Relevant for the Times

2009, Toyota, Prius

When Toyota listed several vehicles for me to test drive, I immediately chose the Prius. Even though gasoline prices have plunged to slightly below two bucks a gallon, it's a sure bet that the digits on gas pumps will rise again.

For the uninitiated, the Prius is the only exclusive hybrid sold in the U.S. That means that the compact sedan is not based on a gasoline powered vehicle. And the hybrid aspect of the car means that it uses a power train that combines a gasoline engine and an electric motor, plus a nickel hydride battery and a generator.

Here's the deal: Let's say a vehicle has 200 horsepower. Once it accelerates up to freeway speed, as little as 20 or 30 horsepower may be needed to keep it moving. What people really need is 200 horsepower every once in a while, maybe 100 horsepower from time to time, and about 30 or 40 horsepower most of the time.

Electric motors are quiet and smooth but they've had the same drawbacks for a century, limited range. And while a car can be refueled in minutes, it takes hours to recharge an electric motor. Plus, the more an electric motor runs the more the performance drops because its charge diminishes.

Simply put, Toyota's Prius, as do all full hybrids, combines an electric motor and gasoline engine. Together, they make 110 horsepower. There is also a generator and a battery pack. The electric motor assists the engine during acceleration. It can also power the car alone at very low speeds.

The engine helps to charge the generator which in turn recharges the battery. The system collects kinetic energy from braking to recharge the battery. In other words, it is a closed system and does not require charging from an outside source. That's a really simple a explanation of how it works.

What's more, the Prius has a continuously variable transmission (no gears) which is also a gas saver.

I had the car for one week and drove it about 370 miles. Half of that distance came from a trip to Lansing. Although the Prius has an EPA rating of 48/45 mpg in the city and hwy driving, I got about 36 mpg. That ain't bad.

But what I really wanted to do was check the consumer aspects of the Prius. It handled well. Acceleration was acceptable and there wasn't any torque steer that I could sense in the front-wheel-drive Prius.

The car was pretty comfortable. It even had a relatively high seating position. There was plenty of room in the back seat which was pretty comfortable for adults, except those more than six-feet tall.

The Prius is a hatch back, thus, the rear seats folded flat creating good chunk of cargo space. The car had a few reasonable comfort options. There was satellite radio and an in-dash six disc CD player. Although my test vehicle didn't have them, amongst the Prius' options are Bluetooth, a rearview camera, a navigation system as well as a premium audio system.

However, it did take a few days to get used to the controls. The Prius had a start/top button. What's more, it also had a separate button to put it in park. The gear shift is more of a small lever than actually a shifter. I often found myself mistakenly turning on the windshield wipers, rather than shifting gears.

My only real complaint was the touch screen. It worked just fine. But you had to switch the screen to the climate controls. In this changing weather that was a pain. However, it's one to which I imagine owners could easily grow accustom.

For $24,438, the Prius was not a bad buy. Factor in the money saved on fuel and the benefit to the environment and Toyota's Prius is still a pragmatic eco friendly vehicle.

By Frank S.  Washington

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Images of the 2009, Toyota Prius

2009 Toyota Prius from the front
2009 Toyota Prius from the front
2009 Toyota Prius interior
2009 Toyota Prius interior
2009 Toyota Prius hybrid engine
2009 Toyota Prius hybrid engine
2009 Toyota Prius side shot
2009 Toyota Prius side shot