Last night I did some exhaustive research. According to my findings (obtained by renting "Sleeper" and "Blade Runner" from Blockbuster), the cars of the future will either be flying cars or these white, sanitized globular-looking people pods with as much appeal as a bowl of tapioca. Funny, after driving the 2001 Toyota Prius, I thought it was the car of the future.
Automakers have been looking for ways to meet increasingly stringent demands for cleaner tailpipe emissions. In the '90s, electric cars like GM's EV1 were thought to be the answer, but they are limited by poor range and the fact that they have to be "plugged in" in order to be recharged. Hydrogen-fueled fuel cell cars will some day be the ultimate evolution of the automobile, as their exhaust byproduct is essentially water vapor. But the technology for fuel cell cars is still young, and mass-produced fuel cell cars are years away.
For today and the near future, the best hope is hybrid vehicles. The Prius is a hybrid-electric vehicle, only the second such mass-produced car to be available in America (Honda's Insight was the first). Hybrid cars combine a gasoline engine with an electric motor. Since hybrids are still fueled by gasoline, they don't have to be plugged in or recharged. In the case of the Prius and Insight, the result of hybrid technology is reduced emissions and improved fuel efficiency when compared to a normal gasoline-powered car. The only fear has been that a hybrid vehicle would never be useful as a real car that real people would want to buy. With the Prius, Toyota has largely quieted those fears. Hybrids, we think, are here to stay.
While the Prius is new to the American consumer for 2001, Toyota has been selling them in Japan since December 1997. Since that time, the company has been tinkering with the car and making changes that would better suit the higher sustained speeds, longer driving distances, more stringent emission requirements, and harsher climates found in the United States. Compared to earlier Prius models, U.S. versions feature more horsepower, additional emissions equipment and a more powerful battery pack that is also smaller and lighter.
It might have more power, but the U.S. Prius is still a few fries short of an automotive Happy Meal. Its aluminum, 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine makes 70 horsepower at 4,500 rpm and 82 foot-pounds of torque at 4,200 rpm. The electric drive motor is worth another 44 peak horsepower, bringing the maximum potential horsepower output to 114. At the test track, our car accelerated from zero to 60 mph in 12.8 seconds and cleared the quarter-mile in 19.3 seconds at 75.3 mph. Your average V6 family sedan with an automatic transmission (like a Toyota Camry) will do zero to 60 in about 8 seconds, and a four-cylinder economy sedan's time is around 10 seconds.
OK, so it's slow. But if all you are interested in is drag racing, big smoky burnouts and collecting John Force T-shirts, you've come to the wrong road test. Go buy a Camaro if that's you. What makes the Prius unique is that it is able to provide tolerable acceleration while also offering exceptional fuel mileage, squeaky-clean emissions, seating for five passengers and a good list of standard features. The EPA rates the Prius at 52 mpg in the city and 45 mpg on the highway, theoretically allowing over 600 miles between fill-ups. We officially observed a combined average of 41 mpg out of our test car, with one of our editors reporting that he was able to get higher amounts (around 47 mpg) during his driving stints. To learn about the Prius' unique technologies and components, we encourage you to read our Hybrid Highlights section.
The Prius is available only as a four-door sedan with one trim level. With this, you get plenty of standard equipment, such as automatic climate control, air conditioning, power windows and locks, power steering, antilock brakes, keyless entry, and dual front airbags. The only options of note are floor mats, a single CD player, and an in-dash six-disc CD changer. Though there is a button on the dash labeled "map," GPS navigation is currently not available in the American market. Cruise control is another MIA feature. You can't even get it as a dealer-installed accessory. We do know it exists, though, as Prius models sold in Canada can be had with cruise control. We're not sure what Toyota bean counter made this decision, but if there was ever a country whose wide-open geography and Lay-Z-Boy attitude demanded cruise control, America is it.
Visually, the Prius (which is Latin for "to go before") looks a little like Toyota's Echo Sedan. They both have a pug-faced snout, a high roofline and short front and rear overhangs. Nobody on our staff thought it was particularly attractive, but it's certainly not ugly, either. In terms of overall size, the Prius is closest to the Corolla, though it's taller and shorter. It has a 169.6-inch overall length and a 100-inch wheelbase compared to the Corolla's 174.0-inch length and 97-inch wheelbase. Despite being shorter, the Prius has a slight edge in interior passenger volume compared to the Corolla, and it has more rear legroom, too. Accommodations are surprisingly good for a small car, with upright seating positions and good outward visibility. Two adults will fit in the backseat without too much complaint, and the trunk holds 11.8 cubic feet of cargo, a capacity that is similar to cars like the Honda Civic and Nissan Sentra.
The rest of the car, however, isn't very similar to a Sentra, or any other car, for that matter. The bridge on the Starship Enterprise is a better match. Hop into the driver's seat, and you'll be greeted by a blank stare from the dash. Similar to the Echo's interior design, there is no gauge cluster in the typical sense. Instead, there is a centrally located digital display that informs drivers of speed, gear selection, fuel status and trip distance. Below it is a symmetrical, T-shaped instrument panel housing a touch-screen LCD monitor and climate and audio controls. Between the instrument panel and the steering wheel, a transmission gearshift lever sprouts out of the dash like a cancerous growth.
