Fuel sipping for the masses – Life is all roses
Sometimes things aren’t as you expect. The Prius has been a huge sales hit, it outsold every other hybrid combined for 11 years, and we are now in the cars third generation. Toyota has refined and sharpened it’s capabilities, resulting in more efficiency, and of course, safety. So it’s a thoroughly modern leading edge vehicle.
So, why was I transported back to the late 1970’s as I traveled my first few miles in our Prius Four tester with memories of my parental ‘sell me down’ 1966 Dodge Coronet with 130K on the clock running through my brain? Well, it certainly wasn’t the display and gauges. The old Dodge had a few dim 12 volt bulbs lighting (unevenly) some bizarre speedometer needle that traveled across the dash 12”, but somehow only rose and fell 2”. And it wasn’t the auto power down windows, the flying buttress console with the open space beneath (ala’ the Chevy Volt), or the odd, but neat seat material that was a cross between leather and a wetsuit that Toyota refers to as SofTex. No, I was transported back to the late 1970’s when my parents ‘assigned’ the old Dodge to me, thanks to the Toyota’s electric steering which feels as though it came right out of 1966.
Now, it’s totally unfair to leave it at that and we’re not testing this car as if it were posing to be a sporty vehicle. The Prius steering was far more accurate and predictable than the old Dodge rope and pulley system with the loose ball joint could ever hope to be, and it tracked dutifully where it was pointed. It maintained a straight trajectory and had a modicum of self-return. In the grand scheme of things, its fine. That’s a theme with the car, actually. It has its weak points, but for most drivers, they’re fine. But what about those of us with, you know, higher standards?
The steering was a stark contrast to the brakes, which, thank the Gods of deceleration, did not remind me of my old Dodge. Stopping was no problem as you’d expect from any modern braking system. But considering the fact that the braking system is also a regenerative charging system that uses the actual brake components rather sparingly, the systems linearity and feel were quite good. You won’t think you are driving a Porsche 911, but there are many cars in the market that could aspire to this level of feel and linearity….and they aren’t hybrid cars using regenerative braking.
Let’s go back to the gauges. Technology speaking, we’ve come leaps and bounds in gauges and displays in recent times, and actual mechanical needles have almost become a distant memory like the cassette deck in the old Coronet. Such is the case with the Prius. The traditional cluster location has been moved to a center spot up on the dash, way forward at the base of the rakishly swept back windshield. Reading glasses will not be needed, as the multi-function display is nearly 3 feet away. Some object saying it’s too far from the normal view, but I found it to be fine in day-to-day use. On the console it has a 6.1” touch screen for the navigation system (and the usual raft of other features). Below that it has an HVAC control display screen. There’s a lot to look at and monitor in hybrids or electric vehicles with the various monitoring of energy flow, predicted range, energy usage, as well as the rest of the normal parameters like speed, navigation, outside temperature, and the like. Toyotas displays struck me odd in this area. The main display was a vacuum fluorescent (VF) display, and it had a neat looking capability to “float” information (like volume) over portions of the “always on” info-like fuel level when you pressed certain buttons on the steering wheel. A bit of unneeded bling that was, but harmless enough. The display though, was another trip down memory lane for me, but this time not so far back, as it reminded me of my old late 1980’s JVC cassette deck with its flashing volume unit (VU) level meters. In contrast was the completely modern navigation screen, and the ‘old school’ HVAC display featuring LCD icons over a pale green backlit background. Maybe it’s something only a design guy would pick up on, and each display communicated it’s information effectively. But it was a reminder that to cram the Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD) technology found under the hood (and hatch) into a car of this price point, certain concessions must be made.
When we reviewed the Chevy Volt, we gagged a bit on the price. While the ergonomics controlling the multiple displays of the Volt were a mess, the look and appearance of the matching screens was pretty slick. It’s hard to fault the Prius for its price though. As tested our car came with the aforementioned leather like seating, very good seats, navigation, a very decent stereo, a whole raft of electric controllers, battery packs, gearsets, and of course, an engine packed under its diminutive hood. Over the years, Toyota has refined this package resulting in mode changes that are nearly seamless, regenerative braking that’s unnoticeable, and pain at the gas pump that’s fairly painless. Originally, with the first generation Prius, the story was that Toyota lost money on every sale. That’s no longer the case, but what you get for your $24,000 – $30,000 (dependent on model choice) is still a pretty fair amount of stuff, even if it’s not the ‘steal’ that it once was.
