2012 Toyota Prius

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First Drive Review: 2010 Toyota Prius

This 2010 review is representative of model years 2010 to 2014.
By Steve Siler of Car and Driver

We've never gotten too excited about the Toyota Prius around here. On one hand, as an extreme fuel sipper with a distinctive design and contrarian appeal, the Prius is laudable in the manner with which it eschews traditional luxury and conspicuous speed in favor of high-tech eco features, utter thrift, and unconventional hatchback living. On the other hand, with skinny tires, a loud cabin, terrible rear vision, and a boomy ride, the Prius has been the exact opposite of fun to drive. Indeed, efficiency and green image aside, considered as a plain ol' car, the Prius has represented little more than an expensive Corolla.

Toyota has been relatively fine with that. There are plenty of shoppers seeking the automotive equivalent of an Energy Star appliance for their transportation needs, and Toyota has wooed more than a million into Priuses so far. For 2010, however, Toyota has stepped up the game, not just altering the styling considerably, but veritably pouring engineering talent (some 200 engineers' worth) into making countless changes intended to make the Prius more powerful, more efficient, and — get this — more fun to drive. Plus, there are those impressive fuel-economy ratings: an official EPA-estimated 51 mpg city, 48 mpg highway, and 50 mpg combined.

Transformed? Not Quite
Did Toyota succeed? Now that we've had a chance to sample the 2010 Prius along the scenic and winding roads around Napa, California, we can say that it did achieve those three goals. A welcome helping of grunt (okay, maybe grunt is too strong a word) has been injected into the Prius's vastly improved hybrid powertrain, which mates a larger, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine with an 80-hp electric motor and a 650-watt nickel-metal hydride battery pack for a combined power rating of 134 hp, up from 110 for the 2009 model. Furthermore, a new engine management system allows for three driving settings — battery, eco, and power. Toyota also added a 17-inch wheel-and-tire option to liven up the handling.

Battery mode allows for up to a mile of electric-only propulsion when driven very gently, but it by no means locks out the gas engine if the weight on the accelerator pedal equals more than that of a feather. Still, the setting is fun to play with on occasion and will certainly be a favorite feature of hypermilers and any of those current Prius drivers who get off on creeping away from stops for a few feet on battery-only mode while angering the horn-blaring drivers behind them. Eco mode, which smoothes out throttle inputs, feels as exciting as you'd expect it to be. Ever used Anbesol for a toothache? You get it. You'll also get, however, easy access to 50-plus mpg. Power mode, which sharpens throttle input considerably, makes things much livelier and allows for a 0-to-60-mph time of 9.8 seconds, according to Toyota.

Now, aware as we were of the myriad changes Toyota made to make all 2010 Priuses quicker, we discovered that the powertrain enhancements clearly aren't enough to bear a marked transformation in character, especially for the base model with 15-inch wheels and 195/65 tires. That model's handling recalls that of the previous Prius: Rotating that oval-shaped steering wheel is rewarded with an agonizingly slow return on one's investment (this nearly got us into trouble on our first hot corner). The body wallows about its roll center much like before, conspiring with the squealing tires and aggressive stability-control system to mute out any shred of fun.

Add Wheels and Tires, Get a Whole Lot More
Specify the 17-inch wheels and 215/45 tires (yes, 45-series tires on a Prius), however, and watch the Prius take on a more spirited persona. Priuses thus equipped adopt a much quicker 14.6:1 (versus 17.6) steering rack with just 2.8 turns lock-to-lock (versus 3.7), as well as firmer shock tuning, resulting in much more grip and less bitching on the part of the stability-control system. Toyota might want to break out the 17-inch-wheel-wearing Prius as a separate model, perhaps called the "Prius Sport," or something like that. It is a far better foe than the base car for the Honda Insight, which is fairly involving for a greenmobile. The Insight is less expensive but also returns lower fuel economy, being rated by the EPA for "just" 40 mpg city and 43 mpg highway. Big mileage numbers are also available from the diesel-powered Volkswagen Jetta TDI, of course, and it's more fun to drive yet, but it doesn't have anywhere near the green cred.

LOL, as the kids say. A Prius Sport sounds as oxymoronic as a casual tuxedo or diet fudge, yet even though it's still no Mazdaspeed 3 — or even Jetta TDI — the 2010 Prius with 17-inch wheels can be considered enjoyable in that ain't-nothing-like-driving-a-slow-car-fast sort of way. The bundle of upgrades allowed us to maintain impressively high speeds along the tight, squiggly, and oddly cambered roads east of Napa; turn with grace (that is, no beeps and tugs from the stability control); and pull out of corners with surprising aplomb.

Although the twist-beam rear-suspension design continues, the ride is calmer and quieter, thanks to revised suspension components and additional sound insulation. Indeed, the only significant sound we noted on our drive was some wind noise coming from the mirrors at highway speeds, which sort of surprised us, given the car's extremely low 0.25 coefficient of drag.

Better Packaging
Of course, the rest of the Prius has also been completely reworked. Styling remains instantly recognizable, but the fat-foreheaded look of the prior model is reduced somewhat, and the rear end is higher and beefier, with a nifty integrated rear spoiler. The peak of the roof has been moved rearward for improved rear headroom, the front seats have been contoured to increase rear kneeroom, and the cargo area is larger. Ergonomics have been normalized somewhat with the sweeping (and, we think, rather attractive) new dash design, and storage cubbies abound. As for that horrible, split-window rear vision, it's still bad, but at least the extra power means you won't be looking back as often.

The interior materials have taken a marked step up in quality from those of the previous Prius, perhaps the result of input from all the Hollywood glitterati who ditched at least one "phat" ride in favor of Toyota's green badge of enviro-love — no doubt to demonstrate their "commitment" to conservation. There is plenty of Lexus influence in the interior design, including the dashboard, center stack, and door panels. There are also myriad high-tech options, including a Navigation package with Bluetooth connectivity and a backup camera; an Advanced Technology package with radar cruise control, a precollision braking system, and a new lane-departure system; and a park-assist system. There's an available Solar Roof package, which includes a solar panel (packaged with a sunroof) that powers a ventilating fan that helps keep the cabin cooler, thereby reducing the need for the air conditioning. Should the driver want to chill the cabin in preparation for a trip, the package has a remote climate-control system that runs off the battery and brings the interior to the desired temperature even while the car is off. LED headlamps and a park-assist system like that found on the Lexus LS are also available.

Now, although a fun, comfortable Prius might be seen by some as a portent to the apocalypse, we doubt the world will end when the Prius hits dealerships in April at a yet undisclosed price. It's no longer the punishment device the old one was, particularly with the larger rolling stock. What's next? Likely, more Prius variants, although we're not sure what sort of form they'll take. But we know now that Toyota isn't afraid to build a Prius that can actually be considered a little fun, so perhaps a Prius Sport model isn't out of the question.

PERFORMANCE (MFR'S EST):
Zero to 60 mph: 9.8 sec
Top speed: 112 mph

FUEL ECONOMY:
EPA city/highway driving: 51/48 mpg

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BB02 - 7/30/2014 2:12:23 AM