New Prius Hybrid Much Improved

While new Prius still can't compare to Camry, it is a marked improvement in the fuel efficient car breed

Published: 21-Nov-2003

that sip gas usually have come with a catch. Maybe they're tiny and tinny or dangerously underpowered or depend on very expensive technology or, like diesels, are dirty - or various combinations thereof.

There was always a catch, a compromise.

There still are in the 2004 Toyota Prius gasoline-electric hybrid. But credit Toyota with reducing them further than anyone has - including Honda with the Civic Hybrid.

Even more so than its predecessor, which went on sale here as a 2001 model, the new and larger 2004 Prius that arrived this fall demands little in return for fuel economy that is EPA-estimated at an impressive 60 miles to the gallon in the city and 51 mpg on the highway.

Although it's more than a foot shorter than a Camry, the new Prius is classified as midsize, with most interior dimensions like rear seat legroom comparable to the midsize Camry's. Credit the hatchback design and compact engine compartment for much of that. Both give the five-passenger Prius a bug-like shape that some find odd but makes for terrific packaging. The previous Prius was a compact, like Toyota's Corolla.

With zero to 60 mph acceleration of about 10 seconds, the new Prius can hardly be called fast; but the new Prius is almost three seconds quicker than its predecessor and has sufficient power to enter expressways safely and generally keep up with traffic. And the new model still manages to get better fuel economy than its predecessor, which was EPA-rated at 52 mpg city and 45 highway.

Even the new Prius can't match the Camry's quietness and its elegant ride, though; the Prius gasoline engine is harsh on acceleration, and the hard and narrow tires telegraph every road imperfection into the cabin. But the Prius noise level and ride are acceptable.

The Prius base price, $20,510 with freight, is the same as its predecessor's and not a lot by today's standards for a family sedan.

Hybrids vary somewhat in operation but are based on the same principles: employing a gasoline engine smaller than what normally would be needed, then supplementing power with an electric motor; and turning the energy normally lost as heat during braking into power to run the car.

In this case a 76-horsepower 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine is backed up by a 50-kilowatt motor. Besides providing most of the propulsion, the gasoline engine recharges the nickel metal hydride batteries that power the electric motor so that a hybrid never has to be plugged in for recharging as does a pure electric car. When the Prius is coasting or braking, the electric motor acts as a generator, helping further recharge the battery.

In the Prius, the electric motor can propel the car by itself at low speeds, such as creeping along in stop-and-go-traffic. In electric-only mode, it is so quiet that, for safety, a beeping alarm warns anyone standing nearby when reverse is engaged. Step even slightly on the gas for more speed, though, and the gasoline engine automatically starts. Stop for a light or stop sign and the engine shuts off. Step on the gas to go again and it quickly restarts, with a slight shudder but almost no lag in response.

The EPA-estimated fuel economy is higher in the city than on the highway instead of the other way around because the electric motor does more of the work in local driving and the gasoline engine is off more of the time.

It's all virtually seamless and, except for the displays on the dashboard video screen showing power flow and fuel usage, the Prius driver can almost forget how complex the drivetrain is. (One or the other of those diagrams is always displayed whether you like it or not, and you must wipe them off the screen to make most stereo or climate control adjustments. That gets tedious after a while.)

Starting the Prius is a bit unconventional. You insert the key fob into a slot in the dash, step on the brake and press a button on the dash. There's no cranking and no "vroom" because the gasoline engine doesn't start until the car begins moving and more power is needed.

The dashboard is deep, and the steeply raked forward roof pillars tend to get in the way in turns. A horizontal bar that divides the two sections of the rear window and acts as a spoiler is far more annoying, impeding vision rearward.

A display just below the windshield in front of the driver shows speed and other key functions. Seats have minimal adjustments - no power available - but conveniences such as power windows, locks and mirrors are standard.

The shifter is a small handle protruding from the dash to the right of the steering wheel; it's electronic and includes a "B" setting for engine braking, engaged with a downward slap of the stick, like downshifting a conventional car. A separate button above it engages park.

As is the case with most cars, the Prius fuel economy as observed by owners might well be less than the EPA figures. I averaged 46 mpg driving in my usual lead-footed style in a mix of local and expressway driving. So, while there's no arguing with the environmental and national policy advantages of using less gasoline, for all the hype surrounding the Prius, does it make sense strictly from a personal finance standpoint?

By comparison to the Prius' 60 mpg city and 51 highway EPA figures, a Camry with the standard four-cylinder engine is EPA rated at 23 mpg in the city and 32 on the highway.

Based on those highway mileage figures, the Prius would use 294 gallons in 15,000 miles of driving, while the Camry would need 468. Assuming gasoline at the current average locally of about $1.75 a gallon, it would $514 to keep the Prius on the road and $819 for the Camry. The difference would be less, of course, if gasoline prices were lower.

Not much of a saving, is it - $305?

Plus, the Prius base sticker price is $120 above that of the most basic Camry, the LE, with automatic transmission, which lists for $20,390 with freight.

While it's true that the Prius has a few items that the Camry LE lacks, nobody pays sticker price for a Camry. The Prius, on the other hand is a low- volume car in high demand. It went on sale in October and, by mid-month, Toyota had 12,000 orders for a planned 36,000 of the second generation Prius to be available here in its first year.

There is a federal tax deduction available for hybrids - $2,000 now, $1,500 after Jan. 1, but that's a reduction of taxable income, not your tax bill.

But there's one more factor: upkeep of a hybrid. Toyota warrantees the nickel metal hydride batteries and other hybrid-related components for eight years or 100,000 miles; you're on your own then. And Toyota says it does not know what new batteries will cost - only that you'll probably need them some day.

Other standard equipment in the front-wheel drive Prius includes traction control, automatic air-conditioning, antilock brakes, cruise contol, a six-speaker stereo with a CD player and a rear seatback that folds down to increase cargo room.

The tester had a $1,920 option package that adds curtain type air bags, an upgraded stereo, a rear window wiper, an alarm and a generic garage door opener.

Other options available alone or in packages include stability control, a navigation system and fog lamps.

Consumer Reports gives the earlier Prius a top rating for reliability, based on the magazine's reader surveys.

The federal government does not yet have crash test information on the Prius.

Assuming the new car is just as reliable and gets a good safety rating from the government, it looks like Toyota has scored another winner; the new Prius won't appeal to everyone but it will appeal to a wider audience than its smaller and more oddly styled predecessor. At least it brings us a big step closer to the day when we can enjoy all the advantages in size and acceleration of our gasoline guzzlers in an environmentally more responsible way.

2004 Toyota Prius

Gasoline Engine/Electric Motor: 1.5-liter, four-cylinder, 76 hp. / 50 kw (67 hp.); permanent magnet.

Transmission: Electronic continuously variable, front-wheel drive.

Safety: Dual front and curtain-type air bags; front disc, rear drum brakes with electronic brake force distribution, brake assist and antilock.

Place of Assembly: Toyota City, Japan

Weight: 2,890 pounds

Cargo Room: 16.1 cubic ft.

EPA Mileage Rating: 60 mpg city, 51 highway

Price as Driven: $22,614, including destination charge.

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