- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Fuel economy, performance, styling and roominess are all improved in the world’s best-selling gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle, the Toyota Prius.

Best of all, the new-generation, 2004 Prius — which went on sale in the United States last fall and is rated at an impressive 60 miles a gallon in city driving and 51 mpg on the highway — is priced the same as its predecessor, the 2003 Prius. Starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, remains at $20,510.

Fuel economy and lower emissions are a big lure for buyers of these gas-electric hybrids.

With the newly enlarged Prius qualifying as a midsize auto, it ranks as the most fuel-efficient in its class in the country.

Indeed the new Prius actually has a higher fuel economy rating than did its predecessor. The 2003 Prius compact sedan had a government rating of 52 mpg in city driving and 45 mpg on the highway. Yes, mileage is, indeed, better in the city.

The Prius gets the most out of each tank of gas by using a combination of power that comes from a small, internal combustion, gasoline engine and a permanent magnet, electric motor.

There’s no plugging in the electric motor here. The motor draws power from an onboard, powertrain battery pack that captures, stores and releases electrical energy as the vehicle travels.

A tricky part for engineers is to make the engine and motor power sources work together smoothly and seamlessly, which was accomplished in the new Prius test car. It drove and felt just like a regular, all-gasoline-powered vehicle.

For example, I merged into city traffic without a hiccup, and I got up to speed with other cars on the highway without fuss.

The 76-horsepower, 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing has the usual, four-cylinder buzzy sounds when pressed hard, and the Prius still is oh-so-quiet when only the electric motor is operating, such as when the car is backing up.

But overall, the driving sensation, itself, doesn’t hint at a mix-and-match powertrain system.

In fact, the new Prius feels much zippier than its predecessor in pedal-to-the-metal startups, and Toyota officials say acceleration is 15 percent better than in the previous Prius.

Helping this performance is its 50-kilowatt electric motor. Its torque is 295 foot-pounds from standstill all the way to 1,200 rpm, better than the old 33-kilowatt’s 258 foot-pounds from standstill to 400 rpm.

Note that in gas-electric hybrids, much of the torque is provided by electric motors, whose key benefit is torque generation from zero rpm.

The Prius nickel-metal hydride battery is upgraded, too, to a 500-volt maximum, up from 273.6 volts. Toyota officials also said they bench-tested this battery pack to 150,000 miles without degradation and added there is an eight-year/100,000-mile warranty on the powertrain battery on top of the comprehensive car warranty of three years/36,000 miles.

The four-cylinder engine is much the same as in the previous Prius, but horsepower is boosted a bit from last year’s 70.

Drivers do need some orientation before heading out in a new Prius, however.

The Prius doesn’t have the typical turn-the-key ignition system. Rather, a driver must insert the key into a slot on the dashboard, depress the brake pedal, and then touch the power button.

The gearshifter is different, too. It’s not so much a shifter or lever as it is a short, fat knob extending from high up on the dashboard. It took me a bit of practice to learn how to move the knob from gear to gear.

There’s no “P” for park among the knob selections, either. Park is a button all by itself above the knob and can be engaged without the driver going through the neutral gear.

Riding on a new platform, the new Prius has a wheelbase that’s nearly 6 inches longer than the 2003 model and an interior volume that has grown from 101 cubic feet to 112.3 cubic feet.

Looks are sleeker and less utilitarian than the first-generation Prius, though the 2004 Prius looks a bit off from the side, where the short hood is apparent.

Though maximum seating remains at five, riders in the new model are more comfortable because nearly every dimension, especially rear legroom, is improved.

I especially appreciated the decent-sized windows on the rear doors, and the maximum 16.1 cubic feet of cargo space, up from 11.8 cubic feet in last year’s Prius. The car is a hatchback now, with rear seats that fold down to handle longer cargo.

The ride isn’t immune from road bumps. My body was vibrating regularly in the 2004 Prius tester — even on what appeared to be smooth concrete.

The electric power-assisted, rack-and-pinion steering also took some getting used to as I spent time correcting my steering efforts in the first several curves.

The turning circle in the new model also isn’t as small as it was in the earlier Prius.

Early Prius models came with low-rolling resistance tires that were designed to maximize fuel economy.

But these tires didn’t have as much grip in wintry weather as all-season tires do, and even on dry pavement, there were a lot of chirps and squeals when I tested an earlier-model Prius.

Thankfully, Toyota officials dropped the low-rolling-resistance rubber and put all-season tires on the new Prius. I didn’t get a single chirp during my test drive.

But the Prius tires allow some road noise to come through on certain pavement surfaces.

Inside, I enjoyed the better graphics of the new display in the middle of the dashboard, even if the location means the midday sun can, at times, make the information less visible.

The Prius is available with many new options, including a voice-activated navigation system. Even fully loaded, the Prius is priced under $26,000, Toyota officials said.

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