The Prius' interior certainly seems like an attractive and futuristic package when you are just sitting and observing. Material quality is decent, and Toyota has given the Prius plenty of its own unique switchgear. There are problems, though. Public offender number one is the location of the gearshift lever. Yes, it frees up space from the center console and floor, but when the lever is placed in drive, it hinders access to the volume knob and radio scan button. This means that every time the driver wants to adjust the stereo's volume or change a radio station, she has to first skirt her hand around the lever. This takes concentration to do, and that means reduced driver safety. The same goes for the radio presets, which can be accessed only via the LCD display. Since they are touch-screen operated and have no tactile feel, the driver must take her eyes from the road and look at the screen in order to pick a preset. Other minor quibbles are mediocre interior storage, no driver armrest, and the long time required to get used to the central location of the digital gauge cluster.
Twist the key and the engine thrums to life after a brief delay. The digital display informs the driver that the car is "ready," which we suppose is the Prius' version of a thumbs-up. The LCD monitor, meanwhile, has a virtual button for either "energy" or "consumption." Stab "energy" with your index finger, and the screen displays a pictogram showing power flow between the engine, wheels, electric motor and battery. The "consumption" bar chart, though initially confusing, is useful as it shows a scrolling fuel mileage status report that is updated in 5-minute increments. Neither display does much with the car just sitting, though, so it's time to drive somewhere.
Move the shifter lever into the drive position, and the Prius shoves off. How it does this, however, is perhaps the most intriguing method of propulsion you'll find in a car today. At low speeds and light throttle applications, the Prius relies completely on the electric motor for acceleration. This means that when the car is accelerating gently from a stop, driving around a parking lot, creeping through a McDonald's drive-thru, or even cruising at 35 mph down a city street, it might be doing it with 100 percent electrical power. The engine, meanwhile, is completely inert.
The obvious benefit to this is that if the engine isn't running, it isn't using any fuel. This attribute is a big contributor to the Prius' city EPA rating of 52 mpg. The other payoff, though, is that it is quiet. The electric motor makes virtually no noise, and the effect is a little disconcerting at first unless you've driven the EV1. Think of the Prius as an equal opportunity user. It is constantly monitoring speed, throttle position and battery power to determine what method of power will be the most efficient. It could be just the electric motor or a combination of both. It's a very fluid process and does not impede driving style at all. Bring up the energy chart on the LCD, and the Prius will happily tell you exactly what it is doing in terms of resource management. The engine is responsible for recharging the hybrid battery, and the Prius is also capable of recapturing some energy when it is coasting or braking. We found that heavy and constant use of the throttle will deplete the battery, however, so it's best to be a little conservative with your right foot.
In all other respects, the Prius pretty much drives like a regular car. Since it has a continuously variable transmission, there are no actual gears to select. The choices are simply park, reverse, neutral, drive or brake. The brake function is there because CVT transmissions don't have the characteristic of engine braking that regular manual or automatic transmissions do. When placed in this mode, the Prius will gently apply the brakes to make it seem like the car is engine braking. This only happens when the driver lets off the throttle.
Toyota's hybrid is perfectly suited for urban driving and commuting. The compact exterior dimensions and short turning radius make it easy to park, and the ride quality is fairly compliant. In fact, the more congested the driving environment is, the more the Prius makes sense. While stuck in a particularly nasty traffic jam during our evaluation period, we couldn't help but feel superior to all the other drivers on the freeway. With traffic at a near standstill, the Prius' relied solely on its electric motor to provide all the power necessary for the stop-and-go nature of the traffic jam. You almost feel like an environmental champion driving this car when you realize that its super-ultra-low-emission vehicle (SULEV) status means that it is 90 percent cleaner than LEV vehicles for smog-forming exhaust gases.
On the highway, the Prius still does an acceptable job. Wind and engine roar are minimal, though the low rolling resistance tires make lots of noise and like to follow grooves in the pavement. Driving at higher speeds, the electric motor can't provide as much thrust, so care must be taken to plan out passing maneuvers. There is little point in trying to drive the Prius like a sports car, as its soft suspension and light steering make for unpleasant cornering. The CVT, while fine around town, gets easily befuddled when driving up hills, and constantly searches for an engine rpm that it is happy with. Another problem is the feel of the brakes, as they can be hard to modulate. To their credit, though, our test car stopped from 60 mph to zero in 135 feet, a number that is equal to or a little better than most economy sedans.
What makes the Prius so impressive is that it drives, for the most part, just like a regular economy sedan. It is true that acceleration is pokey, especially when four adults and some gear in the trunk are along for the ride. There could also be long-term reliability issues (as there would be with any car with such new technologies), though Toyota preempts any worries with an eight-year/100,000-mile battery and hybrid warranty, as well as complimentary roadside assistance and three-year basic maintenance programs.
Our take on this "car of the future" is that it gives up very little, especially considering the payoffs of over 40 mpg and SULEV emissions. Even the price is impressive, with a 2001 MSRP of $19,995. Toyota says that it will break even for every Prius that it sells, though that statement probably does not take into account the company's research and development money spent on the car. But who cares? The only other hybrid on the market is Honda's Insight. The Insight delivers better fuel mileage, but it is much more specialized. The Prius is a hybrid that is actually useable. It's a hybrid for the masses.