2004 Toyota Prius Road Test

2004 Toyota Prius Hatchback

(1.5L 4-cyl. Hybrid CVT Automatic)

Why Wouldn't You Buy It?

After driving the 2004 Toyota Prius for 421 miles, our editor stopped to fill up the tank. The pump clicked off after only a few minutes, prompting our editor to think that something was wrong — after all, it had only taken 9.1 gallons of gas. Checking the mileage he realized that nothing was wrong. In fact, something was very right: the Prius had averaged 46 miles per gallon. If this scenario tickles you — either because you are environmentally conscious or you just like saving money — you're a potential buyer for this new and greatly improved star in the world of hybrid cars.

The Prius was introduced in 2001 as the second hybrid car on the American market (Honda beat Toyota to the punch with the Insight in 2000). The first Prius was, let's face it, an ugly duckling. Plus, it was slow and somewhat cramped inside. Still, Toyota's first-generation hybrid sedan built a loyal following and sent a clear message to the public: hybrid technology — the marriage of gas and electric power systems — is available today. Toyota made its point by setting a good example, not with annoying corporate image advertising about the whizbang technology it would someday offer.

Apparently, the company was not content to rest on its laurels. The 2004 Toyota Prius is vastly improved in almost every category — except its strange name (Prius is Latin for "to go before"). The '04 Prius, which is in short supply at dealers, is much more attractive, significantly faster, has a nicely appointed interior, a keyless start system and a yawning hatchback sure to swallow all your cargo. Furthermore, it comes with a voice recognition system to control many of the car's features (once you figure it out); a light, airy cabin; and generous rear-seat legroom. All of this can be yours for a base price of $20,500 (including destination charge).

Toyota calls the Prius' latest drivetrain a Hybrid Synergy Drive. It uses a 70-horsepower, 1.5-liter DOHC 16-valve inline four-cylinder gas engine in tandem with a 44-hp electric motor. However, getting the total output isn't a matter of just adding these two numbers together. The total provided by this gas/electric combination is 110 hp and 82 pound-feet of torque at 4,200 rpm. Besides getting excellent fuel mileage, the Prius puts out only a fraction of the emissions that a normal car produces. It is rated as both a SULEV (Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle) and a PZEV (Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle). This is about a 30 percent improvement over the previous version of the Prius.

Under heavy acceleration, both the electric motor and the engine supply power. In stop-and-go traffic, at very low speeds, the electric motor silently propels the Prius on its own. When the car is coasting downhill, or coming to a stop, energy that would normally be wasted is captured and saved in the batteries. When the driver starts up from the next stoplight, the stored energy is used to accelerate the car up to speed. In this way, the Prius provides some of the best mileage figures of any car on the road: 60 miles per gallon in the city and 51 on the highway. Yes, you read that right — it gets higher mileage around town because the electric motor is tapped more frequently.

Our test Prius came with an option called Smart Entry and Start which allows the driver to start the car without putting the key into the ignition. It's enough just to have it in your pocket. Once seated behind the wheel, all you have to do is put your foot on the brake and press the round "Power" button. (The same button is also used to turn the car off, which is a bit confusing.) The gearshift, which angles up out of the dashboard, is moved down to the "D" position and you're on your way. The start-up procedure is a little confusing in the beginning. As if anticipating this, Toyota has included a pad of starting instructions, which can be given to a valet parking attendant along with the keys.

We had our doubts about the practicality of the Smart Entry and Start feature. First, the process of putting a key in a lock and turning it, never struck us as much of a hassle. Second, it's easy to forget to lock the Prius because the key is in your pocket. In fact, at one point, we walked away from the Prius while it was still "running," or, at least, turned on. When we tried to lock the car, it kept beeping at us — prompting us to return, shut it off and lock the doors. The Smart Entry and Start option also allows the doors to be unlocked automatically and easily locked by pressing a small black button located near the door handle and on the tailgate.

Once you are behind the wheel with the Prius in gear, you will immediately feel that you are driving a very different car. If you accelerate lightly, the car starts out in complete silence. At about 5 miles per hour, the gas engine turns on, but does so smoothly and quietly. In fact, this car is almost eerily quiet except for occasional odd whirring noises as the regenerative braking system engages (converting normally wasted energy to electrical energy by turning the electric motor into a generator).

The Toyota Prius uses an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (ECVT) which helps deliver high gas mileage. It feels a little strange the first time you start up, since the engine revs to a certain level and stays there. It almost feels like the transmission is slipping. However, this quickly seems normal and is replaced by the impression of smoothness as the car accelerates. In addition to the normal reverse and drive positions, the transmission can also be shifted into a braking mode to control speed down long mountain inclines.

