, combined with an intermittent change in the electric power steering, when I pushed the test car hard at highway speeds.

The low-rolling resistance tires also lose some grip in aggressive moves in corners, and there was wind noise at highway speeds and road noise on certain surfaces in the test car.

Comfortable, easy car
Still, I appreciate that the Prius generates its electric power on its own, so there's no need to plug this car in.

The turning circle is a mere 31.5 feet, making the Prius maneuver go-kart-like in tight situations.

Despite its compact size, the five-seat Prius can be surprisingly comfortable inside, with front and rear headroom and legroom that rivals that in a Toyota Corolla. Trunk space is a commendable 11.8 cubic feet.

Most importantly, the Prius can travel more than 500 miles on a single tank—11.9 gallons—of regular, unleaded gas.

A final note
Toyota plans a next-generation Prius as a 2004 model. The new Prius will be larger and will have a revised Hybrid System with improved performance.

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BB01 - 7/23/2014 3:34:00 PM