Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
Try to forget for a minute all your preconceptions about electric cars, alternative fuel vehicles and anything else that uses giant electric plugs or joystick steering levers. The 2004 Prius is a real car for real people, and although the previous version became a status symbol for environmentally conscious Hollywood superstars, the second-generation model is just as capable of scoring points with middle-class families from the Midwest.
What is it about the all-new version that transforms it from high-tech curiosity into a mainstream family sedan? Size for one, as the Prius has moved up from its former compact classification to official midsize status. Power is another, with an all-new drive system that offers quicker acceleration along with even greater efficiency. And finally, features, as the options list has grown to include items like a DVD-based navigation system, xenon headlights and even a keyless entry and start system.
More importantly, despite all the improvements, the Prius still carries a base price of just $20,000 a bottom line that makes it as attractive for its price as it is for its technology.
Introduced to the U.S. market three years ago, the 2001 Prius wasn't the first hybrid vehicle on the market, but with four doors, a reasonable amount of passenger and cargo space and as much as 52 miles to the gallon in the city, it didn't take long for it to become the most popular. By combining the practicality of a small gasoline engine with the efficiency and cleanliness of an electric motor, the Prius' hybrid power plant not only offered excellent mileage and clean emissions, it never needed to be plugged in.
The 2004 Prius builds on the previous system with its new Hybrid Synergy Drive. Toyota boasts that the new power plant is a "full hybrid system" that can run solely on electricity, gas or a combination of both. Its 1.5-liter gas engine produces 76 horsepower, up six from before, and 82 pound-feet of torque. The electric motor is also more powerful, generating the equivalent of 67 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque, up 23 and 37 notches, respectively.
Such meager numbers might seem unimpressive for a midsize sedan, but with the Prius' lightweight and slippery shape, it feels more powerful than the numbers would suggest. Toyota claims that its hybrid's 0-to-60-mph time has dropped from 12.7 seconds to a more respectable 10 seconds, on par with most four-cylinder sedans. Out on the road, it's hesitant from a stop, but once it begins to build speed, there's plenty of midrange power. It's not quick by any means, but unlike the previous version, you're not reminded of the fact that you're driving a hybrid vehicle every time you step on the gas.
Even more impressive is the fact that although the Prius delivers much improved acceleration, its EPA mileage figures have been improved as well. With a combined city/highway rating of 55 miles to the gallon, the Prius is not just the most economical midsize sedan it's one of the most economical cars on the road, period. Toyota also claims that its exhaust emissions have been reduced by 30 percent over the previous model earning it both SULEV (Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle) and PZEV (Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle) ratings.
None of these stats would be as impressive, however, if the car itself wasn't a practical everyday vehicle. Although the original Prius offered adequate space compared to most compact sedans, with a price that was several thousand dollars more, you were paying for the privilege of its economy. Now longer, wider and taller, the second-generation model offers more space in every direction. It's still not as big as a Camry, but two adults can sit comfortably in back.
Many of the design cues found in the original version have been carried over, but the overall look is more upscale than before. Materials quality has been improved, and the addition of metallic accents on the vents, center console and doors brightens things up a little. The gauge cluster is still positioned toward the center of the dashboard, but the display is now larger for easier viewing. In place of the ungainly column shifter used in the previous version, the latest Prius sports a smaller, easier-to-manipulate lever just to the right of the steering wheel.
Instead of a traditional twist-and-turn ignition key, the Prius uses a newfangled fob that merely slides into the dashboard as a signal to the car's computer to get ready to go. You then hit the "start" button, wait for the cadre of computer control units to spring to life, and then go. To up the Jetsons factor even more, there's also an optional keyless system. Just keep the fob in your pocket or purse, and when you lift the door handle the car automatically unlocks. To start the car, you just get in and push the start button as the computer automatically senses the presence of the fob without your ever having to pull it out.
Once activated, there's no hum from the engine or any other sign that the car is running, but press the accelerator, and it takes off with a quiet murmur that grows into a moderate buzz once the small four-cylinder gas engine kicks in. With little engine noise and a soft, forgiving suspension, the Prius feels refined beyond its budget sticker price. The standard continuously variable transmission (CVT) has no gears, so choices are limited to forward, reverse and neutral. A BrakeAssist feature is also available for keeping your speed down on long descents.
As in the previous version, an information display in the center of the dash can be toggled to show either a pictogram of the power flow between the two engines, or more detailed numerical charts if that's what you're into. The screen also serves as the interface for the climate controls, a setup that usually makes for overly complicated operation, but in this case it's straightforward enough not to be annoying. Also included are standard steering wheel satellite controls that allow you to bypass the screen entirely when adjusting either the radio or the climate control system. A newly available DVD-based navigation system also makes use of the screen should you check it off the options list, and like all Toyota nav systems, it's easy to use at a glance.
Other options include a premium JBL audio system, satellite radio, high-intensity discharge (HID) headlamps, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and an alarm system. For added safety, you have the option of adding side airbags for front occupants, head curtain airbags that cover the front and rear and a Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) system. All models come standard with antilock brakes, a tire-pressure warning system and traction control.
The '04 Prius' larger exterior dimensions translate directly into a more spacious interior, with more room for the driver and passengers in almost every direction. Although legroom up front has been reduced by just over an inch, there's still enough room for drivers over six feet tall to get comfortable. The steering wheel position takes some getting used to and the seats could use better contouring, but considering the car's modest price, there's not much to complain about.
Additional leg- and shoulder room in back make the Prius a legitimate four-person car, but headroom is still tight for taller passengers. Not only has cargo space increased to a more Camry-like 16.1 cubic feet, it's easier to access thanks to the Prius' new hatchback design. Fold the rear seats and there's plenty of room to haul bulky items that would otherwise never fit into the trunk of a traditional sedan.
Hatchback practicality is just another reason why the Prius is more than just a green machine with funky styling. If you want nothing more than an inexpensive, well-built sedan to cart the family around, the Prius would serve you well. The fact that it also gets incredible mileage while generating significantly lower emissions than any other car on the road makes it all the more appealing. Throw in traditional Toyota build quality, a sharp-looking interior and the pseudo-celebrity status you'll get just for driving one, and the Prius is one high-tech hybrid anybody could love.
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