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I probably have more “green” friends than most automotive writers, and my planet-conscious pals constantly pose questions about “those new hybrids” as if they’re the next big thing since frozen yogurt or TofuRella — cars that you can use without the guilt of contributing to global warming and the depletion of fossil-fuel resources, cars that set a trend for others to follow.
Until recently, my only experience with the $19,995 Prius was when Toyota brought a few Japanese-market cars to the U.S. more than a year in advance of its U.S. introduction. Although Honda’s Insight (which went on sale in the U.S. before the Prius) was still in the development stages at that time, the Prius had already been on sale in Japan for nearly two years (it made its debut there in 1997). In a short drive then of a right-hand-drive Prius, my colleagues and I were impressed with the seamlessness of the hybrid drivetrain but critical of the car’s lack of power at higher speeds.
Since then, Toyota has tweaked the Prius for the American market with a slightly more powerful engine, new battery packs, and revised hybrid system behavior. Naturally, I considered it my duty to you and to my tree-hugging buds alike to revisit this benchmark. Mainly, I was interested in two main things: is the Prius a car that I could live with as well as any other small car from day to day, and does this tech powerhouse actually return the lofty gas-mileage figures that it promises (52 city and 45 highway, according to the EPA)?
I found my answers — both yes and no.
Good news for granolas
The good news for Toyota and for granolas everywhere is that driving the Prius is not the work-in-progress, techno-geek experience you might think. In fact, most of the time the hybrid system does its job so unobtrusively that you don’t even know what’s going on, unless you’re looking at the special feature screen on the onboard computer that shows you, with arrow diagrams, whether the electric motor, gas engine, or both are providing power, and when the battery packs are regenerating. The column shifter and center-mounted LED gauge cluster are a bit different from other small cars, but otherwise you just shift into Drive and go. The Prius feels and drives much like a normal small car.