- The Washington Times - Friday, July 20, 2001

Usually it takes many years to achieve cult status. When Volkswagen introduced the Beetle and its microbus in the United States back in the '50s and '60s, they were regarded as oddball curiosities.
Over the years, however, they were embraced by an almost fanatical following some of them flower children of the 1960s, but also many mainstream and even boring people who were attracted by cheap, practical and relatively reliable transportation.
No such consciousness infusion or passage of time has been required for Toyota's Prius, a hybrid car that uses both electric power and internal combustion to achieve high fuel economy and low pollution.
The Prius is in its first full year as part of the Toyota lineup, and customers have been lining up in droves, with some waiting six months for delivery. Buyers have included celebrities, environmental activists and plain citizens looking for those old-time virtues of cleanliness and economy.
The car is neither cheap nor particularly economical. But it is, in its own way, a decent and high-quality vehicle. And it is in the vanguard of what car buyers will increasingly be offered in the future as resources diminish and pollution increases.
Base price on the Prius is $20,450, a fairly stiff price if you view it as a compact economy car, which it is. Even with a couple of options, it topped out at $20,855.
But the truth is that Toyota loses money on every one sold, and has no plans to ramp up production to meet the demand. In some respects, the Prius is a learning experience for Toyota and perhaps other manufacturers as well who want to be out front in the next automotive technology revolution.
Right now, the Prius is one of just two hybrid cars on the market. The other is Honda's Insight, which is only a two-seater and more of an oddity than the Prius, which is a practical four-door sedan with front-wheel drive.
The first thing you notice about the Prius is the obvious high quality of the materials and construction. Although the upholstery is cloth, not leather, the instrument panel has a look of class that you never see on economy cars, and the overall ambiance is that of a far more expensive car like the Toyota Avalon or even a Lexus from Toyota's luxury division.
Instruments and controls are a bit strange at first, but easily learned. There's an odd-shaped shifter, a digital readout for speed and other functions, and a video screen with tech-style information on fuel consumption as well as stereo and other controls.
There's solid comfort in plush bucket seats up front, and similar accommodations for two adults in back, and even three if they're not too portly.
The driving experience is surprisingly benign, with decent acceleration and passing power that belies the seemingly modest sources of power under the hood.
Driving the Prius is a 44-horsepower electric motor bolstered by a 1.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine that delivers 70 horsepower. The power gets to the front wheels through an electronically controlled constantly variable automatic transmission.
Buyers will see more of these CVTs as the years pass because they offer superior fuel economy and seamless operation. Using belts and pulleys, they function almost like a powerful electric motor, bringing the car up to cruising speed without any of the gear-shifting hiccups of conventional automatics.
In fact, Germany's Audi, which is planning to offer a CVT, reportedly is planning to incorporate some artificial pauses to mimic a standard automatic. The fear is that buyers won't like the smooth progression of the CVT.
Never fear. You get used to it very quickly and it's wonderful. The Prius is smoother and quieter than some luxury cars.
The electric motor provides the main power and the gasoline engine kicks in when extra punch is needed, as in passing or getting quickly away from a stop sign. The gasoline engine also continues to run when there's a big power drain, as when you're using the air conditioning.
But it is possible to drive very carefully on mostly electric power, with the eerie feeling of sitting silently at a stop light, then having the motor kick in when you touch the go pedal. Regenerative braking, along with the gasoline engine, keep the special batteries recharged.
The problem is that in driving the way most people do, the fuel consumption doesn't approach the Environmental Protection Agency ratings of 52 miles per gallon city and 45 highway. The city figure is higher because city driving makes more use of the electric motor. Real-world fuel consumption for most people likely will be in the 30s.

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