Before we even begin talking about the new Prius, I need to make one point clear-the comparisons to the Honda Insight end here. Yes, I know they are both hybrids, cut a similar profile-but having driven both, these are two very different cars. If Honda calls the Insight “a hybrid for everyone”, the mantra for the Prius should be “a hybrid for those who really want one.” Let me explain.
The Prius employs a far more sophisticated-and expensive hybrid system, and you need only point to the superior gas mileage of the Toyota to see the difference. But what really sets the Prius apart is the driving experience. Hit the Start button-the dash lights up, the car is on, and you hear…nothing. Pull away from a dead stop, and at times the car would wait until I was doing 15mph until the gas motor kicked in. And even then, from the driver’s seat you feel no change as the car slips, seamlessly from gas to hybrid or a combination of both to motivate the car.
That said, this is a car that does take a little getting used to. Accelerating from a start, under braking, or standing outside the car, the silence, a hum or whirring, and again, the gas engine starting up and cutting out is unlike any conventional car out there. You don’t row the gearshift down to D-you have a joystick to select drive or reverse. You press a button for park. When I received the car on Thursday, I felt like I was George Jetson piloting the most far out car of all time. By Saturday, the Prius felt natural to me. Different? Yes, but easy to adapt to.
The big news of course is the Prius is an all-new car this year. This time around, there is a model and a price that appeals to several buyers, with models available from I to V depending on what you want to spend. For the new Prius, Toyota went with a larger 1.8L four, but better fuel economy is attained as the larger engine produces more torque, so revs are kept lower. Total output is rated at 134hp, and Toyota claims a 0-60mph time of 9.8 seconds. But the thrilling figures are the EPA fuel economy ratings: 51mpg city/48mpg highway.
What impressed me about the new Prius was its styling. Instantly recognizable as a Prius, but with sportier, sharper lines. This is a Prius that for the first time won’t get sand kicked in its face when it shows up at the beach, if you will pardon the expression. This was only enhanced by the Barcelona Red metallic paint that drew many compliments, and the sporty 17″ alloys that come standard on the Prius V.
Inside, the Prius is easy to live with. Seats are comfortable, and the interior has more than enough room for my 6′ 1″ frame. Naturally, quality of materials was high. This being the top-level Prius, I was treated to a leather interior, heated seats, and a sharp-sounding JBL audio system. The navigation system was a breeze to use, with slick, easy to view graphics. You won’t confuse the Prius with a luxury car, but at no point did I feel in want of anything more than what the car offered.
As for driving, well, let’s put it this way: you didn’t buy a Prius because you wanted a sports sedan. As such, I had my expectations set pretty low. The Prius does have enough power if you need a quick lane change or get out of harm’s way. The ride is well controlled and comfortable over bumps-not floaty at all. I thought the steering was responsive to my inputs, but didn’t communicate a lot from the road surface. Overall, the Prius was tighter than I expected, but it did tend to roll a bit going into corners.
But in a review of the new Prius, the ultimate question is not how fast it felt, it is how I “scored” on fuel economy. You have three drive modes to choose from: EV (electric only, but only good for a mile or so), Econ (optimized for fuel economy), and Power (sharper throttle response). In my stint in the car, I kept it set to Econ mode, but I didn’t employ gas-saving techniques. I just drove the car as I would any other. In a mix of around town driving, stop and go traffic and some rural back roads, I averaged 43.5mpg. Not bad considering I wasn’t changing my driving habits to suit the car.
In creating the third generation Prius, Toyota has managed to build a more powerful, yet more fuel efficient car than the one it replaces while offering more style at the same time-a remarkable accomplishment.