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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Toyota Prius Hybrid

For 2010, Toyota has brought out an all-new version of its Prius hybrid. Like the old Prius, the new Prius is designed to deliver maximum MPG with family-car practicality. But within those parameters, Toyota has made a lot of changes: Sleeker styling, redesigned cabin, and an improved hybrid drive train that gives the driver greater control over the Prius' behavior. The old Prius did the job as well as can be expected -- so has Toyota made any meaningful improvements? Read on. $23,510 base price, $31,430 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 51 MPG city/48 MPG highway. 

  First Glance: I love you just the way you are

When I heard that Toyota was redesigning the Prius for 2010, my first thought was "Why?" Few cars carry out their intended mission better than the Prius. I bet Toyota could build it as-is for ten years and sales would still remain strong. But that's not the way things go in the auto business, and so change it they have: The Prius is all-new for 2010, for better or for worse. And while there is definitely some better, there is also a fair bit of worse.

Let's start with the styling. There's really not a whole lot the stylists can do with the Prius; the old model was designed to cheat the wind rather than please the eye, which pretty much dictates the shape. (That's why Honda came up with a similar profile for their own four-door dedicated hybrid, the Insight.) As a result, the new Prius looks a lot like the old Prius, at least at first glance. Look closer and you'll see a more Toyotaes-que face up front, a more pronounced wedge profile from the side, and a racy little spoiler out back. I was indifferent to the new shape at first, but the more new Priuses I see on the road -- here in Los Angeles, the Prius is as common as tall mocha lattes and silicon boobs -- the more I like the new shape. It makes the old Prius look frumpy by comparison. Overall, I'd say the new shape goes in the For Better category.

In the Driver's Seat: What were they thinking?

The Prius' cabin definitely has some For Better changes: A roomier back seat and a bigger trunk. Unfortunately, that's about all of the For Better, and there's a whole lot of For Worse.
Example numero uno is the center councel that divides the front seats. This is one design choice that has me scratching my head. Buying a Prius is all about being a good citizen of the planet -- so why design an interior that isolates the driver in his or her own little pod? The center console provides a more conventional location for the shift lever, though why anyone would possibly care is beyond me. It's an automatic, for cryin' out loud! Aside from that, the console just gets in the way. There's a storage area underneath which pretty much useless; anything you put there is going to a) block the seat heater controls -- which, by the way, are so inconveniently located that I can't believe Toyota came up with them -- and b) fall out on turns.

Example numero dos is the new instrument layout. The old Prius had a simple center-mounted digital gauge cluster. If you wanted more geeky information, like how power was flowing through the hybrid system or what sort of fuel economy you were achieving in five-minute increments, it was available on the same LCD screen that served the climate, stereo and navigation systems. The 2010 Prius still has the LCD screen, but Toyota designed a new geek-o-meter into the dashboard next to the speedometer. Problem is, they used a cheap Red and Blue LDC display, which looks cheesy and decidedly low-tech.

On the Road: Better where it counts

In terms of the mechanicals, it's all For Better. Toyota designed the new Prius to provide more power and get better fuel economy. The engine size is up from 1.5 to 1.8 liters, and there are now three driver-select power train modes: Normal, Sport and Eco. In Normal mode, the Prius drive, well, normally -- just like an old-shape Prius. Sport mode -- an odd choice of names, since there's nothing sporty about the Prius -- changes the accelerator pedal response so you get more power with less movement of the pedal. It doesn't actually make the car faster, but it does provide quicker access to what power the Prius does have.

Eco mode tunes the accelerator response to help you get maximum MPG by accelerating from a stop more gingerly and responding slowly to sudden movements of the accelerator pedal, basically automating a method used by experienced hype-rmilers to get maximum MPG. Like the old Prius, the new Prius can run on pure battery power and low speeds, and there's now an EV button that forces electric-only mode, which is useful for moving the car from one parking spot to another, but not much else.

I spent most of my time in Eco mode, figuring that most Prius owners would do the same. It worked: I averaged 48.9 MPG, a significant improvement over the 45 or so I averaged in all the second-generation Priuses I tested. I also noticed that the new Prius grips the curves better than the old Prius, although it's fun-to-drive factor is still almost nil.

Journey's End: Should be a slam dunk, but...

  The 2010 Prius has a couple of other cool gizmos, like a button on the key fob that lets you run the A/C remotely and a solar-powered ventilator fan that is supposed to keep the interior cool when the car is off (a neat idea, but it was no match for the hot Southern California sun).
But at the end of the day, the Prius is all about fuel economy, and the fact is that the 2010 Toyota Prius not only gets better gas mileage than the old Prius (as well as every other new car on the market), but it makes it easier to hit those stellar numbers. So it should be a slam dunk for the Prius... except it isn't.

Try as I might, I just can't get over the interior, with that intrusive center console and hideous dash display. I prefer the simplicity of the old Prius, even if that means getting 4 fewer miles per gallon (which, at 12,000 miles per year, only saves about 22 gallons).

Bottom line: For better or for worse, the Prius is still the best hybrid on the market. I just wish Toyota hadn't changed it quite so much.

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