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New Toyota Prius: More Posh, More Power and More MPG

Posted on April 7, 2009
Filed Under Test Drive, Toyota Prius | Leave a Comment

2010_toyota_priusToyota has improved its Prius gasoline-electric hybrid hatchback by a striking amount. But until the Japanese car company announces pricing next month, it’s tough to say whether the redesigned 2010 Prius is worthy.

The new car is a little bigger outside, more powerful, more fuel efficient, more luxurious, more refined. Toyota did all that for the last redo and delivered the then-new 2004 model at no increase in price. This time, no such price promise.

Production begins in Japan this month, Toyota says. U.S. dealers should have the cars in May.

“The sweet spot for us with this car is still $24,000, $25,000,” says Ed La Rocque, small-car marketing manager for Toyota Motor Sales USA. He hinted that a relatively basic model on hand for testing here would be priced about that much.

Top model with navigation system, solar roof panels, lane-keeping, radar cruise control and other gadgets, therefore, could pass $30,000. We’ll know next month.

Price aside, the Prius is roomier, classier, more powerful, more fuel efficient and an all-around better car than Honda’s 2010 Insight hybrid. Insight’s on sale April 22 starting at $20,470. People want to compare them because they look sort of similar and are hybrids. But that’s like comparing scissors and a paper cutter: The former’s the cheaper way to do a good-enough job. The latter’s the premium, if pricey, way to go.

Number crunchers will note that some of the 2010’s interior dimensions are smaller than the 2009’s. Rear legroom, for instance, is listed as 36 inches vs. 38.6 in the ’09. Yet the 2010 feels very accommodating in back — plenty of knee room and toe space for big folks. And Toyota makes much of raising the roof to — successfully, based on the test cars — increase what’s been limited rear-seat headroom. Yet the spec sheets show the new car has just 0.3 of an inch more rear noggin space.

Likewise, if you go by the numbers, you’d think there’s been backsliding in the hybrid powertrain. The new Prius uses a bigger, more powerful gasoline engine and a smaller, less-powerful electric motor. But guess what? Even though it also weighs about 100 pounds more, the new car is rated 3 to 4 miles per gallon more than the old one.

That alchemy is accomplished by doing away with belt-drive accessories that drag on the engine. Now, the power steering and water pumps and air conditioning compressor are run by electric motors.

The lesson? Use published specs only as a guide.

Toyota brags what a technical showpiece the new Prius is. Impressive but mostly irrelevant, unless you can’t live without an exhaust fan that tries to cool the interior when parked. Or an optional camera that tracks road lanes and tries to keep the car centered (while the driver is, say, texting?).

More to the point: The car drives much better. It’s less like a hair shirt and more like comfy sweats.

Toyota has exorcised the symphony of shimmies and shivers that plagued previous versions. The Prius’ drivability has risen to about parity with Ford’s silken Fusion hybrid.

As in the Fusion, there’s the occasional vague shudder as the gas engine kicks on after shutting down at a long stoplight to save fuel. Otherwise, the gas-electric transition was unnoticeable.

The car felt less tippy than before when rounding a corner briskly. Steering, less vague; brakes, better.

The test cars were remarkably quiet, more like luxury models than mainstreamers. And — applause — they were terrific with the windows down. No roar, no buffeting; lots of fresh air inside, not just blasting past outside. Only aural interruption was soft motor-generator whine as you slowed.

Improved seat comfort should quiet what Toyota says was a common gripe about previous models.

In the wide, centered instrument panel, the icons tracking the hybrid system power flow are simpler — less like you’re monitoring a science experiment.

Digital gauges themselves, though, were nearly unreadable if you’re wearing sunglasses, and still hard to read without them. No excuse for high-tech Prius being behind the curve.

The stubby gear lever now sits about where a normal gearshift would be in the console. Big improvement over the previous lever poking out of the dash. It’s where your hand naturally reaches.

Toyota deliberately has moved Prius toward the mainstream, to broaden its appeal. Based on the satisfying feel of the test cars here, that was a really, really smart move that’s very well done.

ABOUT THE 2010 TOYOTA PRIUS

  • What? Redesign of the well-known gasoline-electric hybrid hatchback. It’s bigger, fancier, more powerful, more fuel efficient than its predecessor.
  • When? Production begins this month. U.S. dealers should have cars in late May.
  • Where? Made in Japan.
  • Why? Toyota hopes upgrades broaden appeal.
  • How much? Toyota hasn’t said yet, but expect a big price jump to cover all the upgrades.
  • How many? 100,000 for the rest of 2009, 180,000 next year. Toyota isn’t shy about forecasts.
  • How potent? 1.8-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine is rated 98 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 105 pounds-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. The electric motor is rated 80 hp, 153 lbs.-ft. Combined, 134 hp maximum. Toyota doesn’t give combined torque figure.
  • How lavish? Quite. In addition to the now-common array of safety features and power accessories, these usually optional features are standard: proximity key with remote start; auto up-down on all four windows; mirror defrosters; deluxe stereo.
  • How big? Compact exterior, midsize interior. Prius is 175.6 inches long, 68.7 in. wide, 58.7 in. tall on a 106.3-in. wheelbase. Weighs 3,042 lbs.
  • Passenger space: 93.7 cubic ft. (down from 96.2 cu. ft. in the ’09). Cargo space: 21.6 cu. ft. behind the back seat, 39.6 cu. ft. with seat folded.
  • Turning diameter: 34.2 ft.; 36 ft. on optional tires.
  • How thirsty? Rated 51miles per gallon in town, 48 highway, 50 in combined driving. That’s about 2 gallons per 100 miles, using the gallons-per-mile index that’s emerging as a better measure of fuel use and cost.
  • Trip computers in preproduction test cars showed: 56.2 mpg in suburbs (1.78 gallons per 100 miles); 48 mpg highway (2.08 gal./100 miles).
  • Uses regular; holds 11.9 gal.
  • Overall: Big improvement, but at what price?

SOURCE: USA Today

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