2006 Toyota Prius Expert Review:Autoblog
As an automotive journalist I felt completely derelict of duty for not having tested a hybrid vehicle. The entire trend is one of the most talked about and potentially revolutionary automotive innovations since the assembly line. Am I going a bit overboard here? Probably, but even if all this is over exaggerated there is still no reason for not testing the most popular hybrid of the day, the Toyota Prius.
My first impression didn’t come from the car itself, it came from an instruction sheet I was given with the key. The Prius has a “valet” sheet that basically uses pictograms to explain how to start the thing. And not to sound like a moron but I certainly needed the walk-through. You insert the key fob/key into a slot in the dash where a key would normally go, push the power button and seemingly nothing happens.
Sure the lights go on but the engine doesn’t come to life. You have to wait until you hit the gas pedal for that to happen. I’ve already become addicted to the display that constantly tells you your gas mileage. When you coast, it shoots up to 100 mpg. Hopefully this won’t influence the way I drive but I’m guessing it will.
I’ve read too many reviews of the car and they all say pretty much the same thing so I’m going open this test up to the readers. What are the most burning questions you have about driving a hybrid? What would you want answered in a review? Let us know through the comments section.
After a day around town getting only 36 mpg, we hit the road this weekend to visit a dog breeder about a new puppy. We left early in the morning Sunday heading to Indiana from Chicago. The first highway experience was pretty impressive. I was worried the car would be sluggish at high speeds but it was as able as any economy to midsize sedan with a four cylinder engine. But we could also hear, and feel, every groove of the road.
The Prius feels fine around town but at highway velocity the quality of the road means the difference between pleasure and pain.
The seats are mildly comfortable but after the four-hour roundtrip there were plenty of back aches and my fiancée complained that the headrest was as hard as a rock when she tried to recline all the way.
The seats were irrelevant when we were hitting bumpy Indiana roads. I’m sure we looked pretty funny to passers by with our heads jostling back and forth. We also used the GPS navigation. It took us a while to figure out how to get the destination to take effect but after that it was fairly intuitive. The only thing to save the trip from total physical distress was the 46+ mpg we got. I still can’t figure out why the car only got 36 mpg around town when the hybrid is supposed to be better in city traffic.
*I’m also looking for a name for the new dog. Anyone have an idea? She’s a brindle boxer that will of course become the unofficial Autoblog mascot. Anything automotive might be fun but we’ve already nixed the name Hemi.
Somehow the car deities aligned and on the day where I gripe about my test car a number of gripe-worthy problems have arisen. The first came to the light the second I got into the Prius the other morning after our trip. I had turned off the car the night before after going 300 miles on one tank with the tank on 3 bars of fuel (out of ten). Even if two bars were left I'd expect about 50 miles right? Of course I shouldn't have been guessing at all since the car should provide a "miles to empty" feature like the rudimentary trip computer on our Grand Cherokee.
But with the flashy computer screen you will not find one of these handy features. Oh and the 3 bars of gas on ignition the next morning had turned to a lone 1 bar, beeping incessantly to get to the gas station. I hustled the car to the nearest station because nothing would be more embarrassing than running out of gas in a Prius.
I was enraged. This should never happen in this car. You should know exactly how much gas you have, how many miles are left etc. Of course those that want to buy a Prius might overlook this annoyance. For myself I know I’d be cursing my purchase because of this.
Readers have also complained about the audio and climate controls. The audio controls are fine as long as you use the ones on the steering wheel which control volume, station selection, mode and track selection for CD. If you want to switch CDs in the changer you must use center console. The climate is much harder. The only buttons on the wheel are for automatic air on and off and buttons to raise and lower the temperature. But like most folks I’d prefer to control the fan power and not the temperature at my fingertips. Everything else, again, is on the center console. But for climate the screen is a bit more jumbled.
The Prius does have a ton of room in the passenger cabin. There are actually two glove boxes, a gigantic center cubby, 2 hidden cup holders in front and two in back who’s Swiss Army style design should be adopted by other carmakers, large door pockets that also hold cups and a center dash spot for CDs. It’s got it all. The only gripe here regards the center storage. There is a large space on the floor in front, between the driver and passenger. Why doesn’t the center go all the way to the dash, giving even more space for holding stuff? If you’re not going to have a transmission and have all this space, you should use it. Rear passenger room is excellent and the extra speakers in the rear doors are a nice touch.
Storage in the rear hatch, as shown in the picture at the top of the post, is adequate when running errands but the batteries take up a lot of room and anything more than a trip to the grocery store could fill it up. I don’t think a road trip with two kids and luggage would be too comfortable.
Tomorrow we’ll discuss my new hybrid driving habits.
