Michael Fisher: The Toyota Prius is to hybrids what the iPod is to portable music devices - it's the icon by which all other hybrids are measured.

Vanessa Leigh: And although it's been around since 2001, the 2004-to-2009 Prius is the generation where the Prius came into its own.

Micheal: This generation has better fuel economy than the Prius before it, it offers more creature comforts, and is larger than the first-gen Prius.

Vanessa: In fact, even though you might think of the Prius as a compact, inside it's almost as big as a Toyota Camry. And inside is where you'll find a wealth of standard features, very comfortable seats, and a futuristic two-tier instrument panel.

Michael: When shopping for a good used Prius, you may find some nice options like a JBL audio system, Navigation with backup camera, leather seating, and Bluetooth hands-free calling.

Vanessa: But features like heated seats and a power moonroof aren't available at all. You have to go to the 2010 and newer Prius for that.

Michael: Some notes about model years; in '06 the Prius got a bit of a facelift, so you may notice some visual differences when shopping year to year.

Vanessa: And in 2007, seat-mounted front airbags were made standard, and a Touring trim was made available, with a stiffer suspension, and some of the optional features we mentioned included as standard equipment.

Michael: The Prius takes off smoothly thanks to the electric motor that powers its initial acceleration. With the battery fully charged, you can drive up to 30 miles per hour on electricity alone.

Vanessa: But after that, the 76 horsepower gas engine kicks in. The gas and electric motors combine to send 110 horsepower to the front wheels through a CVT transmission.

Michael: The payout is close to 45 miles per gallon highway, and city mileage of anywhere from 48 to 60, depending on how you drive.

Vanessa: It's not all rosy, though. There were several recalls of the Prius, including one on an airbag defect from '04 to '06.

Michael: There was also a recall related to the accelerator pedal, but Toyota says about 85 percent of the cars still on the road have already been repaired.

Vanessa: Still, the Prius gets great safety ratings, the only setback being '06 and earlier models without the optional side airbags. Those models get a POOR side impact rating in safety testing.

Michael: Check with your dealer to make sure all recalls have been addressed; if they haven't, your dealer will fix the car at no charge to you.

Vanessa: Taking a look at the competition, the Honda Civic Hybrid equals the Toyota hybrid's fuel economy at a lower price, but is not as versatile as the hatchback layout of the Prius.

Michael: There's also the Volkswagen Jetta TDI turbodiesel. Its highway mileage can often top that of the Prius, but the Jetta TDI may not be as trouble free as the Toyota Prius over a long period of time.

Vanessa: When it all comes down to it, the Prius is one of the most simple and practical fuel-efficient vehicles around. For added safety, we recommend the later models with the standard side airbags.

Michael: Many of those newer models may still have the original factory warranty, adding to the incredible peace of mind - for you and your wallet - of the 2004-to-2009 Toyota Prius.

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