Toyota is calling the Green faithful home again. The Toyota Prius is among the cleanest cars on the road today. It's also the most fuel-efficient five-passenger car sold in America, rated at 60/51 mpg City/Highway by the EPA.
The Prius is a gasoline/electric hybrid. Unlike electric cars, it does not need to be plugged in. A small, highly efficient keeps its battery charged, giving it mind-boggling driving range and the freedom to operate where and as any normal car would. No special knowledge or skills are needed to operate it. All you need to know is that it's a clean, highly fuel-efficient car.
The Prius has been completely redesigned and re-engineered for 2004, and the technology in this newest iteration is way ahead of the 2003 Prius as well as anything any other manufacturer has to offer. The only thing even remotely close is the Honda Civic Hybrid, though Ford will soon introduce a hybrid-powered Escape.
The new Prius is larger than before, moving it up from the compact to midsize class. It's roomy, with back seats that seat two adults and lots of cargo space. The fabric upholstery is as good as it gets. It's also more pleasant to look at with futuristic styling that attracts attention. It's not difficult to find in a crowded grocery store parking lot.
Making for an even better deal, Toyota has kept the base price for the new the same for 2004 as it was for the less-efficient 2003 model, while adding features.
All told, the 2004 Toyota Prius is an impressive technological statement, and a car that's easy to like and live with.
The Prius comes as one model, a four-door, five-passenger, hatchback sedan ($19,995).
Unlike last year's model, the new Prius is no stripper. Automatic, micron-filter air conditioning is standard, as are power windows, door locks and heated outside mirrors, remote keyless entry, cruise control, and a six-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo.
Antilock brakes are standard, augmented by Electronic Brake-force Distribution and Brake Assist, and traction control. Standard safety features comprise multi-stage, dual front airbags and three-point seatbelts and head restraints at all five seating positions; rear seat head restraints are adjustable. Seat-mounted side-impact airbags for driver and front-passenger and side curtain airbags for both front and rear passengers are optional ($650), and strongly recommended.
Other options include an intermittent rear window wiper ($180). A package adds the side-impact and curtain airbags, a keyless entry and start system, vehicle stability control, fog lamps and self-leveling HID headlamps ($2,255). The ultimate package has everything, including voice-recognition navigation system with Bluetooth capability, Homelink programmable remote transmitter, premium JBL AM/FM/Cassette/6-CD nine-speaker sound system, and immobilizing security alarm ($5,245). Dealer accessories include floor and cargo mats ($184), cargo net ($49), first aid kit ($29), rear bumper applique ($65) and wheel locks ($59).
If plain and simple equates with beauty, the new Toyota Prius is a contender for the prettiest car of the year. If it doesn't, then the 2004 model is best described as still looking different, just not as different.
The pinched-down nose returns, helpful for knifing through the air with little resistance. But now it looks more like the front end of a car than the flattened-nostrils look on the 2003 Prius. The front quarter panels and doors are sleek and clean, sans the 03's deeply etched groove arcing up and over the front tire opening and fading to nothingness somewhere around mid-front door. The new car's rear flanks continue the theme, with no hint of the bulbous, bi-level blister running rearward from the back doors over the top of the rear tire arch on the '03. The 03's flow-through ventilation exhaust vents are gone, leaving a clean, smooth rear sail. The '04's sole character line is a tasteful indentation in the lower region of the doors, visually connecting the creases marking the lower limits of the working area of the front and rear bumpers.
The side view makes clear the stylists' devotion to aerodynamics. A steeply raked windshield carries rearward the hood's acute angle to the horizontal. An even more steeply raked backlight (rear windscreen) ends in a high spoiler that breaks up the air flow as it leaves the car to reduce the drag the tallish, almost-vertical backend would otherwise generate. Front and rear quarter windows do more to visually enhance the car's aero-look than for outward visibility.
