Four years ago we purchased a Honda Insight and reported on the ownership experience as part of our Edmunds.com long-term test fleet. Since that time the Insight has been joined on the market by the Civic Hybrid and the Toyota Prius. While the Insight was the first hybrid to be sold in this country (and the winner of our Most Significant Vehicle award that year), the Prius was actually the first production hybrid vehicle to be sold to consumers...in Japan.
That Japanese Prius eventually made it into U.S. showrooms in 2001, but the car's diminutive size, quirky controls and "Echo-like" styling limited its appeal to mainstream consumers. Now comes the 2004 Prius, an all-new, more powerful and larger hybrid sedan that offers almost Camry-like seating space and a hatchback design for improved cargo hauling. It also burns cleaner than the original Prius, earning both SULEV (Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle) and PZEV (Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle) ratings. Fuel mileage is impressive, with EPA ratings of 60 mpg in the city and 51 mpg on the highway. Yes, those numbers are correct -- the Prius actually gets better mileage in city driving because the electric motor can often propel the vehicle at low speeds with no assistance from the internal combustion engine, meaning it uses no fuel whatsoever under these conditions. The Hybrid Synergy Drive power plant consists of a 1.5-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine and a single electric drive motor. The gas engine produces 76 horsepower and 82 pound-feet of torque, while the electric motor generates the equivalent of 67 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. An electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (CVT) is standard on all models.
Demand for the all-new Prius has surpassed everyone's expectations, including Toyota's. The vehicle is currently one of the "fastest selling cars" in America based on how long the average model sits on dealer lots before being sold. In Southern California, waiting lists for a Prius are common, as is dealer markup. Many dealers have given current Prius owners the first opportunity to buy the all-new version, but without that factor on our side, we simply had to start calling around with the hopes of finding a dealer willing to work with us on acquiring a car.
About four months before the Prius was due to hit dealership floors, Consumer Advice Editor Philip Reed began contacting Toyota dealerships in the Los Angeles area. He told them that Edmunds.com wanted to get the new Prius as soon as possible. He was also upfront about the fact that we were on multiple waiting lists for the car. As far as specifications went, Phil told dealers that we were flexible on options and on color. We also asked for the sale price, and if the dealership was asking for a markup on the vehicle, we declined to buy our Prius there.
Eventually, we wound up on three different dealership lists. Dianne Whitmire, Internet sales director for Carson Toyota, was the first to call. She told us about a lightly optioned Driftwood P, and we passed up this car since we weren't enthusiastic about the color and had decided to go for more options. Dianne was undeterred. She called us about two weeks later with a fully loaded Prius in Seaside Pearl Blue with an Ivory interior. We jumped at the chance to buy this car. The Prius landed on the lot just about when she predicted and we were there with a check in hand. We paid $26,053 for our Prius (including destination) which featured Package #9 (which includes items like a DVD navigation system, in-dash CD changer and HID headlights), floor mats, the rear bumper appliqué and a cargo net.
Interestingly, our Prius was one of about five to arrive at Carson Toyota at the same time. When we got to the dealership, they were lined up and ready to be delivered to their new owners. As we waited, excited buyers showed up with money in hand. As we left the dealership, barely an hour later, all the cars were gone. For once, the car salesman's sales pitch "you better buy today 'cuz these cars are flying off the lot" was entirely accurate.
With the loaded Seaside Pearl Prius in our possession, we were anxious to try out the hybrid drivetrain in terms of both power and fuel mileage. In fact, with just over 1,000 miles on the odomoter, we ran the vehicle through our standard battery of performance tests and recorded a 10.7-second 0-to-60 time and a 17.7-second quarter-mile time at 77 mph. Not exactly hot-rod figures, but when you combine those with the 40.4-mpg average we've scored in our first 4,500 miles of driving the car, it becomes clear that the Prius offers a compelling combination of performance and fuel economy.
Editor in Chief Karl Brauer drove the Prius for much of those first 4,500 miles and had this to say about the powertrain:
"While not fast, the Prius doesn't feel at all slow, and it can actually surprise you when you go from casual cruising mode to full-throttle application, such as when passing another car. The electric motor adds a noticeable punch when you floor it --- assuming the battery isn't so drained that the car is in constant charge mode." Yes, like the Honda Insight before it, the electric motor can supplement the internal combustion engine for increased performance, but only if the battery pack has sufficient power. However, unlike the Insight, it was rare that the Prius' battery pack fell below half charge, meaning the electric motor was almost always ready to help out with acceleration chores.
As helpful as the electric motor is when needing maximum acceleration, Karl really enjoyed trying to make the Prius run on pure electric power during low-speed city driving. "It's not easy to keep the Prius in 'electric-only' mode," Karl said. "If you ask for more than modest acceleration, the engine fires up and kicks in to offer more boost. But if you accelerate very slowly you can go from zero to about 30 mph on pure electricity...as long as you aren't going up a hill."
Of course the Prius offers an effective method for monitoring energy/fuel consumption. The central monitor can be set up to tell you when the engine, electric motor or both are operating. It can also tell you instant fuel mileage, average fuel mileage and fuel mileage over multiple blocks of five-minute periods. As Karl opined, "All of this information takes some getting used to, but once you figure it out, you can get a feel for how subtle changes in driving behavior can cause vast changes in fuel mileage."
Speaking of mileage, Karl observed that while the potential for mile-per-gallon figures in the upper 50s, and beyond, exists when driving the Prius, he also noted how hard it can be to attain those figures unless driving conditions are ideal. "I drove the car from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and back, and I was surprised at how quickly the car's fuel mileage would drop when driving up a hill or into a head wind. It was also pretty skittish in strong crosswinds, no doubt because of the car's fuel-mileage-oriented low curb weight and skinny tires."
Although Karl was somewhat disappointed in the Prius' initial fuel figures, he remarks that the car is still not broken in, and that he often drove it in anything but a reserved, fuel-efficient manner. During those times that he made a conscious effort to go light on the throttle and drive in a relaxed manner, he saw an immediate jump in fuel mileage. "Had I driven that way for an entire tank of fuel I'm sure it could have averaged around 50 mpg, which is pretty much what the car should be getting on the highway." Karl also noted that driving in a reserved manner for a tankful of gas is difficult, because when you drive that way a tankful of gas can last over 500 miles!
Other than the somewhat disappointing fuel mileage, Karl had few complaints. "I have to have the seat all the way back, and even then I barely fit comfortably in terms of legroom. I also noticed that the central display screen can wash out in bright sunlight, and it doesn't have a tilting feature, like Toyota's own Sienna, to help combat this problem."
On the positive side, Karl described the Prius' seats as comfortable, the front cupholders as fully functional and the cargo capacity as superb, particularly when folding the rear seat back down. He also liked the many features on our test car, including the DVD-based navigation system, the HID headlights and the voice-operated audio system. "However," Karl noted, "I still wish Toyota would allow passengers to interact with the navigation system while the vehicle is in motion, as Honda does."
With a year ahead of us, we're hoping to see the Prius' fuel figures climb. But even if they remain in the 40s, we are already impressed with the car's functionality, comfort, luxury features and style. We'll see if our love for the Prius can survive a year with the Edmunds.com staff.
Current Odometer: 4,887
Best Fuel Economy: 48.6 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 28.1 mpg
Average Fuel Economy (over the life of the vehicle): 40.4 mpg
Body Repair Costs: None
Maintenance Costs: None