The final day of the Toyota Prius didn't go by without another new twist. Last night I was having dinner with friends downtown, and decided to valet park the Prius. Not a fan of valeting a car normally, it is actually more cost effective downtown where parking lots charge an arm and a leg. I hand the valet the info card that comes with the Prius, specifically designed for valets, and he has no clue what I'm talking about. I show him how to put it in park, shift and the power button.
What happens when they drop it off a few hours later? The battery is about dried up.
They never hit the power button. Again I was lucky to escape without being stuck with a dead Prius on my hands. Obviously it was user error but let it serve as a warning to those about to valet.
Besides the few nitpicks I had with the car I really enjoyed my week in a hybrid. I wasn’t able to re-teach my driving habits. Coasting is fine if you have an open block ahead of you to the next stop sign, but that’s not always available in rush hour city traffic. I was really disappointed by the city mileage that always hovered under 40 mpg. The hwy mileage was much better. Handling and performance were much better than I expected. Corners were taken nimbly, acceleration was excellent, even without gearshifts, and the only drawback was higher than average highway noise and jostling on rough roads.
The Prius also had a ton of passenger room. Just a ton. The cargo area in back wasn’t great but very passable. And all the handy cup-holders and compartments were actually useful and used with regularity. Fit and finish was very solid as with most Toyotas, although the hard plastic used on the doors and dash was easy to scuff and scratch. However, its dark red color was pleasing to the eye.
Now that my required test of a hybrid is over I no longer scoff at those that buy them. The Prius is an excellent car without the green credentials. A hefty price tag and long wait list would prevent me from ever buying one, and I would advise buyers on a budget to stick with a nice Corolla that still gets 40 mpg on the highway. But if someone was interested in a hybrid, and had the money to spend, my less than green thumb would be up.
New Car Test Drive
The environment's best friend.
The Toyota Prius is more than a car. It's a phenomenon. It's proof that more people than Toyota imagined want to drive cars with significantly improved fuel economy and radically less environmental impact. Toyota has boosted production to keep up with the demand, and the 2006 model benefits from the addition of new advanced airbags and other safety technology plus new comfort and convenience features.
This second-generation Prius, introduced as a 2004 model, is larger than the original, and is now a midsize car. It's roomy, with adult-size back seats and lots of cargo space. It's pleasant to look at, with sleek, futuristic styling, easy to spot in a parking lot.
The Prius is rated 60/51 mpg City/Highway by the federal government's Environmental Protection Agency, with a Combined rating of 55 mpg. You're more likely to see less, maybe 41 to 48 mpg. Don't blame the manufacturer for the difference. Hybrid powerplants do well in EPA testing and your driving style will determine your mileage.
The real justification to buy a Prius is its extremely low emissions. The Prius produces almost no pollution and is one of the most environmentally friendly vehicles you can drive. It's an excellent choice for buyers who want to reduce air pollution and America's dependence on oil. The Prius isn't cheap, but it's an amazing piece of engineering.
It's important to understand that the Prius is not an electric car. You never plug it in. And there's no worry about driving beyond the range of the battery. A small, highly efficient four-cylinder gasoline engine charges the battery as you drive. No special knowledge is needed to drive this car. It works just like a regular car: You get in, you twist the key, you put the lever in Drive and you go. When it gets low on gas, you fill it up.
The Prius is the best-selling gas-electric hybrid in the United States and in the world and it's only gaining in popularity. When it debuted as a compact in 2001, Toyota sold just 5,600 in the U.S. By 2003, U.S. sales had expanded to nearly 25,000. For 2004, Toyota redesigned the Prius, turning it into midsize car and completely re-engineering its mechanical and electrical systems. It's now much more attractive to many more people. Toyota sold nearly 54,000 Prius models in the U.S. in 2004 and nearly 108,000 in 2005. It was praised by the press and was named 2004 North American Car of the Year by a jury of 50 independent automotive journalists, including the editor of New Car Test Drive.
The 2006 Toyota Prius is not only an impressive technological statement, it's a car that's easy to like and live with.
For 2006, the headlights and taillights have been redesigned, the interior has been improved with nicer materials and more features. A host of safety improvements for 2006 make this feature-packed technological wonder that much more enticing. Among them: new advanced airbags, a tire-pressure monitor, and an optional rear back-up camera.
The 2006 Toyota Prius comes in one well-equipped trim level ($21,725).
Standard features include automatic air conditioning with a micron filter, fabric upholstery, power windows, door locks and heated outside mirrors; remote keyless entry; cruise control; a tilting steering wheel with redundant climate and audio controls; intermittent front and rear wipers; and a six-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo.
