2009 Toyota Prius

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2004 Toyota Prius

This 2004 review is representative of model years 2004 to 2009.
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
Rating: 8

Bottom Line:

New-generation hybrid gasoline-electric sedan performs well.
Pros:
  • Impressive fuel economy
  • Roomy
  • Lively performance
Cons:
  • Limited service
  • Awkward gear selector
  • Appliance-like feel

The second-generation Toyota Prius is a major improvement over the first-generation Prius, which was the world's first mass-produced gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle when introduced in Japan in 1997 and first offered here in 2000.

The high-mileage Prius has sold in respectable numbers. Ironically, it's become a favorite of Hollywood celebrities—right alongside the gas-guzzling Hummer that has attracted high-profile Hollywood folks. Go figure.

It's also ironic that Toyota talks about the increased size and power of the 2004 Prius because American automakers once bragged that their new gas-guzzling models were larger and more powerful.

New Body Design
The new Prius is a 4-door hatchback, whereas its predecessor had a regular trunk. The first version looked boxy, but the new 2,890-pound Prius is far more streamlined. Its exceptionally aerodynamic body has a super-low .26 coefficient of drag (CD) to help minimize interior noise and enhance fuel economy.

(The lower the CD, the less wind resistance a vehicle has. Even a 0.30 coefficient of drag is good.)

Amazing Fuel Economy
The Prius is among the most fuel-stingy cars. It had Environmental Protection Agency-estimated ratings of 60 mpg in the city and 51 on the highway when it went on sale in mid-October. That's up significantly from 52 and 45 for the 2003 Prius.

Those numbers represent quite an accomplishment. But actual fuel economy will be lower for most Prius owners because it's doubtful if many—or any—of them will have the rigid driving patterns the EPA uses to maintain consistency in getting fuel economy ratings for vehicles.

The 2004 Prius uses a "Hybrid Synergy Drive" system. It has a small 76 horsepower (up from 70) 4-cylinder engine and a 67-horsepower (up from 44) electric drive motor. With a battery pack, they work separately or together to propel the car through a smooth automatic continuously variable transmission.

It may seem confusing, but actual combined horsepower is 110 instead of 143. That's because the Prius hybrid technology doesn't allow adding the two horsepower figures for a combined total. The car simply can't deliver maximum horsepower figures of the engine and motor together. (The 2003 Prius had 98 actual horsepower.)

No electrical outlets are needed to recharge batteries, contrary to what Toyota says some people think. Rather, the Prius drive system constantly recharges itself.

Limited Service Outlets
The Hybrid Synergy Drive system is a technical wonder, but it's insanely complicated. Those taking long trips in the Prius thus best check locations of Toyota dealers along their routes because nobody else will want to touch a car with a badge that declares it has "Hybrid Synergy Drive."

The new Prius is an especially good car for urban dwellers because it's designed to use mostly electric power during stop-and-go driving in congested areas.

Lively Performance
The first-generation Prius was pretty much a slug during highway passing maneuvers, but the 2004 model provides lively acceleration—at least with just a driver and no cargo aboard.

My test 2004 Prius moved out fast from a standing start to safely get across intersections and was swift during 55-65 mph passing. The 65-75 mph figure was slower, but still pretty good. Toyota says the Prius has the performance of a conventional midsize car with a 4-cylinder gasoline engine.

Roomier
In fact, the new Prius has the passenger room of a midsize car, while its predecessor was a compact car. The 2004 version is fully 5.4 inches longer at 175 inches, with a wheelbase stretched from 100.4 to 106.3 inches to help allow a larger passenger compartment and better ride. Width is increased 1.2 inches, and height is up half an inch.

Surprisingly, the new model's $19,995 base price is commendably unchanged from that of the 2003 model.

Nicely Equipped
Despite that, the new Prius is nicely equipped, with such items as air conditioning, power windows and locks, cruise control, an AM-FM radio with CD deck, traction control, anti-lock brakes, remote keyless entry and heated side mirrors.

Full loaded with options, my test car cost about $25,000. One handy optional feature was a keyless entry and start system.

Keyless Entry and Starting
With a coded key fob in my pocket, that system automatically unlocked the driver door and let the car start after I pushed the "Power" dashboard button after putting my foot on the brake and selecting the transmission's "drive" position. That option also lets the car be locked when you just walk from it with the key fob in your pocket.

All that should be especially appreciated by those who park the Prius in dark, deserted areas and want to get in and move out fast or quickly leave the car before walking to a destination.

(Otherwise, you just hit "unlock" on the key fob, insert the plastic fob in a dashboard slot-and select "drive" after pushing the Power button.)

Also in my test car's top-line $5,245 option package were major safety features such as an anti-skid system and side-curtain airbags for front occupants. It also contained a more elaborate sound system.

Good Roadability
What's it like to drive the new version of the Prius? It has quick steering, although the steering system has a robotic feel. The ride is comfortable, and larger tires help provide good handling, if the Prius isn't pushed too hard. The brake pedal no longer is touchy, and stopping distances are OK.

The functional interior is quiet, except for some road noise, and the twin front seats provide adequate support. The cockpit easily accommodates four tall adults. There's room for a third slim occupant in the back, although the center of the rear bench seat isn't comfortable.

The front of the car can't be seen from the twin seats, so you have to guess where the bumper ends. The windshield is huge and the dashboard top is low for good road visibility. However, the split rear window has a rather thick molding that partially hampers rear vision.

Reluctant Transmission Switch
A dashboard toggle switch replaces the old, overly long shift lever, but takes some learning. For no apparent reason, the switch sometimes refused for awhile to move to change gears.

Small digi-graphic gauges are set far from the driver near the base of the windshield. One must peer over an extremely long dashboard top to see them.

Displayed in a center dashboard screen are fuel economy, audio settings and power sources in use. The screen also is used for the optional navigation system.

Large cupholders are nicely placed in the front console and have handsome covers. There are a good number of large storage areas.

Big Cargo Area
The large hatch opens smoothly to reveal a low, wide, large cargo area. Flipping the rear seatbacks forward increases cargo room.

The Prius is an exotic car, although not in the same way a Ferrari or Lamborghini is exotic. Unlike those sports cars, it feels much like an appliance, with no soul. What else is to be expected from a car mainly designed to provide high fuel economy?

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BB02 - 7/24/2014 6:27:00 AM