2010 Toyota Prius — ‘more of the same’ is a surprisingly dramatic improvement

2010_toyota_priusFor all the love it’s gotten from hundreds of thousands of customers, there are many people who have never figured out the appeal of the Toyota Prius. The second generation of this popular gas-electric hybrid, sold from the 2004 through the 2009 model years, was a compact economy car priced alongside bigger or more luxurious vehicles well over $20,000. Many wrote off that car as overpriced and its followers as blindly addicted to hype.

In the conventional sense, the 2010 redesign of the Prius is far from radical. The outgoing car’s familiar shape is retained, and most improvements are incremental. It looks as though the new Prius is the same as before but just a little better.

But improvements to the new Prius’s ride quality, noise suppression, and interior space have boosted it well above the feel of its predecessor, which not only felt like an economy car but was often criticized for not feeling like an especially good economy car. It now has the refinement and practicality to truly rival a midsize sedan rather than just a compact one, making it at $23,000 as tested a substitute for a comparable $19,000 midsize sedan rather than just a $15,000 compact one. And at the same time, gas mileage has further increased – the EPA rates it at 51 miles per gallon in the city and 48 on the highway – further helping offset that extra cost.

Some criticisms of the car will remain. It’s still less than nimble for its size, and its steering is very light and numb and not overly quick to respond. The regenerative braking system, which uses the brakes to help recharge its electric motor, gives the pedal a grabby feel. The interior layout remains unusual, with a near-center digital speedometer and an assortment of fuel-related displays. And if you drive it just like any other car, you won’t likely get phenomenal gas mileage.

But even the outgoing Prius responded especially well to drivers who adapted to it, driving gently to accelerate on battery power without using gasoline or using the “pulse-and-glide” method of giving a punch of acceleration and then letting the car cruise its way back down. Any car, of course, would see decreased fuel usage under this sort of gentle behavior, but with the benefit of the gas-free electric ability, the Prius magnified these mileage gains. Adding to this, the 2010 Prius lets drivers select a mode to drive – “ECO” to blunt acceleration response to aid gas mileage and “Power” for the opposite, or “EV” (electric vehicle) to maximize use of the battery rather than the gas engine.

The Prius also is better than most cars about reminding drivers of their fuel usage. The Ford Fusion Hybrid has diagrams of leaves appear and disappear next to the speedometer depending on the driver’s behavior – the more gently you drive, the thicker your gauge-vine – but the Prius has a more scientific-looking set of figures and energy-flow diagrams stretching across the upper dash. If you’re not driving the Prius the way it’s meant to be driven, you’ll see the result immediately. The hybrid operation is seamless – in sharp contrast to the competing Honda Insight – whether you’re pushing the car or babying it.

Another unconventional design in the Prius’s interior is its automatic shifter, which pops back into center after a gear is selected rather than staying in “D” or “P.” You must rely on the dash indicator to be sure you’re in the right place, though it will chime when you select reverse. Some may find this needlessly complex, but the reduction in mechanical components on the gear selector at least opens up a large storage compartment underneath.

But other than a somewhat unusual grain to the interior’s plastics, the Prius’s interior is fairly conventional. The seats are comfortable and covered in a plush cloth that also adorns parts of the interior door panels. (Pricier Prius models come with leather.) New for 2010, drivers have a telescoping steering column that helps fine-tune the driving position, but the car’s aerodynamics-induced shape cuts rear visibility both out the small ¾ rear windows and out a two-level split rear windshield. There’s now more rear-seat headroom, but while more adults will now fit comfortably, some would still likely prefer the roof a bit higher. Toyota at least did not achieve more head space by mounting the seat too low, and a flat floor will help accommodate a fifth passenger. There isn’t stretch-out space, but the seats are well-designed to maximize what is there and keep things comfortable. Some might prefer larger front seat cushions, however; they’re neither especially wide nor especially long.

The Prius is rare among strong-selling cars for coming only as a hatchback, a body style popular in most of the world but frequently (and needlessly) frowned upon the United States. This hatchback offers the Prius more cargo space and versatility than a sedan, but the roof slopes down toward the rear to cut down on the space advantage compared to a sedan’s trunk behind the rear seats. It’s only when they’re folded flat that the Prius and like-styled hatchbacks will shine, for their ability to handle bulkier cargo.
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However, despite its midsize-level interior space and price, the Prius does remain a compact car that’s shorter and narrower even than a Toyota Corolla, useful in the tight quarters of city driving. Yet it feels more like a midsize Camry than a Corolla, with a smoother and quieter ride and a bigger, more solid feel, and tracking nicely at speed. But despite a tight turning radius – 17.1 feet – it also feels bigger than a compact car in corners. There does not seem to be anything inherent to the design of a hybrid in a lack of steering responsiveness and feel, but the Prius has both. Some drivers won’t mind, but even some who don’t indentify themselves as driving enthusiasts might still wish for something sharper from a small car. Many will find the Prius fun to drive in the sense of a fuel economy game, but no one will find it an enjoyable companion on a tight twisty road or even darting around city traffic.

But again, unlike other compact cars, the Prius now offers big-car comfort and refinement cruising at speed, and acceleration that’s more in line with 4-cylinder family sedans than compact ones. With the Toyota Camry, itself no sporting machine, as the country’s best selling car, that seems to be a successful route to take.

And the Prius has little serious competition at its mileage game.

There’s the new 2010 Honda Insight, which offers similar styling but much lower gas mileage, a cramped rear seat, and a stiff and noisy ride. It boasts better handling at a lower price to compensate for this, but these advantages are surprisingly slight. Honda also sells a hybrid version of its Civic sedan, which is a more refined but less eye-catching than the Insight, but doesn’t approach the Prius’s mileage either.

There’s the Volkswagen Jetta TDI, a diesel compact sedan or hatchback that’s also refined and feels luxurious for the price. It’s no sports car, but it’s also more fun to drive than other high-mileage vehicles, both from its sharper handling and available manual transmission. But with EPA ratings topping out at 30 mpg city / 41 highway, it’s a league below the hybrids.

There are also hybrids of several true midsize sedans: the Ford Fusion / Mercury Milan, the Nissan Altima, and the Toyota Camry. While bigger than the Prius, they’re also pricier and thirstier.

But when you shop the Prius, there are other competitors you must consider: standard fuel-efficient gas-powered cars. You get diminished fuel savings among the most efficient cars; getting 50 miles per gallon in a Prius compared to 30 in a Corolla shaves 40 percent off your gas bill, but your gas bill in a Corolla is already low.

The Prius is now roomier and more refined than a Corolla, but if you’re just looking for inexpensive transportation, it or its solid competitors would be a worthy choice for as much as $10,000 less than a comparable Prius. That buys a lot of gas.

For its new improvements, the Prius not only improves life for the hybrid lover, but gives more mainstream buyers a better reason to look twice. Don’t let the similar look fool you, the new Prius is a different car and one that makes sense for a broader segment of the market.


One Response

  1. May I please use the Toyota Pruis pic for my science fair project?

    Contact me asap at hapa_kid@yahoo.com

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