Options are bundled into packages. Package 1 ($650) is the side-impact and curtain airbags. Package 2 ($825) includes the backup camera, AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio with six speakers, and the Smart Key system. Package 6 ($6,890) bundles all of the above with leather-trimmed seats, GPS navigation, voice recognition, Bluetooth capability, a nine-speaker JBL stereo with six-disc CD changer, electronic Vehicle Skid Control, fog lamps, and HID headlamps.
Safety is enhanced with antilock brakes (ABS), Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), Brake Assist, and traction control. Standard passive safety features include new multi-stage, dual front airbags; three-point seatbelts and head restraints at all five seating positions; and rear seat head restraints that are adjustable. Curtain airbags designed to offer head protection for front and rear passengers and seat-mounted side-impact airbags for torso protection for driver and front-seat passenger are optional ($650). There is also a tire pressure monitoring system to warn the driver if presures get too low (which can affect fuel economy as well as safety), and an optional rear-view camera to help avoid hard to see objects behind you.
The Toyota Prius is beautiful in its simplicity, with graceful, fluid lines that make it look futuristic.
The pinched-down nose is helpful for knifing through the air with little resistance. The quarter panels and doors are sleek and clean. The sole character line is a tasteful indentation in the lower region of the doors, visually connecting the creases marking the lower limits of the working area of the front and rear bumpers.
The side view makes clear the stylists' devotion to aerodynamics. A steeply raked windshield carries the hood's acute angle rearward. An even more steeply raked backlight (rear windscreen) ends in a high spoiler that trips the air stream as it leaves the car, maximizing the aero advantage of the car's almost-vertical back end. Sleek rear quarter windows do more to visually enhance the aerodynamic look than they do for outward visibility.
The Prius looks under-tired, almost as if the tires were left out when the rest of the car was made larger. The narrow tires probably help fuel ecnomy, but they clash visually with the proportions.
The headlights and taillight clusters have been restyled for the 2006 models. The headlights are compound units that house the running lights, side marker lights and turn indicators. Vertically stacked, compound taillights wear modish clear lenses and bookend the lower section of the liftgate. Integrated into the liftgate, and running its width beneath the rear spoiler, is a strip of glass adding critical rearward visibility for the driver.
The first-generation 2001-03 Prius was classified as a compact by the EPA, but the current, second-generation Prius is considered a midsize car. Its wheelbase (the distance between the centers of the front and rear wheels) is about 6 inches longer than before, yielding a more stable ride and more leg room inside.
The Prius is surprisingly roomy inside. Passenger volume measures 96.2 cubic feet, which puts it into midsize sedan territory. The back seat offers generous leg room. The Prius is classified as a five-passenger car, but it's more suitable for four. Cargo space is 16.1 cubic feet, comparable to that of a midsize sedan and the hatchback design makes its cargo area flexible.
The seats are comfortable for commutes and short weekend trips. Their forte is not the multi-hour, multi-state drive. The cloth upholstery looks durable and is grippy, compensating somewhat for the minimalist bottom and back side bolsters. Head restraints are adjustable in all five seating positions. The interior finish is up to Toyota standards, with pleasingly close tolerances between body panels and interior plastic pieces, and plastics that look and feel better than the word plastic connotates.
The speedometer, fuel gauge, trip meter, and transmission selection indicator are tucked into a long, flat, eyebrow-like opening draped across and centered on the top of the dash where it meets the windshield. The primary gauges are located in the left half of the opening, but are closer to the centerline of the car than to the driver.
Climate controls are managed via an LCD screen at the top of the center stack. This panel also displays user preferences and maintenance needs. Most entertaining, however, is that it allows tracking of the power and recharging flows, monitoring battery and gasoline usage. And it serves as the focal point for the optional navigation system.
Directly beneath the screen is the control head for the sound system. Toyota deserves high praise for keeping the stereo's most-used functions outside of the onboard computer's labyrinth and, equally important, for giving it buttons and knobs that are easy to see, read and use. The base AM/FM/CD six-speaker sound system is quite capable. We'd have been better able to enjoy the premium JBL system to its fullest if there had been a bit more sound deadening in the floorpan and doors, but sound deadening adds weight, the enemy of fuel economy.
Remote switches for the audio, climate and cruise controls are conveniently mounted on the steering wheel. There are two accessory power outlets. Dome lights grace the headliner, front and rear. Both sun visors have illuminated vanity mirrors. These may seem small matters, but they distinguish between value and cheap.
A tall glasshouse yields exemplary outward visibility. As is the case with many of the latest aerodynamic designs, the driver can't see the front of the car or the hood without leaning forward.
