- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2005

If it’s possible for a car company to tire of success, Toyota management must be bored to tears. The hits just keep on coming for this Asian import that has added a Prius chapter to its successes story. More of a hey-look-what-we-can-do exercise in the beginning than a serious attempt at creating a hot-selling automobile, Prius has triggered a crush of demand that has far outstripped supply. So long has the waiting list been that Toyota was compelled to increase production in 2005 from 10,000 units per month to 15,000. And that probably won’t solve the problem.

So what’s all the hubbub? What Toyota has managed to do in the Prius is create a midsize car that, despite all of the fuel-saving technology under its skin, looks and feels like a traditional economy car. It’s not some stripped-down, George Jetson clown-mobile. Sure the exterior styling is contemporary and there are a few quirky interior elements that make the Saab 900 seem conservative; but in terms of passenger comfort and highway performance, Prius can go toe to toe with any 4-cylinder car in its class. It is competitive in interior room, acceleration and price. Plus, it consumes fuel in hummingbird-like quantities. Prius is a no-compromise machine that doesn’t make its owners feel like putting a bag over their head when driving through the neighborhood, nor will their kids insist on being dropped off around the corner from school. Well, if they do, it probably doesn’t have anything to do with the car.

The heart and soul of Prius is its Hybrid Synergy Drive. The conventional element of this arrangement is a 1.5-liter 4-cylinder Atkinson Cycle gasoline engine with Variable Valve Timing with intelligence (VVT-i). It produces 76 horsepower and 82 lb.-ft. of torque. Also supplying power is an electric motor that generates 50 kW or 67 horsepower and a whopping 295 lb.-ft. of torque. These two power sources can operate independently or in tandem. When peak power is required, they operate together; however in situations where the power demand is light, often just one or the other provides the necessary grunt. Drivers remain unaware of which component is supplying power at any given time because the switching is seamless. The curious can dial in the appropriate setting and track the power source on the driver information display in the center of the dashboard.

Prius uses a continuously variable transmission (CVT) to pass power to the front wheels. A CVT has no preset shift points or gear ratios but rather automatically selects the proper ratio from an infinite number of them using a planetary gearset. The overall effect can be a bit disconcerting at first because there is no sense of the transmission shifting. However, whatever apprehension this causes rapidly evaporates. What a CVT does insure is maximum efficiency from the Hybrid Synergy Drive by continuously choosing the optimum gear setting.

Fuel economy is outstanding. The Environmental Protection Agency has issued a rating of 60 mpg in the city and 51 on the highway. Unlike conventional gasoline-fueled vehicles, the Prius highway mileage is less than the city because the electric motor contributes more of the power in stop-and-go city driving than it does on the open highway. While fuel economy is indeed good, the EPA numbers are too generous. Expect a figure closer to 40 or 45 mpg in combined city/highway driving.

Braking is achieved via discs up front and rear drums monitored by an antilock system. Traction control and Electronic Brake Force Distribution are standard. This is a regenerative braking system. When the brakes are applied, or even when the car is coasting, the electric motor takes on the characteristics of a generator, capturing the kinetic energy normally lost as heat and transforming it into electricity to recharge the batteries.

Inside, the Prius is remarkably roomy. Its 106.3-inch wheelbase is about equal to the Chevy Malibu or Volkswagen Passat, but it gives up 13 inches in overall length to the Malibu and 10 inches to the Passat. Yet, it has about the same front seat legroom and more minimum rear seat legroom than these competitors. At 16.1 cubic feet, Prius has more cargo trunk space as well.

Located an arm’s length from the driver near the upper center of the dashboard, the digital speedometer and other gauges are easy to read. Both the accelerator and shifter are electronic control-by-wire systems. The shifter protrudes from the dashboard to the driver’s right. It takes a bit of getting used to, but in the meantime don’t worry about accidentally shifting into reverse rather than drive. A continuous beeping sound alerts you when the transmission is in reverse. The Prius starts with a push of a button. Don’t expect to hear the engine catch; it’s all electric at start up.

The tilt steering wheel has redundant controls for the automatic climate control, as well as the six-speaker audio system. A CD player is also standard. Other standard features are cruise control, intermittent rear wiper, power door locks with remote keyless entry, power windows and outboard mirrors, and an outside temperature gauge.

Offered as an option, Smart Key frees the driver from ever taking the key from his pocket. The car senses when the key fob is close and pulling on the door handle automatically unlocks the car. Likewise, once the driver is behind the wheel, the system recognizes the proximity of the key fob and the driver need only push the start button. Pushing the start button again with the transmission in park shuts down everything.

With the destination charge, the base price of the Prius is $21,440.

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