2004 Toyota Prius Review

Consumer Reviews
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The Car Connection
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The Car Connection Expert Review

John Pearley Huffman John Pearley Huffman Editor
August 24, 2003

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Most cars go through their lives as transportation capsules. They’re painted boring colors like Dull Silver, Bright Gray, Silver Gray, Dull Gray, Bright Silver, or Tempe Taupe, sink into the sprawl quickly, say virtually nothing about the people who drive them and no one sheds a tear when they’re ultimately shredded and melted down.

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Then there are cars that people buy to express themselves. You don’t buy a Hummer H2 because you want to blend it. A Rolls-Royce definitely says something about the person who drives it (mostly that they’re rich). And if you have a Ferrari, you likely have an ego to go along with it. It’s the same way with the Toyota Prius hybrid — you don’t buy one if you don’t want the world to know something about you. It’s just something completely different than what a Hummer, Rolls, or Ferrari says.

The second-generation Prius dumps the four-door body of the first generation car for a sleeker, pollywog-like, five-door design that further separates the car from mere economy cars and should make it even more fashionable among the environmentally conscious celebrity community. And the new, more powerful drivetrain ought to make it easier for those celebrities to stay ahead of the three Suburbans full of security and assorted entourage that follows them everywhere they go.

Exotic inside and out

Toyota calls its new third-generation gas/electric hybrid powertrain system “Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive” because… well… because it’s Toyota’s new gas/electric hybrid powertrain system.

2004 Toyota Prius

2004 Toyota Prius

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The heart of the new system is a 50-kilowatt electric motor that’s about half-again as powerful as the previous Prius’ electric motor; the system allows this motor to run longer in electric-only mode than before. It maxes out at 67 horsepower between 1200 and 1540 rpm and the 1.5-liter DOHC gas-fueled four with which it’s partnered now includes Toyota’s VVT-i variable valve-timing system and peaks at 76 horsepower, up six ponies from before. An electronically controlled continuously variable transmission smoothes out the gasoline engine’s torque delivery so that it’s nearly as velvety as the electric motor’s. To scavenge as much power as possible, the Prius uses regenerative braking to further recharge its nickel-hydride battery.
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Of course the Prius is rated as a Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (SULEV) and gets just astounding fuel economy (Toyota’s preliminary numbers are 60 mpg in the city and 50 on the highway). But with the electric motor’s 295 pound-feet of torque combined with the gas engine’s output, it’s decently quick, too, with Toyota claiming a 10-second 0-60 mph clocking — down from the original Prius’ 12.7-second performance.

With a computer doing the drivetrain’s thinking, it can be disconcerting to drive the Prius at first. Heck, it’s even disconcerting at second or third, but drive the car enough and it starts to feel, if not natural, at least predictable. As before, there’s a schematic of the drivetrain on a screen that shows what’s going on at any particular moment; which motor (or both) is doing the propulsion. It becomes almost a challenge for the driver to keep in the pure-electric mode for instance and being even more fuel-efficient becomes almost a fetish. Driven casually, it’s easy to forget that the drivetrain is so complex and busy, but being attuned to the slightest change in the car’s behavior is part of the car’s appeal.

With a drag coefficient of only 0.26, the new Prius is among the very most aerodynamic cars of all time. The body itself is made mostly from steel, but aluminum is used for the hood, some suspension and brake components and, naturally, the 15-inch wheels. At 175.0 inches long overall, the Prius is 3.3 inches shorter overall than a Corolla sedan, but rides on a 106.3-inch wheelbase that’s 3.9 inches longer than the Corolla’s.

The external dimensions result in internal dimensions close to, and in some cases, better than the larger, 107.1-inch wheelbase Camry’s. For instance Toyota claims 41.9 inches of front and 38.6 inches of rear legroom for the Prius while crediting the Camry for 41.6 inches up front and 37.6 inches in the same respective areas. The Camry’s significantly greater width and slightly greater height give it a roomier cabin overall, but among cars closer to its overall size, none are roomier than the new Prius. And the hatchback design makes it dang versatile at hauling cargo too.

