It's a clean, green machine.

by Mike Quincy

Base Price (MSRP) $19,995
As Tested (MSRP) $20,548

The Toyota Prius sedan has a different way for getting you from point A to point B: This "hybrid" vehicle combines environmentally sensitive electric power with traditional four-cylinder gasoline power. This gas-and-electric combination makes the compact, four-door sedan extremely clean running and produces amazing fuel-efficiency-up to 52 miles per gallon in stop-and-go city driving.

With most urban areas choked with commuter traffic during morning and evening rush hours, the Prius makes for a comfortable and quiet cocoon to help maintain your sanity when the surrounding traffic can barely maintain the speed limit.

The Prius is Toyota's first foray into the "green" automotive marketplace, and joins the much smaller Honda Insight as the only gas-and-electric-powered vehicles for sale in the U.S.

The hybrid system is easy because it requires no commitment from the driver: You don't have to tell the car to switch to either the gas or electric motor-it does it automatically. Plus, you also don't have to plug the Prius in at night to recharge it, as the gas, electric and battery system is self-contained and recharges itself while you're driving. Under medium acceleration, the gas and electric motor work together to provide the power you need to merge on the highway. When you only need a little power, say for stop-and-go driving in traffic, the gas engine shuts off. What throws you off during your first drive is how the cabin goes silent when you come to a complete stop-since the engine isn't needed, it shuts down. Normally, with this quiet a cabin you'd think that the engine had stalled. Plus, when you're sitting in traffic with the gas engine off, the Prius emits zero emissions. This helps the Prius earn the tough SULEV rating, for super low-emissions vehicle.

Model Lineup

The Prius ($19,995) is available only in a single model, albeit a fully loaded one. Standard equipment includes an automatic transmission, remote keyless entry, ABS, alloy wheels, air conditioning with automatic climate control, an AM/FM cassette, and power everything. A navigation system and CD player are among the few available options.

Walkaround

A new design trend popular among small cars is an upright stance, which can be seen in the Toyota Echo and Ford Focus. This provides the Prius with a cabin that looks taller than most. Still, even with this taller stance, the Prius looks like a crisply styled four-door economy car-nothing more, nothing less. It isn't likely to get noticed at a stoplight, and won't attract as much attention as the Honda Insight hybrid, but it's not unattractive either.

Interior Features

At first glance, the Prius's interior looks high-tech. A small touch-panel display monitor in the center of the dashboard shows the energy flow between the gas engine and electric motor. At first, it can be somewhat distracting, as you constantly glance down to see whether the gas engine is kicking in; but it can be shut off entirely. The touch-panel monitor also allows setting radio stations and other audio controls.

A pod above the touch screen displays a digital speedometer, fuel gauge, turn signal indicator, and various warning lights. It's not in the driver's immediate field of vision, though, and its central location may require two glances for information traditionally displayed in front of the driver.

The oddest interior feature is the dashboard-mounted gear selector for the automatic transmission. Instead of attaching it to the steering column or mounting it in between the front seats, Toyota seems to have taken a page out of the old taxi cab school of design: The Prius's transmission shifter operates much like the lever a cabbie yanks as soon as the ride begins and he starts the meter. With the Prius, you must push a button mounted at the end of the stalk and then move the lever down to engage a gear. It takes a little getting used to because it's unlike other gear selectors. The downside to this design is that when the lever is in drive, the end of the stalk blocks access to the volume control knob for the stereo system.

The trunk accommodates nearly 12 cubic feet of stuff. In everyday language, that translates to a trunk big enough to hold a folding baby stroller with room left over.

Driving Impressions

The taller stance of the Prius design makes getting into the cabin much easier than a low-slung sports car, and there's plenty of headroom both front and rear. Tasteful fabric covers the seats, and the front and rear cushions are comfortable. The rear seats, while not overly spacious, are large enough to accommodate a child safety seat (tether anchors for child seats are standard). However, Toyota's claim that this is a "roomy, five-passenger family sedan" is a bit of a stretch; only two medium-sized people have adequate room in the rear bench seat.

When you turn the key to start the engine prepare for a pause-it acts like it's waking up from a nap and is reluctant to go. There is nothing mechanically wrong, though; the engine fires up a split-second later and the monitor shows that all systems are go.

Part of the Prius system is its continuously variable transmission, or CVT, which comes standard. You don't feel the normal "thump" when the automatic transmission shifts gears. Instead, stepping on the gas produces a steady and smooth stream of acceleration.

Because the 1.5-liter four-cylinder gas engine produces only 70 horsepower, the Prius is merely an adequate performer. It's not a nightmare to merge into faster moving traffic, but overall speed is not this car's specialty. Instead, the Prius gets a Grade-A for handling the transportation chore that makes up the majority of most people's driving duties: accelerate up to 40 mph, apply the brakes, come to a stop, wait for the light to turn green, and then start the process over. Handling day-to-day commuter traffic is what the Prius is all about. With the near-silent gas and electric engines, seamless transmission, and a good four-speaker stereo system, the Prius cabin creates a soothing environment, when you're trapped in a typically not-so-soothing rush hour.

Plus, with the gas engine shutting down when you're waiting for the traffic to move, the Prius gets its best mileage-per-gallon in this type of city driving; contrary to most cars, the Prius burns no fuel when it isn't making forward progress. As a result, the EPA estimates that the Prius is good for 619 miles of urban crawl between fuel stops.

The ride is typical for a small car: You're not jostled around too much going over bumps and freeway expansion joints, but it's not as smooth as a larger car. The suspension system and narrow tires produce a handling feel that is safe and secure, although not sporty.

Anti-lock brakes bring the Prius to a halt with little drama. The brakes feel a little touchy at first, but they never grab too harshly.

Final Word

Toyota offers the Prius as an environmentally friendly car for the masses. Fortunately, you won't look like a freak driving it because the Prius looks like any other economy car. It's designed to handle the daily grind of driving on exceedingly congested roads while it delivers fuel-economy numbers that would make a diesel engine jealous. Unfortunately, the price for such eco-thinking is in the neighborhood of $20,000. The Prius is not a large car; that makes it easy to park, but you may sometimes feel out of place in a nation of big sport-utilities.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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