- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2004

Toyota representatives claim that the introduction of its 2004 Prius is a worldwide premier of global significance.

While it’s not an all-new car, there are a few things about the second-generation Prius to be sold in the United States that make that statement ring true.

Although it was introduced in Japan some six years ago, and this Japanese automaker has only sold some 125,000 Prius vehicles, it’s clear that Toyota is moving from niche market to mainstream with its 2004 version, and is clearly redefining what consumers will come to expect in a hybrid passenger car at a time when many manufacturers are still promising a first-generation hybrid.

So, what’s new? Many things, including an improved, more aerodynamic exterior (its drag coefficient is 0.26, which Toyota claims, for its size and class, is about as good as it gets); a greatly refined and upgraded interior with many amenities and upscale options typically found in much more costly models; and the same uninspiring performance that makes gearheads cringe and environmentalists cheer.

However, don’t be fooled and think the Prius doesn’t have the power to be a mainstream player in traffic.

It does and, in fact, moves from zero to 60 in 10.5 seconds, which is two seconds quicker than previous numbers, and travels from 30 to 50 mph in 4.9 seconds, with a top speed of 105. It’s not a science project!

Despite its polarizing effect, the Prius delivers what it promises: more than 50 miles to the gallon, a comfortable ride and efficient design that takes up little space and leaves only a tiny environmental footprint.

Introduced in 1997, the Prius elicited this response from at least one car critic: “I have seen the future and, man, is it slow.”

Toyota showcased the new Prius at the Detroit auto show in January this year, where it also featured two forthcoming fuel-cell vehicles that are part of this Japanese automaker’ s decade-old fuel-cell development program.

A longer wheelbase, increased engine output, lower emissions and improved electronic technology throughout make Prius a legitimate everyday car, capable of making the morning commute and the holiday drive home with equal ease and comfort.

I found the new version capable and visibly freshened in many ways. Silent when stopped, it has typical engine noise under power, with improved brakes that slow it in a measured manner.

Steering and overall ride are comfortable, with a bright and roomy interior, considering its exterior packaging.

The updated exterior is both futuristic and eye-catching, a vast improvement over the Echo-like shell of last year’s model.

A pointed nose and narrow headlamps are not quite “sporty,” as Toyota calls them, but they look sharp.

Overall dimensions are bigger (including a five-inch stretch in the wheelbase to 100.4 inches), making Prius a midsized vehicle, not a compact.

Notable are the improved lift-back utility, with an improved angle for cargo, and a fold-flat front seat .

The power plant is a hybrid system that includes a permanent magnet-type, 40-horsepower electric motor and a 1.5-liter 16-valve VVT-i four-cylinder with aluminum double overhead cam (DOHC) that creates 70 horsepower and 82 foot-pounds of torque. The net output of the system is 98 horsepower.

Matched to an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission, the engine puts out 50 kilowatts and 500 volts, up from 33 kW and about 300 volts.

Mileage is 51 miles per gallon on the highway, 60 mpg in the city. Combined mileage estimate is 55 mpg.

Inside, the hybrid is roomier and has more standard features.

A “start” button is where the traditional key-activated transmission would be, and a multi-information display panel is tucked into the middle of the dash, where the speedometer and tach might be on an Echo.

Standard features include power windows/doors/locks/mirrors, a tilt steering wheel and cup holders and audio system.

New technology includes a sensor system instead of a key, which detects when the driver is close to the vehicle and unlocks it, and electrically driven systems such as the CFC-free air conditioning.

Options include a new navigation system with improved graphics and a Blue Tooth Hands-Free/Voice Recognition system.

Standard safety equipment includes anti-lock brakes, driver and front passenger air bags, child seat tethers, three-point seat belts for all seating positions, daytime running lights and a security system.

With its futuristic styling and increased performance, Prius may always appeal more to those whose environmental conscience is stronger than their love for a roaring engine and soaring horsepower.

But with gas prices on the rise and the future of oil prices uncertain, hybrid cars are increasingly looking like more than just a science project or a clever idea for tree-huggers.

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