New & Used Toyota Prius: In Depth
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The Toyota Prius is the car that established hybrid vehicles on American roads. It's an icon, for better or worse, both praised and mocked in popular culture.
Beyond that, it's also a terrifically efficient gas-powered car that's rated by the EPA at 50 miles per gallon combined, where it's been since the launch of the third generation car for 2010. The highly aerodynamic, high-roofed five-door mid-size hatchback is the most fuel-efficient car sold in the U.S. without a plug attached--and for those who want a plug, there's now one available.
Toyota first launched the Prius in 1997, in Japan only. At that time a subcompact four-door sedan, that 1997 Prius was the first vehicle to feature the automaker's hybrid system, now known as Hybrid Synergy Drive. While the 2000 Prius wasn't quite the first hybrid on sale in the U.S. (the original Honda Insight beat it by a few months), Toyota has now sold far more Priuses than Honda has hybrids in total. Toyota is by far the world's pre-eminent builder of hybrids, with roughly 4 million sold globally. Fifteen years later, the expanding Prius lineup remains both the technology flagship for the Toyota brand and an icon for hybrid vehicles in general.
The second-generation (2004-2009) Prius rocked the world when it was launched, moving up beyond compact size and adopting a radically aerodynamic and unique five-door hatchback body style. The second- and third-generation Prius models both offer a surprising volume of interior space—enough for four adults, comfortably, or five in a pinch—along with good, easy-loading cargo space through the wide-opening hatch.
Today's Toyota Prius family
For the 2010 model year, a new third-generation Prius was launched, though it's instantly recognizable through many of the styling cues of the second generation vehicle. The latest model has a lighter, stiffer body, improved battery management, better aerodynamics, and a slightly larger (1.8- instead of 1.6-liter) four-cylinder engine, giving it better acceleration under high power demands. It also continues the Prius's steady march up the efficiency charts, hitting the magic 50-mpg rating.
The new Prius allows drivers more confidence in everyday commuting, with 0-to-60-mph times just below the 10-second mark, and highway cruising that feels a little more relaxed. That said, the Prius driving experience has always felt very detached and numb, with little actual 'feel' in the steering or the brakes. It's "appliance driving" at its most evolved.
At the heart of any Prius is Toyota's hybrid technology, which uses a nickel-metal hydride battery pack that powers an electric motor-generator paired to a small four-cylinder gasoline engine, with a second motor-generator serving to recapture otherwise wasted energy and use it to recharge the battery under regenerative braking. The complicated two-motor system uses a planetary gear set to split power flows among the two motors, the engine, and the final drive. It acts as an electronic continuously variable transmission—a configuration that continues today in the Prius.
Standard safety features and advanced safety-tech options have been stepped up on the third-generation Prius—including a rear-view camera, adaptive cruise control, a lane-departure warning system, and a "Safety Connect" system that automatically alerts emergency crews in the event of a crash.
Toyota's Intelligent Parking Assist system helps you parallel-park the Prius via the car's cameras, albeit with your foot on the brake to control speed, although most reviewers feel the similar Ford system is more intuitive and accurate.
The Prius liftback got a mild refresh and some new features for 2012, most of which were welcome. LED running lights and restyled taillamps updated the look somewhat. We're less fond of the changes to the interior, which got a "flying buttress" center console that looks neat but crowds the driver's knee. We also would have liked improvements to the interior plastics, and perhaps something to make the experience a little more interesting on the road.
Two new body styles joined the expanding Prius lineup for 2012. The Prius V wagon version has its own brand-new body, a redesigned interior, and more space for both people and cargo. Its combined EPA fuel economy rating is 42 mpg, higher than any other wagon or crossover on the market in 2012. Because it's about 300 pounds heavier than the Prius Liftback, however, with the same powertrain, it can feel slow and strained when heavily loaded on steep hills. Other features of the Prius V include a sliding second row of seats that include a 45-degree recline, 60/40 split seat back, and 34 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats.
The compact Prius C--it's actually closer to a subcompact--shares the family name, but is a radically different car than Toyota’s original hybrid. It's some 19 inches shorter, 2 inches narrower and nearly 2 inches lower than the well-known Prius mid-size five-door hatchback. Nearly every Hybrid Synergy Drive component was redesigned, and the Prius C uses a smaller 1.5-liter engine, so it's about 500 pounds lighter than the Prius Liftback. Fuel economy is the same combined 50 mpg as the larger Prius hatchback--although it's higher in the city at 53 mpg, and lower on the highway, at 47 mpg--while the price falls to about $19,000.
Finally, a plug-in version of the Prius hybrid went on sale in February 2012, representing Toyota's first-ever plug-in version of its signature hybrid car. The plug-in Prius will eventually be sold across the country, though full 50-state coverage won't be completed until sometime in 2013. Within six months of its launch, the Prius Plug-In Hybrid had become the third best-selling plug-in car sold in the U.S., in part because it's the only Prius eligible for the coveted single-occupancy use of carpool lanes on congested California freeways.
A new, fourth-generation Prius is expected to come along shortly. As well as more fuel-efficient, executives have said that it will be sleeker, offer better roadholding and handling, and generally bring the Prius up to date. The target for EPA combined fuel economy of the upcoming model is said to be 55 mpg, and there may be a more expensive version using a different battery that hits 60 mpg.