Gas-saving Toyota Prius lives up to the hype |

Gas-saving Toyota Prius lives up to the hype

special to the daily
Special to the DailyIncludes: Hybrid synergy drive system with 1.5 liter engine, electronic continuously variable transmission, electronic power steering, push-button start, remote keyless entry, auto climate control, leather-trimmed seats, voice-activated DVD navigation system, JBL six-CD changer, rear backup camera, vehicle stability control.

Austere and angular but classy and cool, the Toyota Prius deserves its current reputation as one of the most popular and in-demand cars on the market. There’s very few other automobiles out there that can generate up to 60 miles per gallon; with gas prices still a concern and the hype about hybrid technology continuing to be a big (but perhaps slightly overblown) selling point, cars such as the Prius continue to remain a hot property.

Power in the Prius combines a super-efficient 1.5 liter four-cylinder Atkinson Cycle gasoline engine with the sophisticated electrical technology of an electric drive motor. Further refined by variable valve timing, the combined package produces 110 horsepower and produces EPA mileage estimates that seem like typos: 60 mpg in the city and 51 mpg on the highway. More on the reality of those claims in a second.

Driving power is indeed a little odd with the Prius, as it is with nearly any hybrid vehicle. Turn the vehicle on – and to do so you need to insert the keyless entry Smart Key fob into a slot on the dash, step on the brake and press the “Start” button – and you may not get any tangible response at all, save for a “Ready” light on the instrument panel.

Or, if it’s cold out and you’ve got the heater turned up already, the engine may whirr to life with a small shudder. With no tachometer, it’s hard to tell when the engine’s going or not, although that shudder-to-life syndrome seems to be consistent with Prius operations.

Getting underway is easy, albeit a little unorthodox (what isn’t in the Prius?). Take off the parking brake and put the car into gear using a small four-position shift knob that’s located on the dash just to the right of the wheel – with reverse, neutral, drive and an engine-braking mode for extra slowing power going down steep slopes – and away you go. If you’re lucky to have the nearly $7,000 Options Package No. 8, you’ll get a handy rear-view camera scene on the small color screen in the middle of the center stack, which is useful for safe backing.

General driving operations are relatively normal for a car but power feels curious at times, partially attributable to the continuously variable transmission and partially due to that subtle balance between gas and electric power. Things feel a bit forced at times and tackling steep uphill slopes requires a bit of patience – anyone with a big mountain pass or two as part of their commute may have to consign themselves to slow movement on the highway – but the little engine does what it can. Flat out on the freeway the Prius is fine but it requires a lot of gas pedal pressure to stay at speed.

You’ll also find the engine cycling on and off at stops, part of what promises to help you get as much as 60 miles per gallon in the city. During a week of traveling in very cold but dry conditions in the Front Range, we earned an average of 42 miles per gallon during highway and urban driving; you’ll apparently have to avoid long morning warm-ups, jackrabbit starts or … well, nearly any normal driving dynamics in order to get the Prius closer to those magical advertised numbers.

Interior design is contemporary if not a little strange, in keeping with all things Prius. The electronic speedometer and fuel level readouts are located on a small screen far, far ahead of the dash; most of the action on the dash is centered around that color screen (for navigation and practically all other functions), ringed as it is by a futuristic black plastic center stack with a six-CD in-dash changer and built-in storage. The touchscreen package includes the aforementioned rear backing camera, impeccable voice navigation and many of the car’s other basic controls, such as audio and climate. On the passenger side, the dash pops open both up and down to reveal twin glove boxes.

Seating in our Prius tester was all leather and mighty comfortable, with a driver’s seat position that put us in a good spot to see the road.

There’s a litany of design peculiarities that either add or subtract from the Prius experience; tiny aircraft-style windows in the front side window frames (just like the Subaru Tribeca, actually), plus a back window arrangement that includes an almost flat section on the rear roof (with its own wiper arm) and a darkened lower section pointed at a rear angle to the cabin. It’s very odd and a tad ungainly for sightlines.

Cabin finishing is otherwise handsome with stippled plastic on the dash and upper doors and a mix of leather (on the multi-, multi-function steering wheel, which even features temperature and map controls); polished black plastic and painted silver plastic shows up on the other surfaces.

Rear seating is relatively ample for the Prius’s size and the rear seat folds down to give you some nice space for your goods.

Is it the car for everyone? Probably not. But does it live up to the promises as a major fuel saver and purveyor of cutting-edge technology? Absolutely, although maybe not quite as much (fuel-wise) as the window sticker would have you believe.

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