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Thrills not available

Though the Prius’s interior is large, it’s not particularly luxurious. The cloth upholstery, carpeting, switches and plastic pieces are all finished with Toyota’s typical precision and quality. It probably doesn’t make sense to equip this car with leather upholstery when so many of its potential buyers are likely to bolt on a “Meat Is Murder” license plate frame.

2004 Toyota Prius

2004 Toyota Prius

Enlarge Photo
However the car’s technological novelty is reflected in driver’s interface with it. Instead of conventional instrumentation, most of what’s going on with the car is displayed in CRT screen mounted high in the dash’s center. This leaves the driver with no instrumentation directly in front of him and constantly glancing to the right to see what’s going on. Instead of a conventional shifter, the transmission is controlled by a delicate, dash-mounted wand that has no mechanical attachment to the drivetrain (then again, neither does the purely electronic accelerator pedal). There isn’t even a need for a key as when the car senses a key fob transmitter in the driver’s pocket, it can be started with the press of a button. The seats are comfortable if not particularly supportive, and a GPS navigation system is optional. This isn’t an environment that invites driver involvement with the car, but an efficient control room for advanced technology. Which, come to think of it, it is.

The steering is relatively light and less than communicative, the electronically controlled, ABS-equipped front disc and rear drum brakes stop the machine with little drama or indication that current is being generated, and the ride is comfortable and controlled. The car is quiet even when the gas engine is thrashing for maximum performance and dang near silent when the electric motor alone is propelling it in a slow crawl.

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Driving the Prius is a drama-free experience, even if the car itself is dancing from one element of its drivetrain to another. That alone is an accomplishment.

Tell the world you care for just $20K

Despite being quicker, roomier and even more miserly with fuel than its immediate predecessor, the new Prius carries the same $20,485 base price as the new car. And at the price, Toyota thinks the Prius will for the first time make them some money. Environmentally friendly and profitable? That’s almost an oxymoron.

Toyota will be expanding the use of hybrid drivetrains through the Lexus RX330 and Highlander SUVs soon, but in those cases the electric motor’s mission will be aboard to generally enhance performance and it will be tough to tell the hybridized versions of those machines from the plain gas-fired ones. What good is that if you not only want to minimize your consumption of resources, but also want the world to know that you care about minimizing consumption of resources? No, the Prius will remain the closest thing an environmentalist can in good conscience buy that produces ego-fulfillment much like a Ferrari.

Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Larry David, and whole lot of other Hollywood types will be trading their old Priuses for this new one and they’ll be getting a significantly better car when they do. That’s got to be comforting when they see it awaiting them as they step out of their Gulfstream G550 after a transcontinental flight that burned about 20,000-pounds of Jet-A.


2004 Toyota Prius
Base price: $20,485
Engine: 1.5-liter four, 76 hp and electric motor, 67 hp
Transmission/driveline: Continuously variable electronic automatic, front-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 106.3 in
Length x width x height: 175.0 x 67.9 x 58.7 in
Curb weight: 2890 lb
EPA fuel economy (city/hwy): 60/50 mpg (est.)
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, dual front side airbags optional, anti-lock brakes
Major standard features: Keyless entry, power windows and locks, AM/FM stereo with CD, cruise control, steering wheel mounted ventilation and radio controls
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles comprehensive, five years/60,000 miles drivetrain, eight years/100,000 miles hybrid-related components

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November 24, 2015
For 2004 Toyota Prius

Proven reliable over the years. I have no regrets!

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With nearly 100,000 miles on the vehicle, it still runs great and still gets a consistent 44 mpg combined in the real world. I've never felt it lacked power and the bonus is, you can carry a lot in the back.
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July 13, 2015
For 2004 Toyota Prius

Extremely reliable and super economy

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With 108,000 miles, no hybrid or engine related issues and a few standard brake-shock issues. I work the hybrid system pretty hard to get a lifetime average of 52 mpg, and the main batteries show no sign of... + More »
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April 28, 2015
For 2004 Toyota Prius

Great car wonderful fuel milage.

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Wonderful car. Fun to drive. Great mpg. Very reliable.
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April 21, 2015
For 2004 Toyota Prius

Size , comfort and economy in one place !

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Considering the kind of miles I put on, this car has been very good to me. Biggest mark against was a hybrid drive replacement at 148K miles. Only other challenges were water pumps, one campaign for the hybrid... + More »
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