Full 2008 Toyota Prius Review
What's New for 2008
Toyota now offers a slightly decontented "standard" Prius model that lacks cruise control and heated mirrors but in exchange has a significantly lower base price.
The 2008 Toyota Prius should be considered more than just a rolling personal statement declaring, "Ahoy there you scummy SUV driver! I'm part of the solution, not the problem." Of course, people buy cars to make statements all the time. A stately luxury car can say, "Look world, I'm successful." Buying a Hummer can say, "This enormous 6,000-pound truck is synonymous with my (delusional) sense of personal machismo." Yet despite being the poster child for environmental awareness, the Prius should be closely considered for all the real, tangible ways it provides daily transportation. You don't have to bleed green to appreciate its virtues.
Even without its innovative and revolutionary hybrid power plant, the Prius would be a sensible, functional-first midsize sedan. It may look small, but the well-packaged and airy interior is spacious for passengers and cargo alike. Plus, a long list of standard and optional features allows the Prius to serve both customers in search of a low-priced conveyance and those in need of more luxurious trappings.
Of course, the Prius is first and foremost a hybrid -- and the benchmark upon which all others are based. Capable of running on electricity alone or in concert with the small gasoline four-cylinder engine, the Prius is capable of fuel economy that no current mainstream car can match -- even with the lower, revised 2008 EPA estimates. Like most hybrids, the 2008 Toyota Prius is best suited to drivers whose travels rarely take them farther than the city limits. Around town and in stop-and-go traffic, the Prius' electric motors and regenerative braking are optimized to provide superior fuel economy and optimal power delivery. It's OK on the freeway, but without consistent braking or coasting, the battery runs down, forcing the anemic four-cylinder engine to carry most of the load.
In a few short years, the Toyota Prius has gone from low-volume oddity to being one of the 10 best-selling cars in America. With that popularity have come a slew of new hybrid models that generally trade a few miles per gallon for a more traditional body style. Toyota's own Camry Hybrid and the Nissan Altima Hybrid have gas-electric systems similar to the one in the Prius, but offer a more regular car-driving experience. The Altima can even be described as fun to drive, something few other hybrids --including the Prius -- can boast. The Honda Civic Hybrid is also a similarly priced alternative, providing more rewarding handling and a higher-quality interior.
Despite this competition, though, nobody comes close to beating the Prius' mix of fuel economy, interior versatility and for 2008, a base price under $21,000. Plus, for better or worse, nothing else can make a better environmental statement.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2008 Toyota Prius is a midsize hatchback sedan available in three body styles: standard, base and Touring. The new standard model comes with 15-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry, full power accessories, tilt steering wheel, touchscreen controls, a hybrid system display and a six-speaker stereo with CD player. The base model (in name only) adds cruise control, different wheels and heated sideview mirrors. The Touring model adds a sportier suspension, 16-inch wheels and xenon headlights. The latter item is available on the base model.
The Prius options list is extensive, capable of transforming this hybrid from an economy car to a near-luxury sedan. There are five packages available on the base and Touring trims (Packages 2 through 6 -- there is no Package 1), which bundle features that include a rearview camera, keyless ignition, HomeLink, foglamps, an auto-dimming mirror, leather upholstery and steering wheel, auxiliary audio jack, MP3 playback, Bluetooth, a navigation system and a nine-speaker JBL premium sound system with an in-dash six-CD changer. A choice of satellite radio providers is a stand-alone, dealer-installed option.
Powertrains and Performance
Powering the revolutionary Prius is what Toyota calls Hybrid Synergy Drive. This drivetrain consists of a 1.5-liter gasoline engine and two electric motors, one of which helps drive the front wheels and the other of which functions solely as a generator (recharging the car's battery pack). The gas engine produces 76 horsepower and 82 pound-feet of torque, while the electric-drive motor produces the equivalent of 67 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. Net peak horsepower is 110, mainly because the two power sources hit their peaks at different times. Regardless, power delivery is smooth and consistent from rest all the way to top speed. The Prius features a simplified continuously variable transmission of sorts. It provides the ease of a conventional automatic transmission, but there are no gears to shift, drive belts, torque converter or clutch. In performance testing, the Prius sauntered up to 60 mph in a leisurely 10.9 seconds.
After the EPA revised its fuel economy testing procedures for 2008, the Prius and other hybrids suffered a perceived hit in gas mileage ratings. The Prius is now rated at 48 mpg city and 45 mpg highway. This is a far cry from the ridiculously optimistic former numbers (61 city), but they still represent the most fuel-efficient mainstream car money can buy.
Every 2008 Toyota Prius comes standard with antilock brakes with brake assist, traction control, front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. Stability control is a package option. In government crash tests, Toyota's hybrid car earned four stars out of five for driver and front-passenger protection in frontal impacts. In side-impact testing, it earned five stars for front-occupant protection and four stars for the rear. In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety testing, the Prius earned the top rating of "Good" for its protection in frontal-offset and side-impact crashes.
Interior Design and Special Features
The overall look of the 2008 Prius is upscale, if not a little oddball. The dash is flat and wide, with a large touchscreen, digital gauges, stubby electronic shifter and plenty of steering wheel buttons. Climbing inside, you tend to feel as if you're about to take a trip inside Epcot's "Car of the Future." Fit and finish is very tight and materials are pretty good, although some plastics are starting to seem a little cheap. We've complained before about centrally located instrument clusters, but the Prius' electronic gauges are at least crystal-clear and easy to see.
Although the front seats are relatively roomy, the driving position in the Prius is somewhat awkward, as the driver seat is not height-adjustable and the steering wheel does not telescope. The backseat offers ample room for adults and rear-facing infant seats, while the 14.4-cubic-foot rear hatchback trunk can accommodate several roller suitcases or a double stroller. Plus, the folding seatbacks provide an uninterrupted cargo area that most sedans can't match.
Driving a Prius is different. There is no engine start-up, just an instrument panel light that says "Ready." The transmission selector is a stubby electronic knob. Thanks to its Hybrid Synergy Drive, the Prius can accelerate up to about 25 mph using only electric power, which can make it sound like a huge golf cart. It's all very different, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Star Wars was once pretty different, too. Aside from its idiosyncrasies, the Prius features minimal cabin noise and a suspension that provides an acceptably smooth ride despite the car's weight-saving chassis components. The Prius makes a fine highway companion, but it is best suited to the city, where its light electric steering, tight turning circle, excellent visibility and available rearview camera make it easy to park and maneuver through traffic. Also, this hybrid returns its best gas mileage in stop-and-go driving, as it's able to spend more time in full-electric mode.