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Review: 2003 Toyota Prius - Hybrid

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SEE ALSO: Toyota Buyer's Guide

By Andrew Frankl, European Bureau Chief

It may sound a bit bitchy but none of my colleagues have taken the trouble to spend a week behind the wheel of this fascinating hybrid. Maybe they thought they would be laughed at by the neighbors used to fancy automobiles turning up in their drives.

Well, I cannot pretend that some of my neighbors did not pass comments but the last laugh was definitely on them. With gas prices at $2.50 a gallon I had to chuckle as the huge SUVs lined up at the gas station while yours sincerely just cruised serenely on, averaging 45 miles per gallon. Aha, I hear you say, at 10 miles per hour we could have got better mileage as well. Wrong!

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The Prius proved to be a total surprise. First of all it is terribly easy to drive. You start the engine, which is barely audible incidentally- get hold of the somewhat bizarre gearlever, put it into D and that’s it.
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The seats are perfectly comfortable and to my surprise there is lots of room in the back. The trunk swallowed two large golf bags with room to spare.

What was it like to drive? Interesting.

Firstly because it managed to upset lots of other drivers, in a totally innocent way I hasten to add. People’s perception of the Prius is by and large that of retired professors trying to save the World doing maybe 15 miles per hour. Well, maybe that is partly true, I certainly came across some of them in peace-loving Mill Valley, California but should you decide to drive it hard the Prius will do the most unexpected things. Such as keeping up with absolutely everybody on Highway 101. 75? No problem. 80? No problem. Over 80, no comment.

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I am not pretending that the steering is as razor sharp is a BMW and clearly, at 80 miles per hour it will be a lot noisier than a Jaguar but for 21 thousand dollars at over 40 miles per gallon! For 21 grand you get optional side air bags, a very neatly installed compact disc deck and cruise control as well.

Negatives: of course. What I call the deliberate error, every car has one regardless of price, is something really silly this time. The shiny, shallow plastic cup holders, the standard size mineral water bottle simply flew out of it as soon as I put my foot on the brake and landed under the pedals. Not nice but-provided it did not lead to an accident the first time- easy to avoid.

The brakes are sort of all right; just don’t have a sharp, responsive feel that one would have preferred. The radio and its controls are exceedingly modest affairs although the number of speakers is just amazing. Shame about the sound quality.

Driving the Prius in and around San Francisco was very pleasant indeed. The auto box made the hills of Divisidero easy to cope with and all the while I kept looking at the gauge indicating 45-50 miles per gallon. Is the Prius a car for all seasons? Certainly not. During the recent snow storms on the East Coast it would have been well and truly stuck. Going skiing in the Sierras with four people and all the gear would have been equally hopeless. School runs with three kids-perfect. Shopping for the family- equally perfect. As an only car? Only climates where 4x4s are not called for.

With all the current publicity the Prius is receiving it must be the only car in the United States without a rebate or cash back, a remarkable state of affairs. The problem for Toyota is that making money out of it has been a problem; the hybrid is not cheap to make. On the other hand, now that they’ve established the principle-together with Honda- There will be all sorts of derivatives which will be more profitable. I am sure Detroit is fully aware of the implications and will be producing hybrids of its own in the near future.

I do think that the price of gas combined with the adverse publicity SUVs have been receiving lately is making the trend away from them accelerate, and even though I’ve driven some very fast and exotic cars in my time if push came to shove and I had to drive a Prius it really and truly would not be the end of the World.

That is not to suggest that I would welcome a future without Ferraris and BMWs but the way things are going…