2007 Toyota Prius
Hybrid king continues to tempt green-minded shoppers
Toyota, along with Honda, paved the way for hybrid-powertrain vehicles in the American market. Just as the 21st century began, both automakers launched hybrids: a lightweight two-seater for Honda, followed by a small sedan from Toyota. Both the Insight and Prius ran on a blend of gasoline engine and electricity, but their powertrain systems differed. From the start, Toyota made battery power dominant, with the gas engine kicking in when extra power was needed.
Introduced in its current form for the 2004 model year, the Prius adopted a totally different look. Rather than a curious-looking compact sedan with a trunk, the 2004 Prius was a larger, more fashionable midsize four-door liftback. In this second generation, the Prius became the best-selling hybrid vehicle in America. Toyota claims it's the most fuel-efficient midsize sedan sold in the United States. Sales have softened more recently, significantly shortening the waiting lists that restrained early Prius buyers. For the first time, Toyota has even experimented with consumer incentives.
Toyota also has been plagued by allegations that fuel-economy estimates for the Prius, as established by the Environmental Protection Agency, are grossly exaggerated compared to real-world driving. During 2007, the EPA is issuing dramatically reduced fuel-economy estimates for all vehicles, which it says will reflect what actual owners can expect to achieve. Estimates for the Prius will sink to 48 mpg in city driving and 45 mpg on the highway, from the previous 60/51 mpg.
A new Touring Edition joins the regular Prius for 2007, with a European-tuned suspension and 16-inch alloy wheels to provide what Toyota calls "more spirited" responses. The Touring Edition also features a bigger rear spoiler, high-intensity-discharge headlights, and integrated fog lamps. All Prius models gain standard seat-mounted side-impact airbags as well as side-curtain airbags. Both passive safety devices were formerly optional.
Built on a comparatively long 106.3-inch wheelbase, the Prius has space for five passengers, plus 14.4 cubic feet of luggage space at the rear. Standard equipment includes 60/40 split fold-down rear seatbacks, and the Prius promises 38.6 inches of backseat legroom.
Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system, considered a "full hybrid" layout, consists of a 1.5-liter four-cylinder Atkinson-cycle gasoline engine that generates 76 horsepower, coupled with an electric drive motor. The electric motor produces 50 kilowatts, for combined gas-engine/electric output of 110 horsepower. Capable of running for short distances on electricity alone, the Prius switches automatically and almost seamlessly between the two power sources. When stopped or coasting, the gas engine may shut off to conserve fuel. Regenerative braking, while coasting, helps keep the batteries fully charged.
Like other continuously variable transmissions, Toyota's planetary gear-type CVT has no conventional fixed gear ratios. Instead, it provides infinitely variable ratios in accord with changing driving conditions. Both the throttle and the shift control are operated electronically "by wire," and the transmission is governed by a short dashboard-mounted lever. Power distribution from the hybrid powertrain may be viewed on the standard seven-inch display monitor. If a navigation system is installed, the video screen can also display map and journey information.
As Toyota says, the Prius looks like no other car on the road today. It's also more aerodynamic than most production vehicles. A low (0.26) coefficient of drag lets the Prius slip through the air more readily than most cars, which helps boost gas mileage and may also decrease interior noise. Vehicle Stability Control is an option, which helps keep the car on course by detecting and correcting wheel slide during cornering. A backup camera also is available.
Thrilling isn't quite the word, but the Prius can be fun to drive—at least some of the time. Performance is acceptable but modest, in keeping with Toyota's claim of 0-60 mph acceleration in about 10 seconds. Quicker than Honda's Civic Hybrid, a Prius accelerates eagerly at low or midrange speeds, if less so at higher velocities. Oddly, despite the gearless CVT, you may feel a "gear change" as the Prius reaches speed.
Ride comfort is a plus, at least on relatively smooth surfaces, and rough spots are largely subdued. Though you can hear the engine, especially while accelerating, the Prius is especially quiet. The regenerative braking may produce a slight jolt when approaching a stop, but it's not especially bothersome. Visibility to the rear is hampered by the thick horizontal bar across the back window. Rear-seat headroom is marginal, though leg space is ample. Some controls may confuse the uninitiated.
Just as the critics insist, fuel economy falls well short of EPA estimates. In wintry urban driving, for example, topping 30 mpg takes considerable effort and an especially light foot on the accelerator pedal.
Prius prices start at $22,175. The new Touring Edition goes for $23,070. Buyers still get a partial tax credit from the federal government of $787.50, if purchased by September 30, 2007, after which the credit expires completely. (www.toyota.com)
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