2004 Toyota Prius
By Ann Job of MSN Autos
The fuel economy numbers are out from the federal government, and the midsize car that's most thrifty with gasoline is the 2004 Toyota Prius.
That's right, the Prius gasoline-electric hybrid is a midsize auto now and no longer a compact. And even with its roomier interior, bigger cargo space and improved get up and go over last year's model, the new Prius is rated at an impressive 60 miles a gallon in city driving and 51 mpg on the highway.
In fact, the new, bigger Prius actually has a higher fuel economy rating than did its smaller predecessor. The 2003 Prius compact sedan had a government rating of 52 mpg in city driving and 45 mpg on the highway.
If the gasoline savings, new styling and a lengthy list of technology features aren't enough to attract shoppers, it's likely the Prius price tag will.
Toyota officials, who noted women bought more than half of all Prius vehicles produced for the United States in calendar 2002, kept the starting manufacturer's suggested retail price at the same $19,995 that the 2003 model had.
Far less utilitarian look
The new model looks more substantial and less utilitarian than the first-generation Prius which has been sold in the United States since calendar 2000 as an environmentally friendly car that never requires its electric motor be plugged in.
The motor draws power from a battery pack that captures and stores electrical energy as the vehicle travels.
Styling is sleeker now, and the Prius is a five-door hatchback. Though maximum seating remains at five, passengers ride in more comfort with nearly every dimension, especially rear legroom, improved. I especially appreciated the decent-sized windows on the rear doors, and the maximum 16.1 cubic feet of cargo space, up from 11.8 cubic feet in last year's Prius.
Appearance-wise, the only angle from which the 2004 Prius looks a bit off, in my view, is from the side, where the short hood is apparent.
There's not really a reason for a longer hood, because there's only a 76-horsepower 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine under there mated to an electric motor that puts out 50 kilowatts for another 67 horsepower.
Hybrid power not noticeable
Once the Prius was up and running on the road, the impression changed to a car whose power delivery feels a lot like that of a regular gasoline-powered auto.
Power—modulated between electric motor and gasoline engine—was smooth and seamless in the test vehicle, which, like all Priuses, had an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission.
I merged into city traffic without a hiccup, and I got up to speed with other cars on the highway without fuss.
The engine has the usual, four-cylinder buzzy sounds when pressed hard, and the Prius still is oh-so-quiet when only the electric motor is operating, such as when the car is backing up.
Overall, the driving sensation, itself, doesn't hint at a mix-and-match powertrain system.
In fact, the new Prius feels much zippier than its predecessor in pedal-to-the-metal startups, and Toyota officials say acceleration is 15 percent better than in the previous Prius.
Helping this performance is the new electric motor that's more capable than the 33-kilowatt previous motor. Torque from the motor now is 295 lb-ft from standstill all the way to 1200 rpm. This compares with 258 lb-ft from standstill to 400 rpm in the previous Prius.
The nickel-metal hydride battery is upgraded, too, to a 500-volt maximum, up from 273.6 volts. Toyota officials also said they bench-tested this battery pack to 150,000 miles "without degradation" and added there is an eight-year/100,000-mile warranty on the powertrain battery.
The four-cylinder engine is much the same as in the previous Prius, but horsepower is boosted some from last year's 70.
Thankfully, for 2004, Toyota officials dropped the low-rolling resistance rubber and put all-season tires on the new Prius. I didn't get a single chirp during my test drive. And the tires' larger size—15-inch vs. 14-inch on the 2003 Priuses—give the Prius an improved look.
There is some road noise that comes through on certain pavement surfaces. The aerodynamic shape of the new Prius does a good job of reducing wind noise.
The turning circle in the new model isn't as small as it was in the predecessor Prius, and the ride isn't as isolated from road bumps as some passengers might like.
I found my body organs jiggling and vibrating on a regular basis in the 2004 Prius tester—even on what appeared to be smooth concrete.
The electric power-assist rack-and-pinion steering also took some getting used to as I spent time correcting my steering efforts in the first several curves.
Some things to learn
The gearshifter is different, too. It's not so much a shifter or lever as it is a short, fat knob extending from the dashboard. It took me a bit of practice to learn how to move the knob from gear to gear.
There's no "P" for "park" among the knob selections, either. "Park" is a button all by itself above the knob and can be engaged without the driver going through the "neutral" gear.
I enjoyed the better graphics of the new Prius display in the middle of the dashboard, even if the midday sun can, at times, wash out how visible they are.
The Prius is available with many new options, including a voice-activated navigation system. Even fully loaded, the Prius is priced under $26,000, Toyota officials said.
Actors Harrison Ford, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robinson eschewed the usual limousines to ride up to the red carpet at the 2003 Academy Award ceremony in Los Angeles in 2003 Priuses.
In summer 2003, actors Billy Crystal and Ed Begley Jr., actor/director Hart Bochner who has appeared in the movies Die Hard and Anywhere But Here as well as Carla Shamberg, executive producer of the 2000 movie Erin Brockovich, and Perry Lang, director of TV's Alias and ER, were among the entertainment industry heavyweights who accepted Toyota's invitation to test drive the new Prius in Pasadena, Calif.
So eager were some of the high-brow attendees, they showed up a half hour early, according to Mary Nickerson, national manager of advanced technology vehicle marketing at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.
Despite the fact they had been told "you might have to sit and listen to a presentation, nobody would wait, and they bolted to the cars," said Debbie Levin, president of the Environmental Media Association, which helped Toyota with the invitation list and RSVPs.
Before the afternoon was over, Toyota had orders for 22 new Priuses from the group of 25 guests, Nickerson said.
Levin, who drives a Prius herself, wasn't surprised at the orders. Her Los Angeles-based group, which "gets environmental messages in television and film and uses celebrities to role model environmental behavior," is working hard to make driving a hybrid "a cool thing to do," she said.
"It's becoming the trendy thing to do (in Hollywood); when I go to lunch with people and they get into a Mercedes, they apologize," she added.