Still, clues remain of the Prius’ economy car roots. Close any door with authority and you’re greeted with a discordant twang. Yea, it’s a bit ‘tinny’ sounding. You won’t be reminded fondly of your Aston Martin Vantage convertible (which is home in your garage, waiting for fair weather while you make yourself feel good saving the planet in your Prius) as you gaze at the carpet and door panel materials. Certainly you couldn’t call them ‘chintzy’, but Wilton wool they are not. The dash isn’t going to house a Bulgari timepiece either, although there were a few “blanks” remaining on our tester where one might fit something. This leaving of ‘blanks’ on the dash is something Toyota does, perhaps to prod us into the next model up? Fortunately, you’ll find a USB port, an auxiliary input jack, SiriusXM Satellite radio, Bluetooth for your phone and streaming audio that worked very well, and was dead simple to set up and use.
Outside, this latest generation is a subtle step forward from the last generation. Both generations are not as lumpy and goldfish looking as the first generation, thankfully. Projector headlights with LED running lights are nicely integrated into the short hood. New crisp corner creases at the lower rear bumper suggest wind tunnel work. And the overall proportions have improved. No longer does the car say “Eco Weenie Inside!” thanks in part to the exterior refinements, but also because other manufacturers have adopted some of the unique proportions in the intervening years. And you CRX lovers will feel right at home gazing through the rear hatch with its high mid hatch mounted spoiler and secondary lower glass section. Fit and finish are, as is Toyotas norm, superb. But you won’t find HID lighting or exotic alloy wheels at this price, as the money is in the technology.
It’s easy to forget about that technology, as this basic package has been around for years now. The fact that it’s become so seamless in its use helps us forget what’s actually under the hood. Most people who weren’t paying attention would hop in, drive off, and have no idea of the magic occurring beneath them as electrons are shifted and sent fore and aft. Until they gas up. At an EPA rating of 51 MPG city, and 48MPG highway mileage, it’s evident a bit of sorcery is afoot here.
Those of us who ‘row the box’ in our daily drivers, or are used to a conventional 6 speed automatic transmission will be a bit befuddled by the ministrations going on with the engine as it responds to your requests. You’d swear it’s a CVT, but it isn’t. Actually, the Prius uses a technology called Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD) which allows the car to run on the electric motor only. The heart of HSD is called the Power Split Device (PSD), a planetary gearset that acts as a CVT, but with a fixed gear ratio, which sounds impossible. But wait! There’s more. The Prius actually has two electric motors, and the internal gas engine. And this “simple PSD” balances them all. Most of us will need to attend a college level class to actually grasp it’s operation, but for those brave enough to try on their own, click here for a neat description and a slick controllable model. But don’t blame me if you need a drink afterwards!
The driver does need to make some sacrifices to the mileage cause though. Like the Chevy Volt where you learned to play the range game, the Prius demands a certain driving style to return its best economy. The difference though is that in the Prius, for some reason, it’s not as fun. Actually, it’s rather ‘un-fun’. Press the “econ” button to enter economy mode, and that’s that. Under the control box cover, its brain is converted into a mothering nag, but the main upshot apparent to the driver is the throttle response. It’s as though the engine has become attached to the gas pedal with a soft rubber band. Back again we go, into my ancient memory banks, but this time to the mid 1980’s when I drove a friends Mercedes 240D for the first time and discovered the joys of their turbo diesel with a throttle that was essentially an on/off switch with an egg timer built in. Such is the throttle response in “econ” mode. Press and wait. Ok, it is better than an old Mercedes 240D. It gets to highway speeds with little drama, and certainly emits not a particle of black soot. Actually, it emits zero emissions in econ mode for a significant percentage of its use as it pulls away from a stop in EV mode with the engine off. Select “EV” mode and you’ll force the Prius to hang on the electric motor up to a claimed 25 MPH. While it sounds tempting, in actuality, such use drains the battery too quickly forcing the engine to run faster to recharge it. Nevertheless, Econ mode is the best way to maximize fuel and minimize your environmental impact.