The Prius offers a comfortable ride with a soft but capable suspension. The electric power steering is very light and, at highway speeds, it has a floaty feeling and the tires tend to catch the grooves in the pavement. At times, the car seems disconnected from the road. This is probably due to the low-resistance tires (Goodyear P185/65R15) and its relatively light curb weight of 2,890 pounds. Although there is a fair amount of body roll, the Prius handles well. It seems to lean into a corner and then hold firm, cornering predictably. The tight turning radius of 34.1 feet (startling for a car wheelbase of 106.3 inches) is one more reason that this is a great city car.

One thing that has given some buyers pause when considering the Prius is the issue of power — or the lack of it. The first-generation Prius and Honda's Insight were tortoises when merging and passing. Not so with the '04 Prius — it will do the 0-to-60-mph dash in 10.4 seconds, a respectable time for any car in this class. Even more amazing, the midrange acceleration is also lively, allowing confident passing up to about 75 miles per hour. Furthermore, the car is well insulated from sound and road noise, cutting fatigue on long highway trips.

Safety features abound in the Prius. The obligatory front airbags are dual-stage; seat-mounted side airbags for the front occupants and full-length side curtain airbags are optional. Antilock brakes and traction control are also standard, and the brake system includes Electronic Brakeforce Distribution and a panic assist feature to maximize stopping in emergency situations. At one point in our test-driving, the assist feature engaged and pushed us forward onto the brake pedal. This was unexpected and unnerving but, had it been a real emergency, it might have helped avoid an accident.

The interior of the Prius is a pleasant surprise. There is a great feeling of openness due to the fact that it seems to utilize all the space of the greenhouse for visibility. It has small triangular glass panes in the A- and C-pillars, and the broad, sloped windshield not only provides amazing aerodynamics but affords a wonderful view of the road ahead. For traffic maneuvers and lane changes, the visibility is well above average.

The hatchback's seats and door panels are covered in an attractive suedelike material. The front seats are comfortably bolstered and provide generous support. Rear-seat passengers will enjoy surprising legroom and will also benefit from added visibility through the aforementioned glass panes. Surrounding front and rear passengers are an assortment of cubbies and storage bins. Above the standard glove compartment is a second compartment that opens upward — a creative use of space. The cloth-covered center armrest is positioned at a perfect height and is wide enough for both front passengers to use it without the elbow-jousting.

The Prius' speed is displayed digitally on a panel conveniently located at a comfortable level in front of the driver. A rectangular display screen is positioned in the center of the dashboard providing information about the various systems in the Prius such as the climate control, audio and navigation systems.

Many of the car's controls (climate control, temperature, radio and CD controls) can be adjusted using buttons on the steering wheel. Pressing a button on the steering wheel of the Prius allows the driver to issue a voice command. We found this feature difficult to learn to use. There was little information in the manual about it and, instead, it referred us to the onscreen help menu. However, the help menu cannot be used while the car is moving, so you are relegated to sitting in a stationary car and trying to memorize key commands. We would have liked a prompt card of some sort to make the job easier.

Although Ford keeps talking about offering a hybrid version of the Escape, the Prius currently has only one competitor: Honda's Civic Hybrid sedan (the Insight, also a hybrid, is a two-seater). Priced similarly, the Honda Civic Hybrid is a handsome, well-appointed car. It seems to downplay its hybrid technology by putting cutting-edge technology in an existing model. It is also slower than the Prius and its fuel mileage numbers aren't quite as impressive. Furthermore, the space is less flexible since the rear seats don't fold down. Still, the Civic Hybrid offers Honda quality, while looking and driving much like any other Civic. And for now at least, it's more widely available than the 2004 Prius.

The Toyota dealers that we contacted in the Los Angeles area seemed to be selling the Prius at MSRP. However, long waiting lists may prevent buyers from getting their hands on one for some time. The best buying strategy is patience. Buyers who want to speed up the process can try getting on several lists to see which dealership comes through first.

The introduction of the Toyota Prius is causing a stir — and for a good reason. This is a thoroughly practical, entertaining car that makes you feel good about driving it. It also shows that Toyota is sending a message to the public that hybrid technology is available today. The long waiting lists of buyers at dealerships are also sending another message to manufacturers: people want to save gas, they want to cut pollution and they want to do it now, not at some point in the future.

Stereo Evaluation

System Score: 7.0

Components: Our tester was equipped with the optional JBL sound system, which gives you a six-disc CD changer and nine speakers. Most of the functions must be accessed through the center touchscreen menu, but there is a round volume knob and AM/FM/tape/CD buttons that do not require going into the touchscreen menu. Most of those features are also duplicated on the steering wheel. Although it requires pushing a conventional button, the center-mounted screen, and then a touchscreen button on the audio page, there are a good number of adjustments available. Thankfully, a midrange adjustment is included.