Pictures deceive when it comes to tires. Viewed in the paint, the '04 Prius looks under-tired, almost as if the tires were left out when the rest of the car was made larger. This may have been in part in deference to the quest for maximum fuel economy, but visually it clashes with the car's enlarged proportions.
The headlights are geometrically complex, compound units, housing the running lights, side marker lights and turn indicators. Vertically stacked, compound taillight units wear modish clear lenses and bookend the lower section of the liftgate. Integrated into the liftgate, and running its width beneath the rear spoiler, is a strip of glass adding critical rearward visibility to the view from the driver's seat.
While the 2003 model was classified a compact by the EPA, the 2004 Prius is considered a mid-size car. Its wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear wheels) is about 6 inches longer than before, yielding more legroom.
The interior of the 2004 Prius is significantly roomier than the 2003 model. Passenger room measures 96.2 cubic feet, up more than 6 cubic feet from the 2003 Prius. It's nearly 5 cubic feet roomier than the 2004 Civic Hybrid's interior.
The back seats are surprisingly roomy. The 2004 Prius gains a whopping 3 inches of rear legroom over the 2003 model. It offers more than 2 inches more rear leg room than the Civic and even beats the Camry by an inch. In all but one dimension, the 2004 Prius betters its predecessor; only rear seat headroom stays the same, at 37.1 inches. Still, the new Prius is truly a four-passenger car. It's five-passenger in designation only, or when one of the rear seat occupants is much smaller statured than the other two.
Cargo space is 16.1 cubic feet, more than one-third larger than the 2003's 11.8 cubic feet and half again the Civic's 10.1 cubic feet and coming perilously close to the Camry's 16.7 cubic feet. The hatchback design makes the cargo area much more flexible than the Civic.
Seats are comfortable for commutes and short weekend trips; like the car, their forte is not the multi-hour, multi-state drive. The cloth upholstery looks durable and is grippy, compensating somewhat for the minimalist bottom and back side bolsters. Head restraints are adjustable in all five seating positions, although in their lowered positions, the rear seat's are close to dysfunctional for taller passengers. The interior finish is up to Toyota standards, with pleasingly close tolerances between body panels and interior plastic pieces, and plastics that look and feel better than the word plastic connotates.
The speedometer, fuel gauge, trip meter, and transmission selection indicator are tucked into a long and flat, eyebrow-like opening draped across and centered on the top of the dash where it meets the windshield. In a nod to the car's left-hand drive configuration, these are located in the left half of the opening, albeit more toward the centerline of the car than that of the driver.
The climate controls are managed via an LCD positioned top-most in the center stack. This same panel displays user preferences and maintenance needs and intervals. It also allows tracking of the power and re-charging flows, monitoring battery and gasoline usage, which is entertaining. It also serves as the focal point for the navigation system, if ordered.
Directly beneath the LCD is the control head for the sound system. Toyota deserves high praise for keeping the stereo's most-used functions outside the onboard computer system labyrinth and, equally important, for giving it buttons and knobs that are easy to see, read and use. The base AM/FM/CD 6-speaker sound system is quite capable, while enjoying the premium, JBL system to its fullest would benefit from a bit more sound deadening in the floorpan and doors.
Remote switches for the audio, climate and cruise controls are conveniently mounted on the tilt steering wheel. There are two accessory power outlets. Dome lights grace the headliner, front and rear. Both sun visors have illuminated mirrors. These may seem small matters, but they distinguish between value and cheap.
A tall glasshouse yields exemplary outward visibility, with one exception: Even a 6-foot tall driver can't see the front of the car or the hood without leaning forward. This is not good for navigating tight spaces or congested traffic, precisely where the Prius is likely to spend goodly amounts of its time. But that's the trend for many of the latest aerodynamic designs.