Storage spaces are abundant and flexible. The glove box is a two-parter, with an upper and lower bin opening like a clamshell. The upper glove box is good for long, narrow items, like gloves. The lower compartment holds bulkier items. The front part of the center console opens up, also clamshell-like, into two cup holders. Door-mounted map pockets, expandable magazine holders stitched into the back of the front seat backs, and an unexpected, semi-secluded storage bin below the stereo offer additional storage.
Two cup holders pop out of the rear of the console for back-seat riders. An armrest folds down out of the rear seat back. The rear seats are split 60/40, each part of which folds to yield an almost-flat floor, without having to remove the head restraints. There are hidden spaces beneath the cargo floor, both below and on top of the mini-spare.
Gas pressurized struts ease opening and closing the hatchback. Doors close with a solid, if not truly impressive clunk; then again, weight savings have to come from somewhere.
Most people who buy hybrid-powered cars aren't looking for something that's fun to drive as much as something they can drive with a clear conscience. The Toyota Prius is certainly the latter, but it won't bore its driver, either.
Standing on the accelerator produces a pleasant surprise. The Prius launches without hesitation thanks to the electric motor's 295 pound-feet of torque from almost a dead standstill. Merging and overtaking at freeways speeds are accomplished with little fuss. Those wishing to experience the car's outer limits, however, should expect more leisurely progress to a top speed of around 100 miles per hour. Speeding calls for horsepower, and as the Prius approaches its maximum velocity, it relies increasingly on its small gasoline engine for motivation. Toyota says the Prius can accelerate from 0-60 mph in about 10 seconds, anemic by modern expectations, but then we've come to expect a lot. As recently as the mid-1950s, legends like the Chrysler 300 and Buick Century didn't reach 60 mph much quicker than that.
Prius gets its power from a gasoline engine supplemented by an electric motor. In a bit of hyperbole, Toyota calls the combination the Hybrid Synergy Drive. Hybrid it is, synergistic it isn't, not by the strictest definition of the word, which would mean that the total power output would be more than the sum of the outputs of the gas and electric motors individually. This is not the case. The Hybrid Synergy Drive does, however, rely on the electric motor even more than the system in the first-generation Prius, which is how Toyota was able to make the Prius larger and more practical without compromising its low emissions or fuel economy. The current model is 30 percent cleaner than the squeaky-clean first-generation (2002-03) Prius. Toyota claims the Prius produces about one-tenth as much pollution as the average new car. Some have described Toyota's hybrid system as an electric motor with gasoline engine assist, and Honda's system as a gasoline engine with electric motor assist.
By complementing the gasoline engine's horsepower with the electric motor's torque, the Prius makes better use of the energy stored in each gallon of gasoline, while leaving fewer nasty chemical compounds in its wake. The electric motor, which begins cranking out its maximum torque virtually the moment it starts spinning, gets the car moving and helps it accelerate while it's underway. The gasoline engine steps to the fore at more constant speeds, especially during highway driving, where horsepower is more critical for maintaining a car's momentum.
The hybrid system improves fuel economy further by turning off the gasoline engine when it's not needed, like when you are waiting at a stop light or even when puttering around town at low speeds. Any time the driver's right foot requests more motivation than the electric motor alone can provide, the gasoline engine fires up and joins in.
The transmission is non-traditional, too. Prius uses an electronically controlled, planetary gear transmission that functions much like a continuously variable transmission. This system constantly and automatically selects the most efficient drive ratio to get the car moving and to keep it moving.
The EPA gives the Prius a City/Highway fuel economy rating of 60/51 mpg with a Combined rating of 55 mpg. These numbers have generated controversy, however. Hybrid-powered cars tend to achieve high ratings on EPA tests because the cars run on rollers, face no wind resistance, and run with the air conditioning shut off. The electric motor plays a bigger role in these laboratory conditions than it does in the real world. In one of those strange twists of logic often produced by law, Toyota is legally barred from advertising any mileage numbers other than those released by the federal government. Most Prius owners report much lower fuel economy, while others argue this point. Pu.
The Toyota Prius sets the standard for environmentally friendly transportation. It also delivers extremely good fuel efficiency for a four-seat car with an automatic transmission. Just ignore those EPA numbers. Buyers can expect to average something north of 45 mpg. Toyota is clearly the leader in hybrid technology. The Prius is an amazing piece of engineering yet driving one and owning one is not much different from a conventional car. That's impressive.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard is based in Northern California.
Toyota Prius ($21,725).
Tsutsumi (Toyota City), Japan.
Options As Tested
Package 7 ($5,730) includes VSC electronic stability control, driver and front-passenger seat-mounted side airbags and front and rear side curtain airbags, backup camera, Smart Key entry system, security alarm, Homelink programmable remote opener system, navigation system with steering-wheel controls, JBL AM/FM/cassette/6CD, fog lamps, HID headlamps.
Toyota Prius ($21,725).