Every once and awhile, something comes along that takes the world by storm. And while many of these fads are crazes we'd rather forget, there are others that we have fully embraced. The hybrid automobile falls safely into the latter category.

In 2001, the Toyota Prius was released worldwide and it was unlike any other automobile, coming equipped with ultra-low emission technology and relying on electronic power. Die-hard automotive enthusiasts condemned the environmentally friendly hatchback at first, but by 2003 nearly 160,000 units had been manufactured for sale in Japan, Europe and North America. Who would have thought this little green-thumbed vehicle would spawn a wave of new hybrid vehicles?

Today, the Prius, while still No. 1, has direct competition, such as the Honda Civic Hybrid. While the Civic's engine differs from the Prius', the antagonism is there and both cars offer the chance to reduce emissions and drive a stylish, functional and affordable vehicle. With Honda's popularity in the automotive market and the Civic's strong social status, the Prius better watch out -- fads are quick to change.

Toyota Prius

MSRP: $22,175

Engine: 1.5 liter, 16-valve, aluminum DOHC VvT-i 4-cylinder

Horsepower: 76 @ 5,000 rpm

Torque: 82 lb-ft @ 4,200

Motor: Permanent magnet AC synchronous motor

Horsepower: 110 @ 1,200 rpm to 1,540 rpm

Torque: 295 @ 0 rpm to 1,200 rpm

MPG (city/highway): 60/51

Performance - 15/20

The combination of a gasoline and an electric motor is a curious one. While the 1.5-liter gasoline engine only produces 76 horsepower and 82 lb-ft of torque, the car is surprisingly quick when asked to perform. Thanks to the 295 lb-ft of torque produced by the environmentally conscious electric half, the Prius almost feels normal on the road. Reaching highway cruising speeds and merging with traffic is a breeze when the Hybrid Synergy Drive system kicks it into high gear.

As a traditional manual driver, the only unusual and perhaps slightly disturbing feature on the Prius is its continuously variable transmission (CVT). While some might refer to this system as elegant, smooth and sophisticated, I'd rather describe it as strange and slightly irritating to listen to when driving, thanks to the gasoline engine. Actually, a CVT helps save on gas mileage in the end, no matter how weird it is. However, for that futuristic bit of engineering, the Prius loses a few points.

Exterior Design - 9/20

At first glance, the Prius truly is a Frankenstein mix of European and North American design -- and the seams are visible. Perhaps Toyota believed their radical new engine deserved a design so bizarre that it would make the average consumer stop and stare. Their intentions were good, but the outcome was less than desirable.

The bulbous shape and stubby front end of the Prius make the car look cramped and uninviting to taller and larger drivers. Head-on, the Prius has zero personality and the simple design doesn't do justice to the intricate mechanical feats just below its dull hood. The ho-hum feeling continues along the length of the car to the back end where the hatchback abruptly ends in a mock-trunk design. The taillights are an attempt at style, but the effect is lost thanks to the boring look of this "futuristic" car.

Interior Design - 7/10

At first glance, the interior design seems drab, but a second look will reveal a design that is intriguing and very well done. The lines are clean, the buttons and knobs are all accessible and the centered control panel actually improves the driver's focus on the road. A navigational package is available, which nicely compliments the interior; however, without it the dash is lacking in personality.

The Prius seats two adults and two kids nicely, but squeeze a couple of adults in the back seat and the suspension suffers. Again, the seats are very simple in design and aren't made to hold you in place -- so hold back on the corners.

Sound System/Goodies - 9/10

The base-model Prius comes nicely equipped with power windows, locks and mirrors; automatic climate control; a steering wheel that features at-your-fingertips audio and climate control buttons; cruise control; trip computer; 15-inch aluminum wheels; and a six-disc CD player. But if all that isn't enough, Toyota has provided four packages per model that may include options from a backup camera to a voice-activated DVD navigational system.

The standard sound system is typical to any economy car. However, if the soundtrack to your life must be played in full force with ample bass and proper treble, then Toyota offers a package that includes a JBL AM/FM six-disc in-dash CD changer with nine speakers and the ability to playback MP3/WMA files, as well as satellite radio.

Drive Experience - 14/20

I love the idea of saving our environment, but I also love to drive. Unfortunately, that's where the Prius loses me. It should be a blast to drive because it's a small hatchback, and hatches usually maneuver easily through traffic -- and parking is often a dream -- but the lack of power is noticeable when compared to gas-powered cars (not to mention the CVT that's just plain creepy).

With gas prices what they are, the low mileage is almost enough to make me fall in love with the Prius and forget about gas-guzzling cars ... almost. Ultimately, drive experience is just that, an experience.

Bang For Buck - 17/20

The Prius deserves some serious respect for being the first Hybrid Synergy car to hit the market. It may lose points for its exterior design and driving experience, and it may seem a little abnormal, but overall it does what it's meant to do. Moreover, it comes with a list of standard features longer than some manufacturers' extras list, and it's affordable. On the whole, the Prius is an excellent choice for the price.

Overall Score: 71/100

The Prius lost valuable points thanks to its horrendous exterior design and decidedly strange driving experience. While it is the first of its kind and should be given its dues, the Prius still has some room for improvement. New technology often takes a few attempts to get it right. I definitely think Toyota needs to sit down and work on this project; 71% only warrants a B- and I doubt the engineers at Toyota would settle for this final grade.

Next Page: Honda Civic Hybrid

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