2003 Toyota Prius
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
There is no longer any question that Toyota's Prius sedan—first mass-produced gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle—can be driven like a regular, comfortable small economy car.
Such concern existed in America when this writer initially tested the Prius in September, 2000, although the respected Toyota nameplate probably convinced many Prius owners to overcome resistance to alien technology and buy the car.
Still, much less expensive sedans with high economy ratings and better performance are available. Even Toyota's $10,105-$11,495 gasoline-engine Echo coupe and sedan deliver an estimated 34 mpg in the city and 41 on the highway with a manual gearbox and 32 and 38 with an automatic. The Volkswagen Jetta diesel-engine sedan provides an estimated 42 mpg in the city and 49 on highways with a manual, 34 and 45 with an automatic.
Affected By Temperatures
Toyota said the largest markets for the car are balmy Los Angeles and fairly balmy San Francisco. However, it said the Prius does well in large metropolitan areas, where there's lots of stop-and-go driving. (Prius city economy is higher than highway economy because its electric motor is used more often in town.)
Some Prius buyers will have to own the car for a fairly long time to have its fuel economy make up for its price, although there is a one-time $2,000 federal tax deduction for hybrid vehicle owners.
As of this report, Toyota said it sold 41,237 Prius models through January, 2003, in America since the car's introduction here in July, 2000. Toyota expects to sell 20,000 in America this year. The Prius was introduced in Japan in 1997, but the U.S. version has more power to make it better suited to U.S. driving.
How It Works
Electronic controls that make up the Toyota Hybrid System let the car operate on either electricity or gasoline, or a combination of both. The gas engine constantly charges the batteries, so there is no need for plug-in charging.
The gas engine gets fuel from an 11.9-gallon tank, and the electric motor draws energy from a Nickel-Metal-Hydride (NMH) battery pack, which prevents the rear seatback from folding forward for more cargo room—a common desirable feature with small economy cars. At least the Prius has a fairly large trunk, although it's taller than it is long and has an average width and rather small opening.
A second smaller electric motor/generator is used to charge the batteries and control the smooth CVT transmission through a power-split device, essentially a small planetary transmission. That connection sends engine power simultaneously to the front wheels and the electric generator, feeding the electric motor and/or the battery.
Keeping Up Efficiency
That's a lot of clever engineering! But never mind—just put the Prius' transmission in "drive" mode and use it like a conventional vehicle. Not incidentally, the oversized transmission shifter lever feels awkward and obscures part of the audio controls—a silly design flaw for such an advanced car.
Lazy Highway Acceleration
However, steady cruising on fairly flat highways is no problem, although more sound-reduction materials would be nice. But such materials add weight, which is an enemy of fuel economy.
Quick steering and the light weight make the Prius nimble and fun to drive in town. But the steering provides little road feel through the narrow tires, which are needed for high fuel economy because they have less rolling resistance.
Average Handling, Smooth Ride
On the other hand, a smooth ride is provided by the supple suspension, with none of the jerky motions one might expect from a small car with a 100.4-inch wheelbase. Stopping distances are short, but the regenerative brakes are touchy.
Digital instruments sit high on the dashboard and can be easily read without changing eye focus from the road. A video type screen that displays power sources in use, fuel economy and radio presets can be distracting—but can be switched off. Alas, the images disappear with the sun at your back, taking away the touch-activated radio presets.
The Prius is fairly well equipped. Standard are air conditioning, AM/FM/cassette, anti-lock brakes, tilt steering wheel, console, rear defogger, heated power mirrors and power windows, door locks and remote keyless entry.
The 2003 Prius is essentially unchanged because it got an optional ($1,900) navigation system last year, along with $250 front side airbags and $250 cruise control.
New options are $40 daytime running lights, $335 CD player (or $589 in-dash 6-disc CD changer) and a $372 accessory package with items including a glass-breakage sensor, floor mats and cargo mat.
Electric cars have flopped, and mass produced fuel-cell vehicles are said to be more than a decade away. Thus, gasoline-electric hybrid cars and light trucks are destined to become far more popular. Prius owners thus have grabbed a piece of the future.