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2010 Toyota Prius test drive

For better and for worse

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating
User Rating 3.5 Star Rating (2 Reviews)

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2010 Toyota Prius front view

2010 Toyota Prius front view

Photo © Aaron Gold

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For 2010, Toyota has brought out an all-new version of its Prius hybrid. Like the old Prius, the new Prius is designed to deliver maximum MPG with family-car practicality. But within those parameters, Toyota has made a lot of changes: Sleeker styling, redesigned cabin, and an improved hybrid drivetrain that gives the driver greater control over the Prius' behavior. The old Prius did the job as well as can be expected -- so has Toyota made any meaningful improvements? Read on. $23,510 base price, $31,430 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 51 MPG city/48 MPG highway.

First Glance: I love you just the way you are

Larger photos: Front - rear - all photos

When I heard that Toyota was redesigning the Prius for 2010, my first thought was "Why?" Few cars carry out their intended mission better than the Prius. I bet Toyota could build it as-is for ten years and sales would still remain strong. But that's not the way things go in the auto business, and so change it they have: The Prius is all-new for 2010, for better or for worse. And while there is definitely some better, there is also a fair bit of worse.

Let's start with the styling. There's really not a whole lot the stylists can do with the Prius; the old model was designed to cheat the wind rather than please the eye, which pretty much dictates the shape. (That's why Honda came up with a similar profile for their own four-door dedicated hybrid, the Insight.) As a result, the new Prius looks a lot like the old Prius, at least at first glance. Look closer and you'll see a more Toyotaesque face up front, a more pronounced wedge profile from the side, and a racy little spoiler out back. I was indifferent to the new shape at first, but the more new Priuses I see on the road -- here in Los Angeles, the Prius is as common as tall mocha lattes and silicon boobs -- the more I like the new shape. It makes the old Prius look frumpy by comparison. Overall, I'd say the new shape goes in the For Better category.

In the Driver's Seat: What were they thinking?

2010 Toyota Prius dashboard

2010 Prius dash looks good -- but what's with that silly center console?

Photo © Aaron Gold

Larger interior photo

The Prius' cabin definitely has some For Better changes: A roomier back seat and a bigger trunk. Unfortunately, that's about all of the For Better, and there's a whole lot of For Worse.

Example numero uno is the sweeping center console that divides the front seats. This is one design choice that has me scratching my head. Buying a Prius is all about being a good citizen of the planet -- so why design an interior that isolates the driver in his or her own little pod? The center console provides a more conventional location for the shift lever, though why anyone would possibly care is beyond me. It's an automatic, for cryin' out loud! Aside from that, the console just gets in the way. There's a storage area underneath which pretty much useless; anything you put there is going to a) block the seat heater controls -- which, by the way, are so inconveniently located that I can't believe Toyota came up with them -- and b) fall out on turns.

Example numero dos is the new instrument layout. The old Prius had a simple center-mounted digital gauge cluster. If you wanted more geeky information, like how power was flowing through the hybrid system or what sort of fuel economy you were achieving in five-minute increments, it was available on the same LCD screen that served the climate, stereo and navigation systems. The 2010 Prius still has the LCD screen, but Toyota designed a new geekometer into the dashboard next to the speedometer. Problem is, they used a cheap blue-and-red LCD display, which looks cheesy and decidedly low-tech.

On the Road: Better where it counts

In terms of the mechanicals, it's all For Better. Toyota designed the new Prius to provide more power and get better fuel economy. The engine size is up from 1.5 to 1.8 liters, and there are now three driver-selectable powertrain modes: Normal, Sport and Eco. In Normal mode, the Prius drive, well, normally -- just like an old-shape Prius. Sport mode -- an odd choice of names, since there's nothing sporty about the Prius -- changes the accelerator pedal response so you get more power with less movement of the pedal. It doesn't actually make the car faster, but it does provide quicker access to what power the Prius does have.