Storage spaces are abundant and more flexible than in some cars costing much more than the Prius. The glove box is a two-parter, with an upper and lower bin opening like a clamshell. The upper compartment is good for, yes, gloves and long, narrow items. The lower compartment holds bulkier items. The front part of the center console opens up, also clamshell-like, into two cup holders
If past is predictive, people who buy a hybrid-powered car aren't looking for something that's fun to drive as much as they are wanting to make a statement about efficient, reasonably cost-effective personal transportation and eco-conscientiousness. The 2004 Toyota Prius easily satisfies the latter wants without boring the driver.
The Environmental Protection Agency's City/Highway fuel economy rating of 60/51 mpg puts the Prius at the top of midsize sedans sold in the U.S. The City rating is deceptively high, however, because the Prius uses the electric motor for much of the EPA's city driving test cycle. (Ironically, Toyota is legally barred from warning consumers of this.) The EPA's Combined rating (which reflects EPA's guess of a car's overall fuel economy) of 55 miles per gallon, is higher than that of any compact sedan sold in the U.S. Its emissions are the lowest of any conventional car availabe to U.S. buyers, bettered only by electric cars. Price-wise, it's not out of line with comparably powered midsize sedans.
Even so, standing on the accelerator returns a pleasant surprise. Thanks to the electric motor, the Prius launches without hesitation, although don't count on a chirp from the front tires. At freeway speeds, merging and overtaking are accomplished with little fuss. Those wishing to experience the car's outer limits should expect a leisurely progression to the car's top speed of around 100 miles per hour, however, as much of this is done by the gasoline engine's rather anemic horses.
The Prius' source of power is a conjoining of a gasoline engine and an electric motor. In a bit of hyperbole, Toyota calls the combination the Hybrid Synergy Drive. Hybrid it is; synergistic it isn't, not really. It earns the hybrid label by combining two, otherwise disparate, means of generating power to motivate a vehicle. To be synergistic, though, the resulting power output should total more than the sum of what the two systems produce when functioning independently. The hybrid system does not do this. But by complementing the internal combustion engine's horsepower with the electric motor's torque, it does make better use of the energy stored in each gallon of gasoline while leaving fewer nasties in its wake. The electric motor, which begins cranking out its torque virtually the moment it starts spinning, gets the car moving and helps it accelerate while it's underway. The gasoline engine steps to the fore in relatively constant and higher speeds, highway driving, where horsepower is more critical for maintaining a car's momentum.
The hybrid system improves fuel economy further by turning off the gasoline engine when it's not needed, like when the car's waiting at a stop light or even when putting around town at low speeds. Any time the driver's right foot requests more motivation than the electric motor alone can deliver, the gasoline engine instantaneously fires up and joins in.
The transmission is somewhat non-traditional, too. The Prius uses a continuously variable transmission, which constantly matches the most efficient drive ratio for the power output to get the car moving and to keep it moving.
The Prius scavenges as much as is possible of the kinetic energy contained in a car in motion, linking the brakes to a generator that recharges the battery when the brakes are applied. Along the same lines, the transmission offers a setting that helps recharge the battery when the driver merely lifts off the accelerator and lets the car coast, most beneficially downhill. In sum, with all these regenerative methodologies, there's no need (and no way, for that matter) to plug the car into an electrical outlet to charge the battery.
The 2004 Prius rides on regular, commonly available tires, versus the special, low rolling resistance tires on the 2003. They're not sporty treads, so don't look for quick and precise lef
The all-new 2004 Toyota Prius sets the standard for the most efficient hybrid on the road in the U.S., with its EPA-estimated 60/51 mpg significantly besting the Civic Hybrid's 47/48. And from behind the steering wheel, at least, few drivers would realize it's any different from a conventional car.
Granted, there's only one, truly competitive hybrid currently on the market; the first hybrid, the Honda Insight, will likely be dropped after the 2004 model year. But if DaimlerChrysler, Ford, General Motors and Hyundai, among others, follow through on their public statements, this won't be the case for long.
Some of these soon-to-be-contenders can be counted on to break new ground, but the 2004 Prius makes clear Toyota is committed to keeping it an ever moving target.