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Toyota Prius (2001)

SEE ALSO: Toyota Buyer's Guide

by John Heilig


MODEL: Toyota Prius  
ENGINE: 1.5-liter four cylinder plus two permanent magnet motor generators. 
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE: 70 hp @ 4,500 rpm (gasoline)/82 lb-ft @ 4,200 rpm  
(gasoline), 258 lb/ft @ 0-400 rpm (electric) 
TRANSMISSION: Automatic variable gear ratio 
WHEELBASE: 100.4 in. 
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT: 169.6 x 66.7 x 57.6 in. 
STICKER PRICE:  $20,855 

Any vehicle with EPA estimated mileage ratings of 52 city and 45 highway has to attract your attention. And when you realize that the city rating is higher than the highway rating, you know something is going on.

This week's tester indeed has those ratings. It's the Toyota Prius, a hybrid gas/electric sedan that seats four and will do anything any other small sedan can do.

My first experience with a hybrid was with the Honda Insight. But the Insight is a two-seater with limited practicality. The Prius, on the other hand, is a full four-door sedan with seating for four in comfort. It has an 11.8 cubic foot trunk that we used to carry golf clubs, for example. We easily fit two bags in the trunk and would have had room for two more if we were driving a foursome to the course.

If it wasn't for the overly exotic readout gauge in the center of the instrument panel, you'd never know that you were driving a "different" car when you're behind the wheel of the Prius. All the habits you develop driving any other car are easily transferred to the Prius. There's no strangeness.

Oh sure, the gear lever is at a strange angle and it juts out from the dash, rather than the steering column or floor, but you learn to deal with that. One advantage of the odd location is to educate you that you do have a different car. One problem, though, ios that when the lever is in Drive, you can't see the radio station readout, so it's hard to tell where the station is.

You also have to think when you're shifting. While the shift pattern is the standard P-R-N-D-L, the readout is in the center of the dash, and the mechanism is different enough that you have to look to be sure you're in the right gear.

Prius' primary power is provided by an efficient all-aluminum 1.5-liter gasoline engine rated at 70 horsepower. Th electric drive motor is a permanent-magnet design that requires little maintenance as its internal componentry never wears. It produces maximum power of 44 horsepower from 1,040-5,600 rpm and maximum torque of 258 lb/ft from0-400 rpm.

Electronic controls make up the Toyota Hybrid system that tells Prius whether to operate on either electricity or gasoline alone, or a combination of both. The ratio of power provided by each system is constantly controlled, depending on speed and load, to keep the vehicle in its most efficient operating mode.

All this is invisible to the driver. You drive the Prius like any other small sedan, and don't realize that the electric motor is supplementing the gasoline engine and vice-versa.

Of course, you do know you're in something different. The exterior styling, while similar to the Toyota Echo, is slightly more aerodynamic. This results in even better fuel economy.

Inside, the seating positions are higher in the front and rear, resulting in a more "chair-like" seating position, and offering better visibility. The instrument panel is also located high and at the base of the windshield, so the driver doesn't have to change focus that much to see what's going on. The instruments themselves are unique, giving fuel economy, power used, power available, and regenerated power over the last three hours in 30-minute increments (which I felt was useless).

One advantage of the hybrid system in both the Prius and Insight is that regenerative braking recharges the batteries, so there's no need to plug the car into the wall to recharge the batteries every night. This is why I feel hybrids have a more probable success chance that electrics. Also, the range is infinitely more practical. In regenerative braking, when the vehicle is coasting or the brakes are applied, the computer turns the motor into a generator, capturing kinetic energy to recharge the batteries.

Also, the braking system is a "brake by wire" design. When the brake pedal is initially depressed, a computer sends a signal to the regenerative system to begin to slow the vehicle. As more braking power is required, the computer phases in the standard hydraulic brakes. Front disc brakes are teamed with rear drums, and ABS is standard.

Ride quality is decent for a small car. The front suspension uses MacPherson struts and the rear a torsion beam for decent small-car ride quality. It's as good as some and better than most.

All in all, the Toyota Prius is an excellent choice for a small car that has essentially zero environmental impact. It's relatively economical (it's about half the price of an electric car), and it'll save you gas money in this era of high gas prices.