Eco mode tunes the accelerator response to help you get maximum MPG by accelerating from a stop more gingerly and responding slowly to sudden movements of the accelerator pedal, basically automating a method used by experienced hypermilers to get maximum MPG. Like the old Prius, the new Prius can run on pure battery power and low speeds, and there's now an EV button that forces electric-only mode, which is useful for moving the car from one parking spot to another, but not much else.

I spent most of my time in Eco mode, figuring that most Prius owners would do the same. It worked: I averaged 48.9 MPG, a significant improvement over the 45 or so I averaged in all the second-generation Priuses I tested. I also noticed that the new Prius grips the curves better than the old Prius, although it's fun-to-drive factor is still almost nil.

Journey's End: Should be a slam dunk, but...

2010 Toyota Prius rear view

2010 Toyota Prius: Same familiar shape, but now with a little more style

Photo © Aaron Gold

The 2010 Prius has a couple of other cool gizmos, like a button on the key fob that lets you run the A/C remotely and a solar-powered ventilator fan that is supposed to keep the interior cool when the car is off (a neat idea, but it was no match for the hot Southern California sun).

But at the end of the day, the Prius is all about fuel economy, and the fact is that the 2010 Toyota Prius not only gets better gas mileage than the old Prius (as well as every other new car on the market), but it makes it easier to hit those stellar numbers. So it should be a slam dunk for the Prius... except it isn't.

Try as I might, I just can't get over the interior, with that intrusive center console and hideous dash display. I prefer the simplicity of the old Prius, even if that means getting 4 fewer miles per gallon (which, at 12,000 miles per year, only saves about 22 gallons).

If you're in the market for a Prius, check out the diesel-powered Volkswagen Jetta TDI, which gets 45 MPG and is a lot more fun to drive. And then there's the Honda Insight. It's smaller than the Prius and uses more gas, but it's got a lower starting price and more personality. Of course, if you really want to help free us from our dependence on oil, check out the natural-gas-powered Honda Civic GX, a fantastic car that uses no gasoline at all.

Bottom line: For better or for worse, the Prius is still the best hybrid on the market. I just wish Toyota hadn't changed it quite so much. -- Aaron Gold

Next page: Pros, cons, who should buy it, details and specs

User Reviews

Reviews for this section have been closed.

 5 out of 5
2010 Toyota Prius, Member trbizwiz

I'll start by saying I am a Honda guy. We have purchased 4 Honda's in a row, and all from the same dealership. They have been great cars (except for the pax system, and the fraud on the Odyssey fuel mileage), so I fully intended to buy the new 2010 Honda insight. But in the end I found the Prius more roomy, and comfortable, as well as more powerful, and efficient. On a recent trip we averaged 44 mpg's at 80 MPH, in freezing temperatures (which apparently effect mpg's in hybrids) Same trip we averaged 49.5 mpgs at 60 MPH. This is with a brand new car and we are new to hybrids and don't really know how to perfectly drive one yet. I must say I am very impressed. The car kind of grows on you. I would even go as far as to say it is kind of cute. It's fun factor comes from knowing you can travel 500 to 600 miles and only use 12 gallons of fuel. This car just makes you feel good when driving it. Also it has plenty of room for my 6'1"" 250 pound frame as well as my 2 children in the back seats both in car seats. And the storage in the hatch area was sufficient to pack all the Christmas gifts my children received from their grand parents. As to the middle storage area, I find it very convenient for my phone, and wallet. We don't have leather so seat heat isn't an issue. WE bought the III and it cost us $23349 out the door. It had the port added floor mats, and trunk organizer, which add about $500 to the MSRP. I wish the port would not add that stuff, as you could buy those items from a parts store for under $50. In fact we covered up the $200 floor mats with $20 all weather mats from Sam's club. They work wonderfully for wet feet and protect every inch of the floor area in the front. Also they do not seem to interfere with the accelerator pedal. My car also came free with the lifetime power train warranty, which is a nice added value. We bought this car to save money over the long haul. It will be cheaper for fuel, maint., insurance, and have excellent resale. I think these cars are worth a look, but if you plan on getting a really loaded car, you wont really ever appreciate the savings this car can provide.

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