There are lighted indicators for the six CDs the changer can hold and those numbers, with corresponding lights, are displayed on the dash and separate from the main menu screen. This is bit confusing because they look like radio station presets or CD changer selectors, but really they're just letting you know a CD is already occupying a certain disc position. Also, the power switch is somewhat confusing. For some reason, the volume knob can be depressed, but that does not turn the stereo on or off. Just below the volume knob is a separate "PWR" switch. It's not very intuitive.

Performance: The JBL system sounds OK, but not great. The speakers are simply overwhelmed, resulting in a somewhat muddy-sounding stereo. Dropping the midrange and bumping the treble up two or three clicks really improves the sound quality. Unfortunately, the side effect is that highs will sometimes sound shrill or squeak as the volume is raised. Bass reproduction is fine; in fact if anything, the system is too bass-heavy — a complaint that seems valid on many factory audio systems.

Best Feature: Bass reproduction.

Worst Feature: Lack of physical buttons to control radio presets and CD changer.

Conclusion: An OK system considering the price of the car. Frankly, I doubt anyone is buying a Prius because it has a killer sound system. But should you want to listen to music while not wasting precious resources, the optional JBL stereo is perfect for everyday use by non-audiophiles.

Second Opinions

Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
The most important point about Toyota's second-generation Prius is that it is Toyota's second-generation Prius. Honda is the only other automaker to offer a first-generation hybrid vehicle (two, actually, the Insight and Civic Hybrid), while the rest of the carmakers out there are still fumbling about and making excuses as to why they have no hybrid offering. General Motors claims it will offer hybrids on much of its car — and truck — model lines by mid-decade, and Ford has been promising a hybrid Escape for two years now. Whatever, guys; it all sounds great, but today I can go buy a midsize hybrid hatchback from Toyota that is as functional as any traditional sedan while offering 60 mpg in town. Better wake up and smell the market share sinking.

Toyota is touting the 2004 Prius as better in every way compared to last year's model, and indeed it offers greater interior space, higher horsepower figures and superior fuel mileage, all while costing the same (Toyota even claims to be making a profit on each one, possibly the car's most amazing trait). While the new Prius is as close to a "normal" sedan as most people will need, I don't want to overstate its abilities. For instance, at six feet tall, I have enough legroom when seated in the driver seat, but barely. The rear seat is even tighter for me, but back there it's headroom I find lacking. The car needed 10.3 seconds to reach 60 mph during track testing; fast for a hybrid, but barely adequate for a mainstream economy sedan that costs $20,000. Still, I like the smart card entry system and the large cargo capacity, especially if you fold down the rear seat. The navigation system is typical Toyota — easy to use, excellent graphics and, unfortunately, inaccessible when the car is in motion. In the final analysis, this car serves two purposes: it offers U.S. buyers exceptional mileage while forcing few compromises, and it cements Toyota's position as a world leader in hybrid technology while still providing the company with a profit margin. Either one would be worthwhile in a $20,000 sedan; to accomplish both is damn impressive.

Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Tree huggers of the world, rejoice. The most practical hybrid yet is here in the form of the new Prius. With a supersizing that vaults it into midsize sedan classification, the Prius offers plenty of space inside its futuristic yet user-friendly cabin. What was most amazing to me was the seamless and zippy performance of this hybrid that lends new meaning to the "have your cake and eat it, too" expression. The transition from all electric power (such as when driving under light throttle out of the office parking structure) to gas engine power (when more thrust is called for) is very smooth, with nary a hiccup to indicate the switch from one mode to the other. Running through the canyons off the Pacific Coast Highway with the A/C on full blast, the Prius zipped right up the hills, never feeling rough or as if it was overtaxed. When running at 75 to 80 on the freeway, the Prius felt as solid as a Camry, not like some lightweight, nervous Nelly running on skinny, ultralow rolling resistance tires.

Toyota has hit a home run with the interior as well; it's roomy, comfortable and user-friendly. The massive center console/armrest up front is handy, and no one should gripe about a lack of storage as there are also two gloveboxes. Although the instruments' location at the base of the windshield seems weird at first, it works great once you've acclimated, as you only need to dip your sightline slightly to get a quick read of the gauges. All the buttons on the steering wheel (that control audio and climate functions) may remind you of Speed Racer's Mark 5, but they also prove to be easy to use after some miles have been logged. Although it's not the first car to do so, the Prius incorporates an extra glass window out back (like that of an old Honda CRX or current Mercedes C-Class sport "coupe") that provides a clear view astern, making parking the spacious hatchback mostly stress-free.

It's evident that Toyota has also paid a heap of attention to the Prius' materials and build quality. The upholstery, although cloth, reminded me of ultra-fine suede, and the cover for the visor vanity mirror slid and clicked open with the satisfying precision of a Nikon's shutter release.

Being a Gemini, I tend to have some internal conflicts, such as my serious concern for the environment versus my need to drive powerful cars. An easy-to-like 50-plus mpg hybrid like this new Prius would do nicely to offset the 5.7-liter Trans Am GTA I just bough

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