When car buyers think of hybrids, the name that most often springs to mind is the Toyota Prius since it was the first really practical hybrid to come to market and has sold more than any other examples. Yes, of course, the original Honda Insight beat the Prius to market in the U.S. by about six months, but the tiny two-seater sold in equally tiny numbers and had limited appeal beyond hard core hyper milers.
In the coming weeks, Toyota dealers will start getting their first allotments of the all-new third-generation Prius, and while we got to spend a few hours with one on the west coast in March, we just spent a whole week with the new version of this iconic Toyota. While the efficiency of the Prius has never been in dispute, like many other cars from Brand T, its appeal as a driver's car has been, to say the least, limited. For its generation three model, Toyota has not given up on minimizing fuel consumption, but it has sought to make the Prius a bit more appealing on other levels. Read on to find out if the company has succeeded.
Photos copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.
Many of the most avid fans of the Prius have been people who view cars as nothing more than a means of conveying occupants to a destination with the least amount of fuss. Minimal fuss often means minimal involvement, as well. That typically means finding the most direct route with the fewest number of directional changes. For those operators (we hesitate to call anyone who prefers to remain uninvolved in the process a driver), the first two generations of the Prius were utterly up to the task.
However, there is a fringe group of us who actually prefer roads with some twists and turns and enjoy the challenge of carrying momentum through corners without scrubbing off speed. Doing that effectively is aided by a car that transmits information about cornering forces back through the steering wheel and doesn't feel like it will scrape its door handles at moderate speeds. This is where the previous Prius was severely lacking, falling far short of other thrifty vehicles like Honda's new Insight and VW's Jetta TDI.
Somehow, Toyota has managed to muster its prodigious resources over the last several years to create a new model to address both of these extremist camps. Under the hood, the Prius now includes the latest iteration of Hybrid Synergy Drive, which operates more efficiently than ever. The basic architecture has not changed and includes an electronically variable transmission that acts as the power split device and a pair of electric motor/generators to provide drive torque and kinetic energy recovery.
The internal combustion engine remains a four-cylinder running on the Atkinson cycle to optimize its thermodynamic efficiency. However, the displacement has grown from the previous 1.5 liters to 1.8 liters, which has dual benefits. When the driver actually needs extra power in order to merge onto a freeway or complete a passing maneuver, the propulsive force is now readily available. The extra displacement means that it's available without unduly straining the engine so the impact on fuel consumption is actually reduced.
Inside, the new floating center console features a trio of buttons to help manage the powertrain behavior, one of which was previously available only in overseas markets. For the first time, U.S. Prius buyers now have an EV button available that sometimes allows the driver to force the car into electric drive mode. Since the Prius is designed as a parallel hybrid, the electric drive portion of the vehicle has limited capabilities (although far more than most current hybrids) to drive the vehicle. Therefore, the EV mode only allows the Prius to troll around silently at speeds below 25 mph. Of course, you can get kicked out of EV mode if the battery level is too low or the accelerator is applied with too much verve. With sufficient energy in the battery and an extremely light right foot, we were regularly able to go over a mile without the engine firing up.
To the right of the EV button is the ECO button. Like the similarly labeled switch in the new Insight, this one moderates the driver's commands before sending them to the various powertrain elements. The ECO mode essentially applies a slow filter to everything, smoothing responses to avoid the sort of sudden transient reactions that cause increased fuel consumption. During our time with the Prius, even these slower reactions proved to be sufficient for almost all day-to-day driving needs. For those times when you need just a bit more get up and go such as merging onto a crowded freeway, to the right of the ECO switch sits the Power button.
This one does the opposite of the ECO switch and speeds up throttle responses. While the 134 horsepower of the new Prius certainly doesn't give it the feel of a sports car, the 24 hp boost over the previous model means that it also never really feels inadequate. The biggest dynamic complaint about the old Prius, however, was the suspension and steering. Our own limited exposure with the prior model demonstrated excessive body lean and steering more in keeping with a video game that uses a non-force feedback steering wheel. The steering in the new model no longer feels so over-boosted and has at least a semblance of feedback about the cornering forces at work. It's not great but it no longer qualifies as scary, so that's a good thing.
As for the suspension, it actually has some roll control now, and the whole car feels tighter than ever. In fact, if anything, it might be a bit too tight in terms of damping. Small road inputs (on the rare occasion that you can find such a thing in Michigan) are transmitted a bit too directly to the driver's back side. While the ride and handling balance is certainly more geared to enthusiasts than before, it could still use a bit of tweaking. The Prius still understeers at the limit like most mainstream front-wheel-drive cars, but it never feels out of control.
The interior of the Prius now has a much more modern appearance than before with the high center console sweeping down from the dash between the front seats. The shift lever has the same basic functionality as before: a pull to the left and down engaging drive and left/up bringing on reverse. The shape of the console means all the controls fall readily to hand. Like the previous generation, Toyota has opted to use some unusual textures on the plastics to replace the usual faux leather graining. Since the simulated leather is typically exaggerated anyway and really doesn't fool anyone, that's a good thing in our books.
Much of the center console has a finish that looks something like brushed metal and is actually rather attractive. The leather seats in our level IV trim model have perforations in a sine wave pattern rather than the usual grid that gives it a bit more visual interest. The front seats themselves were reasonably comfortable during our driving time and never exhibited any unusual pressure points. The rear seat was also adequate for two passengers with plenty of leg room and improved head room thanks to the re-profiled roof-line. Behind the seats, the Prius has an ample 21 cubic feet of space available to carry all your stuff.
The Prius, of course, is all about fuel economy, and the new model has received some big numbers from the EPA. With ratings of 51 mpg city, 48 mpg highway and 50 mpg combined, one would expect it to be thrifty in the real world... and it is. During our week, the Prius returned a healthy 47 mpg with a driving style that was modest but could not be described as hyper-miling. It took comparatively little effort to get some very impressive numbers.
While a Prius can be purchased for as little as $21,000 for a stripped down model, our test example came to $30,150 including the leather interior, navigation system and solar roof panel. This pricing strategy will appeal to an even wider range of buyers than before, and the lower base price should attract a few cross shoppers from the less expensive though less frugal Honda Insight.
The new Prius is no longer just an appliance for commuting. It's almost fun to drive. Toyota just needs to apply some more of its Kaizen philosophy of continual improvement to the ride and handling and we can call it good.
Photos copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.