2003 Toyota Prius Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Making it easy to be green.
Until someone invents a lighter battery or a longer power cord, electric cars don't make much sense. But gasoline-electric hybrids do. A hybrid combines battery power with a highly fuel-efficient gasoline engine to achieve remarkable fuel economy.
You never have to plug, unlike an electric car, because the gasoline engine continuously charges the batteries. The gas engine can be small, because the electric motor works with it to maximize performance. The engine shuts off at traffic lights to further save fuel and reduce emissions, earning Super Low Emission Vehicle (SULEV) certification.
It's easy to live with a hybrid because it requires no commitment from the driver. You don't have to tell the car to switch to either the gas or electric motor; it just does it, automatically. It feels, sounds, and drives like a normal car.
The Toyota Prius is one of just three hybrid gas-electric cars currently sold in the United States. The pseudo-sporty Honda Insight looks low and sleek, but seats only two people, while Honda's Civic Hybrid comfortably seats four.
Prius is tall and narrow and admits four people through four tall doors, while accommodating 12 cubic feet of their stuff in the trunk. It is designed not only for efficiency in how it goes, but in how much it can take there. And its efficiency is truly laudable, with an EPA rating of 52 mpg in city driving.
The Prius is available only in a single fully loaded model for $19,995. Standard equipment includes an automatic transmission, remote keyless entry, ABS, alloy wheels, air conditioning with automatic climate control, an AM/FM cassette, and power everything.
The option list has expanded for 2002, and now includes side-impact airbags, cruise control and daytime running lights; Prius also comes standard with a navigation system, wheel locks, a glass-breakage sensor and a CD player.
Tall and narrow is the new design trend among small cars, allowing van-like space inside while maintaining a relatively short wheelbase. It's practical, but not everyone finds it attractive.
The Toyota Prius looks like a crisply styled four-door economy car, nothing more, nothing less. It isn't likely to get noticed at a stoplight, and won't attract as much attention as the Honda Insight. But it's not unattractive either.
The interior of the Toyota Prius looks high-tech. A small touch-panel display in the center of the dash monitors the energy flow between the gasoline engine and electric motor. At first, it can be somewhat distracting as we initially found ourselves tempted to glance down constantly to see whether the gas engine was kicking in. Fortunately, the display can be shut off entirely. The radio and other accessories can be accessed through the same touch-panel.
A pod above the touch screen houses a digital speedometer, fuel gauge, turn signal indicator, and various warning lights. Placing the instrument pod in the center of dash may or may not be a good idea. It looks spacey, but it removes the gauges from the driver's immediate field of vision, to where they require a longer look from the road ahead. Saturn has copied this design for its new 2003 Ion.
The oddest interior feature is the dashboard-mounted gear selector for the automatic transmission. The shifter operates much like the lever a cabbie yanks to start the meter. You push a button at the end of the stalk and then move the lever down to engage a gear. It takes a little getting used to because it's unlike other gear selectors. And when the lever is in drive, it blocks access to the volume knob for the stereo.
The tall stance of the Prius makes getting into the cabin relatively easy, particularly in comparison with the low-slung Insight. The Prius also provides plenty of headroom both front and rear. Tasteful fabric covers the seats, and the front and rear cushions are comfortable. The rear compartment, while not overly spacious, is large enough to accommodate a child safety seat (LATCH tethers and anchors for child seats are standard). However, Toyota's claim that this is a 'roomy, five-passenger family sedan' is a bit of a stretch; only two medium-sized people have adequate room in the rear.
The trunk accommodates nearly 12 cubic feet of stuff. In everyday language, that translates into a folding baby stroller with room left over.
With most urban areas choked with commuter traffic during morning and evening rush hours, the Prius makes for a comfortable and quiet cocoon, helping maintain your sanity while the surrounding traffic can barely maintain a fraction of the speed limit.
Prepare for a pause when you turn the key to start the engine; it acts as if it were waking up from a nap, and only reluctantly. There is nothing mechanically wrong, however; the engine fires up a split-second later and the monitor shows that all systems are go.
The Prius uses a continuously variable transmission, or CVT. So you never feel the familiar thump of an automatic tranny shifting gears. Instead, you feel only a steady and smooth stream of acceleration.
Because the 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine produces only 70 horsepower, the Prius is merely an adequate performer. Merging into faster-moving traffic isn't exactly nightmarish, but it isn't this car's specialty, either.
However, the Prius does just fine for handling the transportation chores that make up the majority of most people's driving duties: Accelerate to 40 mph, stop at the light, wait for it to turn green, and do it again. And with its near-silent power, seamless transmission, and good four-speaker stereo, the Prius creates a soothing environment, even when you're trapped in a heavy rush hour traffic.
What throws you off during your first drive is how the cabin goes silent when you come to a complete stop. Since the gas engine isn't needed, it shuts down. The silence is deafening and instinct causes you to think the engine had stalled. But of course it re-starts itself as soon as you take your foot off the brake. While you're sitting in traffic with the gas engine off, the Prius is producing no exhaust at all. It's also burning zero fuel. That's why the Prius gets its best mileage-per-gallon in city driving. The EPA estimates that the Prius is good for 619 miles of urban crawl between fuel stops.
The ride is typical for a small car: You're not jostled around too much going over bumps and freeway expansion joints, but neither is the ride as smooth as it would be in a larger car. Handling feels safe and secure, but not sporty.
Anti-lock brakes bring the Prius to a halt with little drama. The brakes feel a bit touchy at first, but they never grab too harshly.
Toyota offers the Prius as an environmentally friendly car for the masses. It's designed to handle the daily grind on congested roads while it delivers fuel-economy numbers that would make a diesel jealous. Unfortunately, the price for your eco-awareness is mediocre comfort, handling and performance stickered at $20,000. The Prius is not a large car; that makes it easy to park, but you may sometimes feel threatened by aggressively driven sport-utilities.
Toyota City, Japan.
Options As Tested
carpeted floor mats ($86).
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