The Toyota Prius is much-improved in its second incarnation as a hybrid sedan, powered by both an electric motor and a gasoline engine. Its only competitor to date is the Honda Insight, which can't approach the Prius in terms of practicality. Prices: US $19,995. Canada $29,990. Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles, 5-year/60,000-mile Powertrain, 8-year/100,000-mile Hybrid-related Component. Canada: 3 years/60,000 km, 5-year/100,000-mile Powertrain, 8-year/160,000 km Hybrid-related Component.
The Toyota Prius made its debut in Japan in 1997 and migrated to North American shores in 2000. That first Prius left some things to be desired, but it showed Toyota, as well as Honda with its Insight, was serious about combining the economy of electric power with the flexibililty of gasoline power. This second generation effort corrects flaws in the original Prius and sets a benchmark for other automakers to attempt to reach. Next up for Toyota and its hybrid combination? A small sport utility, most likely based on the RAV-4.
Right from the startup routine, the 2004 Toyota Prius is different. Our tester had a remote transmitter instead of a key. The car recognizes its driver by the presence of that transmitter. Just sit down in the two-tone cloth bucket seat, press a power button on the dash and the 2004 Toyota Prius is running -- silently, to be sure. Movement initiates from the electric motor and the gasoline engine fires up at about 3 miles per hour. The instruments can be found in a cave under the windshield, atop the dash. Speed is displayed in digital numbers. A voice-operated navigation system, an option, occupied center space on the dash and the map display was easily read day or night. The gear selector, a small lever jutting from the base of the dash, offers reverse, neutral or drive. The standard air conditioner in the Prius is an industry-first electric-powered unit, not dependent on the gasoline engine and thus using no fuel to operate. Headroom and footroom are plentiful both front and back. The 2004 Toyota Prius easily accommodated a 6-foot, 8-inch friend in its rear seat. Shutting off this hybrid means placing a foot on the brake pedal, pressing a "parking" button on the dash, and depressing the power button.
On the Road
The 2004 Toyota Prius seems to reverse logic with its fuel efficiency. It is at its best in stop-and-go city traffic, worst on an open interstate. The reason? The two motors under the front hood swap duties as needed. When a driver brakes the 2004 Toyota Prius to a halt, the gasoline engine shuts off. This shutdown can be felt as a small shudder. It can be heard, even by those adjacent to the Prius. The hybrid car can then sit silently, using no fuel, until the traffic flows again. Depress the accelerator and the electric motor with 295 foot-pounds of torque promptly leaps the Prius away. This mid-size sedan is capable of 0-to-60 in about 10 seconds! On an interstate, at steady speed, the 1.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine must bear the load. Thus the 2004 Toyota Prius returns 60 miles per gallon in town, 51 on the highway. Cruise control is standard and helps highway fuel efficiency. Don't mistake this for some plug-it-in car from a few years back. The electric motor, during deceleration and braking, shuttles electrical energy to on-board batteries. A continuously variable automatic transmission, as smooth as it gets, handles transfer of horsepower to the front wheels.
This is a practical four-door with a large cargo area under a hatch that could easily satisfy many if not most buyers of family vehicles. The annual savings in fuel costs will be significant for a Prius owner, which has an estimated yearly fuel usage bill of $362. There is very little left to wish for in a hybrid, except perhaps more body style choices. The 2004 Toyota Prius is equipped much as any "normal" car, serves family duties admirably, stickers under $20,000, yet returns astounding mileage figures in town or cruising the highway. Toyota has not stumbled on any small detail with this car. Everything, from proper exterior door handle design to a superb four-spoke steering wheel, is correct. And it's not a small car. No compromise is made in interior room to achieve the fuel efficiency. The only fly in the ointment here seems to be that demand is outrunning Toyota's ability to produce Priuses as this is written (December 2003). At least two friends reported identical eight-month delivery delays when they sought to buy a 2004 Toyota Prius. One is waiting; one bought another Toyota.