2009 Toyota Prius

Fuel economy in a quality package, but not much else.

2009 Toyota Prius
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In 2004, Toyota launched the second-generation Prius model, with its hybrid gas/electric powertrain system that gets a claimed 48 miles per gallon in the city and 45 on the highway. For the record, I averaged 42mpg in my week with the car.

FAST FACTS

1. The Toyota Prius is rated at 48 mpg city and 45 mpg highway.

2. In the Prius, Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive uses a 1.5-liter gasoline engine, two electric motors and a lithium-ion battery pack.

3. A third-generation Prius is due out in 2010 with a projected combined fuel-economy rating of 50 mpg.

Sales of the Prius have been mostly strong, but they rise and fall with the cost of gasoline. With all car sales off at this time, it’s hard to tell if low gas prices are affecting sales, or just the state of the economy, but a year ago when gas was at $4 bucks, Prius models were scarce in the Toyota showrooms.

This was my first chance to spend extended time with a Prius, and after a week and several hundred miles of some city, suburban, rural, and highway driving; I’ve come to know the vehicle fairly well.

REASONABLE POWER FROM TOYOTA’S HYBRID SYNERGY DRIVE

The Prius is equipped with a 1.5-liter gasoline motor, and two electric motors; one driving the front wheels, the other functioning solely as a generator to recharge the car's battery pack. In combination, they produce 110 horsepower, which will propel the almost 3,000 pound vehicle from zero to 60 in a leisurely 10.5 seconds. That’s about the same as you’d see in most economy cars equipped with 1.8- to 2.0-liter engines. The difference is, with the Prius, you start off in electric mode and as you reach about 15 miles per hour it switches to gasoline engine mode. That switchover is seamless, and unless you’re watching the touch screen video display on the dash in the “Energy Monitor” mode, you really wouldn’t know what motor is powering the car at any given time. When you come to a stop, the gas motor switches off, and you feel nothing, and hear only silence. The CVT transmission is seamless, smooth and quiet.

The reason why the Prius gets better fuel economy in the city is because in that type of driving, more time is spent with the gas motor off, than when you’re driving on the highway, in which case the gas motor is mostly on. In either case, the 11.9-gallon gas tank will provide you with a cruising range of at least 500 miles.

There are some operating procedures that are a bit different to the Prius. To start the car you apply the brake pedal, and push Power button on the dash, and you hear silence. But the car has started and is ready to drive, and there is an indicator light that appears to let you know. You then use the stubby, dash mounted, shift-by-wire knob to place the car in drive, and you’re ready to go. When you stop, you push the Park button on the dash, and then the Power button, and the car is turned off.

BASIC YET SPACIOUS INTERIOR

The interior of the Prius is econobox Spartan. There is no instrument cluster to speak of, rather, just a digital display for the speedometer, the Drive-Park-Neutral indicator, and the gas gauge. Everything else on the dash is warning lights. There are dual glove boxes in front of the passenger seat, a small upper one for papers, and a larger lower one for bigger items. A center console separates the front seats, with two cupholders integrated into the front of the console.

The seats are comfortable, upholstered in bland nondescript cloth. The Prius is classified as a mid-size car, but while roomy, most folks would classify it as a compact car. Drivers over 6 feet tall might notice a lack of head room. Rear seat legroom is generous, but the high floor in the hatchback area means the trunk is not very spacious. The rear seats do fold forward for addition carrying capacity. One annoyance was the view out the rear hatch window. There is a spoiler that splits the window (and holds the rear wiper) and it blocks a clear view of traffic behind you. Surely, Toyota could have done a better job engineering that.

The touch screen is used for the radio controls, phone controls, information screens and settings, climate controls and, if equipped, the Navigation System. I found it easy to use the touch screen without having to spend any time with the Owner’s Manual, but the Navigation System was a bit less user friendly on the “intuitive ease of use” scale. I’d give it a 3 on a scale of 1 to 5. The steering wheel houses redundant controls for the radio, heat, and phone controls. Unfortunately, at night they are not illuminated, and impossible to see. And with so many buttons, I suspect it will take months to become familiar enough with them to use them proficiently at night. It’s easy to find yourself increasing the radio volume when you really only want to turn the heat up. And I’d have liked for the window and door lock controls to be lighted also.

FUTURISTIC LOOK

The Prius has a futuristic aerodynamic shape that is pleasant, if not inspiring. I believe it is more function over form, which for the mission of the car as being a high mile “appliance” vehicle, is as it should be. The fit and finish is typically Toyota – meaning outstanding.

COMMUTER-FRIENDLY COMFORT

The Prius accomplishes its economy car mission. It has a pillowy soft suspension that soaks up bumps and bruises in the road fairly well. Noise insulation is average for a car in this category; however there is virtually no wind noise at speed. Despite the Touring model’s “Sport Tuned Suspension,” there is too much body lean in turns, the steering is less than precise, and mid corner bumps will upset the chassis. But the Prius buyer isn’t a car enthusiast looking for a slick handling sports sedan. The brakes are touchy and a bit grabby at the beginning of the pedal travel, but they work well. The Prius also handles tight parking situations with ease.

THERE’S ALWAYS A CATCH: THE PRICE

Here’s where things become less appealing. The base price of the Prius Touring is $24,270. A comparably equipped Nissan Sentra, or Hyundai Elantra is $5,000 less.

There are six Option Packages, which add on more items as you go up the ladder. My test car had Option Package #5, which added Voice Activated DVD, the GPS System with back-up camera, A JBL 9 speaker, 6 CD changer sound system, MP3 capabilities, Hands-Free phone, Vehicle Stability Control, Smart Key System and an Auto Dimming Rearview Mirror. That package cost $4,455. Add in $449 for the XM Radio Kit, and $279 for floor mats. Even with a $1,500 Package Discount, the bottom line on this car was $28,623. You can doll up that Sentra with leather seats, a moonroof, and most of the same electronics for around $23,000.

The Sentra I tested averaged 29 miles per gallon in the same type of driving pattern I did with the Prius, which got 42 miles per gallon. So you have to work the math regarding the 13 mpg difference, and calculate your annual mileage driven, and see how the numbers work at $2, $3 and $4 per gallon of gas, to see how long it will take you to get back the premium you pay going in. Also, you have to factor in the physic benefit you get by knowing that you’re driving the highest mileage car on the market, and leaving the smallest carbon footprint you can for the environment. And I totally respect those folks who put a high value on that.

THE VERDICT

The Toyota Prius is a high quality, reliable, competent, comfortable, economy sedan. It’s plain-Jane, Spartan interior is more associated with a car costing much less. The Prius will stir no passion for driving, only a passion for saving gas and helping the environment. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The 2010 model, which will appear in showrooms soon, is to be revamped, promising more power and even better mileage figures. Let’s see if Toyota will address any other shortcomings from this model.

PLUS

Outstanding mileage
Quality reputation – reliable technology

MINUS

Austere, uninspired interior, with poorly lit controls
Limited cargo area
Sedate performance

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