Many Prius detractors point out that environmental impact isn’t limited to just airborne pollutants and carbon based fuel usage. They point to the production pollution, and specifically the battery pack with an accusatory finger. One study claimed that a Hummer is actually less damaging to the planet over its life cycle. Naturally, several assumptions and accounting aspects of the study have been criticized, but one point remains: The battery pack begins in a mine in Canada that has emitted so much sulfur dioxide that acid rain has destroyed nearby forests. The mine claims to have made massive strides in limiting that pollution recently. From there, the material takes a multi-stop trip around the world, eventually landing mere hundreds of miles from the very mine where it was unearthed.
Initially, it was feared that the battery packs would wear out quickly, causing owners undue expense, and more environmental damage, both in sourcing a new pack, as well as disposing of the depleted pack. Time has proven those fears largely unfounded, however. In real world use, the packs can last over 150,000 miles. Consumer Reports did a comparison test with a 200,000 mile car and a 2,000 mile version of similar vintage and found the performance to be essentially equal. And when the eventual end does come, the contents of even the depleted pack are valuable, with Toyota offering a $1350 core credit to offset the new packs $3650 price tag. And amazingly, Toyota charges just 1.7 hours of labor to replace it! Further, the pack is warranted to 100,000 miles or eight years; or in nine states including CT, 150,000 miles or ten years.
Watch one of Toyota’s sunny TV ads though, and none of those concerns exist. So, in order to drive down the flowery lane of white fluffy paper animation clouds and green trees that Toyota paints, what price must we pay? Up front, there’s the financial cost. And day to day, the driver must adapt a bit to get the most from the car. Certainly economy cars can be had for less, and they can achieve very respectable mileage as well. Upscale cars that focus on economical operation, such as the VW Touareg TDI we reviewed can return impressive mileage as well (for its class), and a more involving driving experience for greater upfront costs. The Prius occupies a pretty unique spot in the market, one that Toyota has carefully groomed. It’s not too cheap, or not too expensive. It’s not the most exciting car to drive, but it’s better than my old Dodge! For readers of this site, who typically spend some free time at the track (or would like too), the car could be a great offset to a gas consuming hobby. Yes, it actually uses gas, but requires nothing more from its owner than a very occasional fill up…no range concerns or plug in paranoia here. But mostly, it’s a car that makes a statement. And to the driver who is open to it, the car delivers a sense of social responsibility while requiring little sacrifice.
RealWorldRoadTests Second Opinion – Dave Gran
Especially from a motorsports enthusiast’s perspective, the Toyota Prius has never been a car I’ve longed to drive. I have thought of it as a vehicle which its purpose is simply to get people from point A to point B using minimal gas. When initially sitting inside, it was a bit different than anticipated and am actually glad we got to try it out. The Prius interior is quite nice and am fond of the faux leather material. And while I wouldn’t exactly all it a fun car to drive, it wasn’t one of those vehicles you hate driving either. If looking for a fuel efficient vehicle, for the money it’s hard to fault the Prius which explains its massive popularity.
Vehicle type: Front Engine, 5 passenger, 4-door
Base price (including destination): $28,995
Price as tested (including destination): $29,269
Gasoline Engine: 1.8L DOHC 16V VVT-i 4-Cylinder 98 hp @ 5,200 RPM, 105 lb.-ft. @ 4,000 RPM
Electric Motor: 80 hp, 153 lb.-ft.
Traction (Battery): Sealed Nickel-Metal Hydride (Ni-MH), 36 hp
Hybrid System Net HP: 134
Transmission: Electronically Controlled Continuously Variable Transmission (ECVT)
EPA Rating (city/hwy/comb): 51/48/50
Fuel: Regular unleaded
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