James Riswick, New and Used Car Editor
There are certain things you notice when driving through Los Angeles. The inexplicable traffic jams. The blonde bombshells in BMWs. The way highway on-ramps are frequently not in the same place as the off-ramp. Or, you may notice that there's a Toyota Prius everywhere you look. In California, Toyota's revolutionary hybrid has become just as ubiquitous as the top-selling Camry and Corolla. In fact, the Prius sold better in the Golden State in 2007 than Chevys, Pontiacs and Buicks did...combined.
Californians often credit themselves with being "ahead" of the rest of the country when it comes to basically everything, while the rest of the country considers California to have an inflated sense of self-worth. There is limited truth to both. However, the 2008 Toyota Prius is certainly a part of such a debate, and there are a number of questions that should be asked before taking one of these quintessential hybrids home.
First, is there something meatier at the heart of Prius mania than just a green fad fueled by poseur environmentalists trying to make a statement to friends, neighbors and passing strangers? Also, we all know the Prius gets excellent gas mileage, but what does that fuel savings really mean to your wallet and the environment given its price tag and non-hybrid competitors? Finally, is it really a good car, or have 1 million American motorists been duped by a questionable green message?
Well, the simple answer is that the Prius is actually quite good. Given its superb interior packaging, ample features list and unbeatable fuel economy, the Prius was designed to be the epitome of practical, head-over-heart automotive choices. Its driving experience will never excite and its styling is hardly what most folks would deem attractive, yet for those who view cars as simple transportation devices, it's easy to recommend the Prius. It is priced similar to traditional midsize sedans, while sacrificing some performance and standard features in favor of better fuel economy and greater interior/cargo space. Plus, you can equip a Prius to near-luxury levels, as our test car was.
Our time in this top-of-the-line 2008 Toyota Prius (and our extended long-term 2004 tester) showed that this car is much more than just a political or fashion statement. And with sales continuing to rise after more than four years on the market, it's a safe bet that Prius mania is no passing fad.
At the heart of the Toyota Prius is a revolutionary hybrid drivetrain that marries a 1.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine to two electric motors (one to help drive the front wheels and the other to recharge the nickel-metal hydride battery pack). This setup allows for the gasoline and electric motors to work by themselves or in concert with each other depending on the driving situation. When creeping along in traffic or under light acceleration, the Prius uses only its electric system, which is where a majority of fuel savings comes from.
When speeds and acceleration demands increase, the gas engine kicks in with a noticeable but not distracting shudder. Attached to a continuously variable transmission of sorts, the gas engine can sound a bit gnarly when pushed, as it's hardly a power champion with 76 horsepower and 82 pound-feet of torque. The electric motor's additional 67 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque pitches in, but the Prius is still only capable of a 0-60-mph sprint of 10.4 seconds. Given the leisurely nature of most motorists' acceleration habits, many will only occasionally notice the Prius' power deficit.
Many will also turn a blind eye given the unbeatable fuel economy this hybrid returns. The EPA estimates a return of 48 mpg city/45 mpg highway and 46 mpg combined. We conducted an extended fuel economy test-drive with this particular Prius and were actually able to best the EPA's numbers. Driving in and around Las Vegas, we achieved a truly impressive 52 mpg. On the highway between Vegas and Los Angeles, the Prius still managed 47 mpg, despite its relying less on the electric motor. In both tests, we did nothing fancy to achieve these numbers — although knowing how to maximize all-electric acceleration will certainly improve your own results.
While there's much to discuss about the Prius' powertrain, the rest of the driving experience will leave you cold (if you care). The electric-power steering system is lifeless and transmits practically no information to the driver's hands. It is, however, tremendously easy to turn at any speed, which has proven particularly popular with senior citizens. The ride is also tuned for maximum comfort and cossets passengers well from road imperfections.
Toyota designed the Prius with the intent of maximizing interior space. Subsequently, headroom is cavernous and there's a tad more rear-seat legroom than in a Camry or Ford Crown Victoria. Anyone 6 feet tall, however, will find the front seat lacking in legroom as there is no height adjustment and limited seat track travel — there is also no telescoping steering column. Two 6-foot-3 staff members couldn't come remotely close to finding a comfortable driving position. This is a major area in which the Prius differs from traditional midsize sedans. If you're of average height or less, though, the Prius' wide, comfy seats and airy greenhouse will please.
Everyone should be happy with the ride comfort, which provides a buttoned-down, big-car feel to a lightweight car. Compared to fuel-efficient compact cars, the Prius feels almost Lincoln-like as it softly damps road imperfections. The Toyota is also very quiet thanks to ample sound-deadening materials and an exterior designed to slice through the air like a light saber through tofu. Around town, the electric motors' muted hum also contributes to a very serene cabin.
Our fully loaded test car came with a navigation system, but all Priuses are equipped with a touchscreen interface that controls nearly all stereo and climate functions. Thankfully, the steering wheel has an inordinate amount of secondary controls to make more frequently used functions like temperature and radio presets quick and easy to change. The steering wheel also houses controls for the Bluetooth phone connection and the navigation system's voice commands. The latter work OK, but they take too long to use as there is no way to turn off the car's command prompts and parrotlike command confirmation.
In total, however, the 2008 Toyota Prius is a marvel of practical functionality thanks to its space-efficient body style. A rear- and front-facing child seat was easy to install thanks to the huge backseat and generous rear door opening. The 14.4-cubic-foot hatchback trunk easily swallows golf clubs and/or a fair share of luggage, while the 60/40-split-folding rear seat combines with the Prius' tall roof line to allow for a truly amazing amount of cargo space. We managed to fit in three men's weekend luggage, several paper grocery bags, 2 gallons of water and two guitars (plus the three men).
Design/Fit and Finish
The Prius often makes you feel like you're driving the Epcot Center Car of Tomorrow. The dash is wide and flat, with the touchscreen jutting up in a rectangular pod. The car starts with the push of a button, but there's no engine start-up noise, just an instrument panel light that says "Ready." That all-digital instrument panel resides just below the windshield, almost like a head-up display. The stubby shifter juts out of the dash and operates like something made by Atari. In other words, it's weird, but you quickly get used to it.
Interior quality is decent for this price point, with good materials and tight fit and finish. Most Priuses come with a nice velourlike upholstery, but our test car came with leather. It's nice leather, but if you really care about the environment, you'll skip this option: The cattle industry is one of the biggest producers of greenhouse gases, as well as a significant cause of land and water degradation.
Who should consider this vehicle
Those who do not prioritize speed or driving excitement. If you're just looking for practical, comfortable and fuel-efficient transportation that can be luxuriously equipped, the 2008 Toyota Prius is a very wise choice.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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