Toyota Prius. We all know the story. This was the hybrid that changed the way we look at hybrids. While the original Honda Insight holds the honor of being the first U.S.-sold hybrid, the Toyota Prius was the first offered to consumers (in Japan). But the second-generation Prius holds another distinction. It's the hybrid that made the largest impact on the automotive community and it became the poster child for the "Hey, look at me; I'm green" crowd.
Which, as it turned out, is a sizable crowd. When the updated 2004 Toyota Prius hit the market, it brought the masses. Look in your neighbor's driveway. There's a Prius. Now glance at the car in the lane beside you. There's another Prius. They're everywhere. Heck, Tom Hanks has one. So does Cameron Diaz.
Well, we weren't about to stand idle as the world passed us by. Before our local Toyota dealership even stocked the new version of its hybrid sensation we were shopping for one. It wasn't long before we purchased a Seaside Blue Pearl second-gen Prius for our long-term test fleet.
Why We Bought It
We have to turn back the clock several years to unlock our reasons for buying the Prius. For 2004 Toyota completely redesigned its first-generation hybrid. Season two added Hybrid Synergy Drive, a full hybrid system with a more powerful 1.5-liter gas engine producing 76 horsepower and 82 pound-feet of torque. Gasoline power was backed by an electric motor generating 67 hp and 295 lb-ft of its own. Efficiency improvements earned the new Prius a bevy of marketing acronyms. It was a SULEV (super ultralow-emissions vehicle). It was a PZEV (partial zero-emissions vehicle). And it was environmentally BA (badass).
Toyota groomed the Prius to be king. When the 2004 model arrived, its popularity soared well above other existing hybrids like the Insight and Civic Hybrid. We'd like to say we predicted the Prius would become the Slug-Bug of the new millennium, and that's why we bought it. But our test began merely as an assessment of its emerging new technology. Nearly 400 new patents were issued for the 2004 Toyota Prius. This was a significant vehicle. Its hatchback versatility and top-ranking fuel economy made it a consumer must-have and secured the Prius an extended stay in our long-term test program.
Our early Prius questions remained. Are the HOV-access stickers worth the money? Would fuel economy decline as the batteries aged? How long until the batteries failed and how much would it cost to replace them? But as our Prius test grew in length, it also evolved. Why we bought it became more of a question as to why we kept it. And six years later we were finally ready to part with our benchmark, second-gen Prius.
Drive and Durability
There was a general consensus when it came to how the Prius drove. Senior Editor Erin Riches echoed our sentiment, "Ride quality is not a strength of the Prius. The suspension keeps the ride reasonably smooth on the highway, but it's about as forgiving as my mom's '93 Accord -- tolerable by today's standards but not ideal. There's also quite a bit of road noise. Besides that, the driver seat gets uncomfortable on long hauls. The biggest problem is the minimal number of adjustments. The steering wheel is mounted close to the dash and it doesn't telescope. On a positive note, the second-gen Prius is acceptably quick for a hybrid. During one trip I drafted off the trucks on Highway 46 while waiting for an opportunity to pass. Full throttle was essential for passing but it was hardly a white-knuckle event."
Inside the cabin our Prius boasted an early-generation touchscreen media interface and a cassette player. It was bare-bones by today's standards. Even its cloth Ivory interior left something to be desired. Senior Photographer Scott Jacobs reflected on the last night he spent in the Prius. "My roommate in college had a denim couch that he absolutely loved, but the rest of us hated. It had a sickening dark sheen from pizza grease, cigarette ash and spilt beer. We nicknamed it 'Deal Breaker' because its vile presence would horrify any woman who came to our apartment. The Prius has become the new 'Deal Breaker.' The combination of dirt and sunscreen has made the driver side armrest akin to that damned couch. When I drove the Prius last night, I made sure my skin and clothing did not touch the armrest."
Our Prius was not without its problems. We averaged about $135 per visit for routine maintenance as recommended by the owner's manual. This average included a couple of $22 do-it-yourself oil changes. Other repairs were minimal. We replaced the brake pads ourselves at 86,000 miles for $64. New tires at 84,000 miles remedied a stability control warning issue. Mounted and balanced, these new Bridgestone Ecopias set us back $460 and performed equally as well as the OE Goodyear Integrity tires. Extreme curb rash enticed us to buy a new front wheel cover, which cost $380 and concluded routine out-of-pocket expenses.
