When Toyota's engineers began working on the 2010 Toyota Prius back in 2004, they knew the opposition would be gunning for them. With the 2010 Honda Insight and the 2010 Ford Fusion and Mercury Mariner hybrid twins all slated to launch before the new Prius, it wouldn't be easy to remain a standout.
Their answer was to crank up the volume: The 2010 Prius -- for all of its exterior resemblance to the previous-generation Priuses -- is a significantly changed, significantly improved vehicle. Never mind that it's a 50-miles-per-gallon hybrid; it's at last a real midsize car. The Prius is no longer just a fuel-efficient people hauler for weekday commuter duty but a real seven-days-a-week family car.
The Prius powertrain is 90 percent new, the passenger compartment has grown in size, there's an optional suite of safety technologies previously available only in the company's luxury Lexus line, and while pricing hasn't been announced, the state of the economy is likely to keep it from moving up much. Figure around $23,500 for the standard Prius II, with three additional trim levels (Priuses III through V) and a trio of option packages ratcheting the top price to well over $31,000.
In case you're wondering what happened to Prius I, it will come later in the year as a decontented model aimed at price shoppers who might be drawn to the Honda Insight merely because of its $20,470 MSRP -- $2,250 below the cheapest 2009 Prius.
Toyota says that despite an economy gasping for air and auto sales sinking faster than the Lusitania, it expects to sell 100,000 during 2009 and 180,000 in 2010 -- equaling its previous best year of 2007. The strategy depends heavily on the company's ability to sell its message of improved performance, comfort, refinement and efficiency; best-of-class technology; and value for the dollar in a vehicle that still tells the world you are driving green. The state of the economy is likely to be the decider, but word of mouth is going to count a lot and the third-generation Prius is likely to generate a lot of it, all good.
With an EPA rating of 51 miles per gallon in the city, 48 mpg highway and 50 mpg combined, the new 2010 Toyota Prius retains its title as the industry's most fuel-efficient vehicle.
But while the mpg numbers sound impressive, they don't necessarily represent a ton of cash savings: Versus the Honda Insight, rated at 41 mpg overall, the Prius driven 15,000 miles a year would provide $130 in annual fuel savings with gas at $2 a gallon; $325 at $5 a gallon.
However, with the big jump in fuel economy comes a boost in power and performance. Toyota keeps refining its multipatented Hybrid Synergy Drive, and for the 2010 Prius it has enlarged the gas engine to 1.8 liters from 1.5 liters, boosting engine output to 98 horsepower and 105 pound-feet of torque.
Ironically, it's the extra oomph that helps give the 2010 Prius its improved fuel economy -- the bigger gas engine actually works less when accelerating and climbing hills. Total output with the now lighter, more compact electric motors engaged is 134 hp. Acceleration has improved to a company-claimed 9.8 seconds for a 0-60-mph dash, compared to 10.2 seconds for the '09 model.
Improvements in the electric portion of the 2010 Prius' powertrain include a lighter but more powerful nickel-metal hydride battery pack that extends the amount of all-electric range you can squeeze out.
The 2010 Toyota Prius has almost exactly the same footprint as the '09 model, but uses an all-new platform and suspension system that it shares with the Toyota Corolla and Matrix, and the Scion xB. While that doesn't make it a sports car, it improves handling significantly. In a day behind the wheel we found that the suspension keeps the Prius relatively flat even on the sharpest corners, and while the electric power steering is a little dull, it is sufficiently communicative that you never wonder if you'll really go where you're pointing.
There are three driving modes, selected by pressing the appropriate button on the dash: ECO tones down the throttle response to provide maximum fuel economy; EV allows you to hold the car in all-electric mode at speeds of up to about 26 miles an hour, as long as the battery charge holds out (that's about half a mile); PWR boosts throttle response in the middle range, providing a significant increase in passing power.
The Prius' new suspension and interior transform what has been a marginal cruising car into a touring delight. The ride, while not soft and bouncy, is compliant enough to spare your kidneys; the steering works with you, not against, and while wind noise is there, it isn't particularly noticeable. There is a bit of road noise though, as Toyota sacrificed a few pounds of sound deadening to lighten the car.
One of the biggest improvements is on the driver side of the cockpit. There's an all-new seat that is more supportive, has greater aft travel and is, finally, height-adjustable (with a hand lever). The multiadjustable seat combines with the first-ever telescoping steering column in a Prius -- it tilts, too -- to make it possible for all but the shortest and tallest of drivers to find the perfect behind-the-wheel arrangement.
Toyota moved the Prius' distinctive roof peak back by 4 inches to provide a sleeker, more slippery rake for the windshield and increased total interior and cargo volume by 5 cubic feet. The result is a gain in the backseat area, where head- and knee room had left a bit to be desired in the previous model.
An optional solar glass roof generates electricity -- if you are parked in the sun -- that runs ventilation fans to keep the interior from getting hotter than the ambient external temperature.
As is the norm with new hybrids these days, the power information center and green driver-coaching systems are the focal point of the interior. The 2010 Toyota Prius system offers the same information you could get in previous models and adds a performance gauge that clearly shows when the car is running in its most and least efficient ranges. All this info is shown on a clear, easy-to-read screen located just above and to the right of the steering wheel.
The instrument panel (IP) has a new feature Toyota calls "touch tracer display." Steering-wheel-mounted controls for the audio system, climate and cruise control, trip information and optional active safety systems are projected onto the IP and the functions being activated by the driver's thumbs light up in bright amber on the screen display so, voilá, there's no need to look down at the wheel to see what you're doing.
The shifter is center-console-mounted, a first for the Prius, and is easy to use, as is the rest of the switchgear. The optional navigation system features Bluetooth connectivity not only for your phone but for any streaming music device you might be carrying.
Interior storage space is adequate if you don't need to stow art portfolios, laptops or a purse the size of a steamer trunk. Compartments are small, but with a two-tier glovebox, center console storage box and tray, a tiny cubby on the dash to the left of the steering wheel, and front door and seatback pockets, there's plenty of room for most daily cargo. If you do need room for that art portfolio, the 60/40-split rear seats fold flat.
Those seeking more safety and luxury will lean toward the optional Advanced Technology package that adds a trio of active safety systems:
*A radar-controlled distance-keeping and pre-collision package that senses an impending collision and helps slow the car to minimize damage if the driver doesn't respond to the system's early warning alarms
*Intelligent parking assist directs you precisely into a parallel-parking slot
*Lane-keeping assist, which warns you with a nudge of the steering wheel when it senses you are drifting out of your lane (the road has to have lane markers for this to work).
Design/Fit and Finish
Toyota wanted to keep the car's iconic profile, and did. The redesign moved the roof line peak a few inches rearward to increase the slope of the windshield, and added squared corners, character lines and an elongated rear deck and spoiler for both a sportier look and improved aerodynamics. The 2010 Prius now boasts a drag coefficient of 0.25, one of the best in the automotive world.
There still are plasticky surfaces inside that could be softened and better texturized, but everything outside and in fits well, and all the parts look as if they belong together.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2010 Toyota Prius will still appeal to the green in most car shoppers, but it has moved well beyond a car for environmental advocates and techno-nerds. It is now a mainstream midsize car that will fit most lifestyles. It doesn't pencil out well if saving money is your top priority, but if you are willing to pay a premium for the extra fuel economy and lower emissions that are part of the hybrid package, you're now a Prius candidate.
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