Everybody knows what a Prius looks like-and, thanks to its uniqueness, what it represents and does. You don't have to fully understand the marvelous interworkings of its Hybrid Synergy Drive system to appreciate it.
The first Prius made its world debut in 1997, arriving in the U.S. shortly after. It was unremarkable looking and easy to ignore-except for its combined 41 miles per gallon. The Prius that raised people's consciousness was the 2004 model. With its amazingly slanted windshield and fastback tail, it was a "one box" vehicle. It offered 46 miles per gallon and a lot more space and practicality with its hatchback.
With 1.2 million Priuses sold worldwide (700,000 in the U.S.) and strong demand for more, Toyota didn't stray too far from the recipe for the third-generation 2010 model, which is built on a new platform. However, there are many differences.
The first is the 1.8-liter gas engine-now larger and more powerful, yet rated at a combined 50 miles per gallon. The sticker says 51 City, 48 Highway. You get 24 extra horsepower and four more miles per gallon. That's some amazing math--You really can't do better than that short of driving an electric or a plug-in hybrid.
The new Prius is rated highly in its environmental impact, as before. Its scores of 9.5 for Air Pollution and a perfect 10 for Greenhouse Gas place it in a small group of SmartWay Elite models.
The new Prius offers three alternative driving modes. The Eco Mode is set up to help you achieve the best mileage possible. The multi-information display panel that shows what's happening under the hood remains, but it's smaller and tucked up higher, closer to eye level. It incorporates feedback to give drivers a way to improve their driving for maximum efficiency.
The other two driving modes are Power Mode, which feels sportier because of changes in the throttle input sensitivity, and EV Mode, which lets you drive on pure electricity at low speeds for about a mile, if conditions permit. It didn't let me drive that way when I attempted it.
Another big change is the styling. Despite looking familiar, every line has been changed. To me, it has more BMW-like traits, with a strong bend along the sides, sliced headlamps that look like those on the new Nissan 370Z-a sports car-and sharper vertical front and rear corners.
Toyota moved the front window pillar forward and moved the peak of the roof back nearly four inches for a refined shape as well as more rear headroom. It also contributes to a remarkable .25 coefficient of drag. That's what it takes to push a car through the air, and the lower the number, the better the fuel economy.
Inside, the all-new design offers a futuristic flow worthy of a seat on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise (beam me up, Scotty). The center cluster flows smoothly down into the console, like a bridge, with space underneath for storage. It helps that the shifter is up high, another teeny little affair.
One interesting design note on the instrument panel: When the driver touches the steering-wheel controls for audio or info, a redundant Touch Tracer display pops up in the gauge cluster, floating in front of the usual speedometer and other gauges. That helps keep the driver's eyes on the road.
The Prius continues to be one shape-a midsized four-door sedan with a fifth hatchback door. You can order it in four models, simply called II, III, IV and V. These indicate varying levels of exterior and interior features. The II, the least pricy Prius, matches up well with Honda's less expensive and somewhat smaller (but similar looking) Insight sedan.
My Classic Silver Metallic tester was a V model-the top of the line-with a starting price of $28,020 including delivery. It also featured the Advanced Technology Package, which loaded in $4,500 worth of exciting gadgets, such as Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, which allows you to keep the distance between you and the car in front of you automatically.
Yes, it will brake the car to slow it down and push the gas to speed it up. Lane Keep Assist helps you stay in the lane by warning you if you stray. The Pre-Collision System retracts the seatbelts and applies the brakes in conditions where a crash in unavoidable.
Bottom line for my tester came to $33,079. The Prius II starts at $22,750, including delivery.
Quieter, roomier, more stylish and even more fuel miserly, the new Prius is still number one. I'm already seeing them popping up on the road.