Full 2009 Toyota Prius Review
What's New for 2009
There are no significant changes for the 2009 Toyota Prius.
It's hard for car people with 93 octane running through their veins to realize this sometimes, but not everyone loves to drive. Not everyone gets a kick out of taking a turn quickly, or shooting away from a traffic light four times faster than the guy next to you. No, "most people" think of their cars as personal transportation devices on a slightly higher plane than their Frigidaires. It doesn't really matter what the steering feel is like, as long as the car offers lots of space, an easy-to-drive demeanor, worry-free reliability, a place to plug in your iPod and excellent fuel economy. For "most people," the 2009 Toyota Prius is possibly the ideal car.
First and foremost, this quintessential hybrid is the most fuel-efficient mass-production car currently on sale. While you pay a premium for all that hybrid sophistication, you're rewarded with considerably more refinement than a typical fuel-efficient subcompact (like a Honda Fit) has to offer, and there is something to be said for rewarding Toyota's technical innovation rather than Exxon-Mobil's ability to refine crude oil.
Beyond its fuel-sipping ways, the Prius features loads of available high-tech luxury goodies, which should appeal to those who are trading out of a pricier luxury car, as well as those cross-shopping the Prius against midsize sedans like the Accord and Camry. Moreover, the Prius stands out against such sedans by offering a funky but uniquely space-efficient body design. Believe it or not, there's more backseat legroom than a Ford Crown Victoria, with ample hatchback cargo capacity to boot. It may not look big from the outside, but climb inside and you'll find the Prius surprisingly large and utilitarian. It is a tad narrow, though, and taller drivers will find the driving position off-puttingly awkward.
There are other standout hybrid vehicles available for 2009, each offering similar gasoline-electric systems while providing a little something different. The Toyota Camry Hybrid offers a more luxurious and conventional driving experience. The Nissan Altima Hybrid is the fun choice for those who think of cars as something other than just an appliance. The Ford Escape Hybrid is the choice for those looking for an elevated driving position, all-wheel-drive and added utility. Finally, the Honda Civic Hybrid is an economical choice priced similarly to (but smaller than) the Prius.
Nonetheless, no car combines fuel- and space-efficiency quite like the 2009 Toyota Prius. In the end, we think this is the hybrid that will best meet the needs of "most people."
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2009 Toyota Prius is a midsize hatchback available in three trim levels: standard, base and Touring. The standard model comes with 15-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry, full power accessories, tilt-only steering wheel, touchscreen and steering-wheel controls, a hybrid system display and a six-speaker stereo with a CD player. The base trim (also known as Package 1) adds different wheels, a cargo cover, heated mirrors and cruise control. The Touring trim is differentiated by a sportier suspension, 16-inch wheels, xenon headlights, foglights and a larger rear spoiler.
The Prius options list (available on base and Touring trims) is extensive, capable of transforming this hybrid from humble economy car to near luxury status. Buyers can pick from one of the following packages. Package 2 adds stability control, a rearview camera, keyless ignition/entry and an auxiliary audio jack. Package 3 includes those items plus an alarm system, Bluetooth and an upgraded nine-speaker JBL stereo. Package 4 (available on the base only) adds xenon headlights and foglights. Package 5 includes the previously listed equipment and adds a voice-activated navigation system. Package 6 is like Package 5 but includes leather-trimmed seats and steering wheel. A choice of satellite radio providers is a stand-alone, dealer-installed option.
Powertrains and Performance
Underneath the Prius' hood resides Toyota's "Hybrid Synergy Drive." This drivetrain consists of a 1.5-liter gasoline four-cylinder engine and two electric motors -- one driving the front wheels, the other functioning solely as a generator to recharge the car's battery pack. Power is routed through a specialized continuously variable automatic transmission. The gas engine produces 76 horsepower and 82 pound-feet of torque. With the electric motor, net peak hp is 110, which is deceiving since 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. In performance testing, we clocked the Prius from zero to 60 mph in 10.4 seconds. The EPA estimates the Prius will achieve 48 mpg city/45 mpg highway and 46 mpg combined.
Every 2009 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 available on all but the standard trim level. 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. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the Prius 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 2009 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 in Epcot's "Car of the Future." Fit and finish is very tight and materials are pretty good, although some plastics are a little cheap. We've complained before about centrally located instrument clusters, but the Prius' electronic gauges are at least crystal-clear, mounted high and located close to the driver's line of sight, almost like a head-up display.
Although the Prius offers a spacious cabin and comfy seats, the driving position is poor for taller drivers, as the driver seat is not height-adjustable and the steering wheel does not telescope. This is an area that will hopefully be addressed in the next-generation Prius. The backseat, on the other hand, offers plenty of room for adults and rear-facing infant seats. The 14.4-cubic-foot hatchback trunk is also quite large and can accommodate several roller suitcases, golf clubs or a double stroller. Plus, the folding seatbacks provide an uninterrupted cargo area that no sedan can match.
Driving a Prius is, well, different. There is no audible engine start-up when you press the ignition button, just an instrument panel light that says "Ready." The transmission selector is a stubby knob protruding from the dash. Thanks to its Hybrid Synergy Drive, the 2009 Toyota Prius can accelerate up to about 25 mph using only electric power, kind of like a huge golf cart. It's all rather strange for those accustomed to conventional vehicles, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
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 particularly well-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.