Aside from the routine we had some notable non-warranty items during our test. One came in the form of an electrical short in the navigation unit. Another resulted from simultaneous failures of the air-conditioning compressor and inverter pump at the 71,000-mile mark. This was expensive and took days to fix, but Toyota recently began accepting refund applications for the inverter pump issue as part of a "customer satisfaction campaign." At the time of this wrap-up we've submitted our application and hope for a full repayment.
Total Body Repair Costs: $690
Total Routine Maintenance Costs (over 72 months): $2,160
Additional Maintenance Costs: $3,957
Warranty Repairs: Recalibrate faulty fuel gauge, replace faulty fuel gauge, brake light switch recall and replace the steering shaft per recall.
Non-Warranty Repairs: Replace navigation unit ($604), air-conditioning compressor ($1,709), inverter pump ($700), wheel cover assembly ($380), key fob battery ($40), brake pads ($64) and tires ($460).
Scheduled Dealer Visits: 16
Unscheduled Dealer Visits: 4
Days Out of Service: 12
Breakdowns Stranding Driver: None
Performance and Fuel Economy
One thing was clear after 84,000 miles of testing the Prius. Performance is not an area where this vehicle was meant to excel. But we knew that going into the test.
Give the Prius a quarter-mile of asphalt and the hybrid will dispatch with it in 17.7 seconds at 78.0 mph. It needs 10.2 of those seconds (with 1 foot of rollout) to reach the 60-mph mark. And from 60 mph the Prius returns to a stop in 124 feet. Each of these tests ranks the Prius as average among the hybrid populace. Its slalom speed of 59.8 mph and 0.72g of lateral force around the skid pad are similarly bland.
Where performance ends, fuel economy begins. We averaged 40.9 mpg during our test. Admittedly, much of that mileage was accumulated with little concern as to our overall fuel efficiency. That didn't mean the Prius couldn't perform when asked. We found that even toward the end of our test the Toyota could attain 50-plus mpg with little effort.
Best Fuel Economy: 63.5 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 26.7 mpg
Average Fuel Economy: 40.9 mpg
When we purchased our Prius, there wasn't a dealership in town that would sell one without a markup. So we went to another town. We didn't need to go far before locating a dealership willing to sell at MSRP. We paid $26,053 to the Internet sales director at Carson Toyota for a Seaside Blue Pearl Prius with Ivory interior.
Six years later it was time to sell. After 84,000 miles Edmunds' TMV® Calculator valued the hybrid at $8,476 based on a private-party sale. This equaled 67 percent depreciation, a valuation directly reflective of its length of service. Senior Consumer Advice Editor Phil Reed then took the keys, as he usually does when we sell long-term testers. This time was different, however.
Reed discussed the process. "I was preparing to put the Prius up for sale, so I drove it home one Thursday afternoon. I left the office a little late and when I hit the 405 freeway it was locked up solid with traffic. I swung into the carpool lanes and cruised along at 50 mph past miles of stopped traffic. The next morning I woke up and decided to buy it myself. I've really been enjoying driving it -- it's the perfect commuter car."
True Market Value at service end: $8,476
What it sold for: $8,476
Depreciation: $17,577 or 67% of original paid price
Final Odometer Reading: 84,033
Our test of the Prius began just like any other long-term test. We bought the car to drive around for a year and reflect on its emerging technology. As time passed, the focus of our test changed.
Toyota built this hybrid to stand out among its peers. It set the benchmark for 2004 and beyond. During our extended test we watched the popularity of the Prius soar. Buy it for status. Buy it to save the environment. Buy it for the HOV stickers. It didn't matter why, but people were buying the Prius and doing so in droves. All the while automakers did their best to copy the mold cast by the second-gen Prius.
Today much of the same excitement surrounds the Toyota. This is easily among the most significant vehicles of the past decade. It arguably sits atop that list. When judging its popularity we need look no further than our own ranks. We drove a 2004 Toyota Prius for six years and racked up some 84,000 miles. Then we sold the car, to ourselves. We can't give the Prius much more of an endorsement than our own, hard-earned cash.
Edmunds purchased this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.