Sometimes an automaker can hit a line drive into center field, bounce it into the warning track, and get a decent double or triple. Others knock the ball completely out of the park. Still others swing one, two, and three times and they’re out of the ole ball game. In 2004, Toyota managed to do the unthinkable – a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning of the World Series to beat the Yankees by one.
That grand slam was the second generation Prius, built between 2004 and 2009. Built during a time of sub-$2 gasoline, the Prius promised an unheard-of 48 MPG around town, with many users reporting even-higher fuel economy numbers. But few bought these vehicles at first, save for Californians who took advantage of the little yellow HOV stickers, which allowed them to drive solo in the otherwise empty carpool lane while other traffic was mired in its own congestion.
But I digress. Under the hood is Toyota’s 1NZ series four cylinder engine, displacing 1.5 liters and producing the princely sum of 73 horsepower at full tilt. The electric motor produces another 60 horsepower and just under 300 ft/lbs of torque, providing plenty of get up and go from the starting line. As an added bonus, the gasoline engine will shut off when not needed under ~40 MPH and run on electricity alone, providing a significant boost to fuel economy around town. Both motors are seamlessly mated to a CVT transmission via Toyota’s patented hybrid synergy drive.
The EPA reckons this car is good for 48 MPG around town and 45 MPG on the highway. A year (and 30,000 miles) after buying this car, I can truly say YMMV. Your mileage will vary. The car’s computer tracks what fuel mileage you’re getting, and I’ve had one tank of gas as high as 63 MPG, probably driving 55 in the slow-poke lane with the windows up, air conditioner off. Or something like that. I’ve also had as low as 37 MPG, driving like a tool on I-68 through the mountains of West Virginia and western Maryland. In practice, I’ve come to expect anything between 45 and 55 MPG – which is miles ahead of the competition in almost every imaginable respect. I’ve found myself stopping at gas stations for other things – milk, chips, snacks, beer, etc. – but not needing to buy any gas.
Interior room is impressive and the seats are surprisingly well-constructed, provided you put a seat cover on them. I didn’t for the center armrest/console, and within a few months the collected dirt, grease, and sweat from my right arm is noticeable. I’ve tried scrubbing it out with little luck. Within a couple years, it will probably be about as sanitary as a hog’s barn – and by this point, the armrest will have to be fumigated, cremated, and buried at sea.
The cargo capacity is in most respects like a midsize car, with one glaring exception: the trunk will not fit a golf bag. It is about three inches too narrow for a golf bag to be laid sideways in the trunk, due to the plastic vent for the hybrid battery taking up the space. Consequently, I have to lower the rear seats and place the golf bag in length-wise. That’s annoying.
As to performance, I have had little problem keeping up with other traffic on the highway – I’ve never felt like a liability out on the road. That said, performance drops off considerably above 75 MPH, forcing you to plan highway merges and passes ahead of time.
I must be perfectly clear, however – this is not a performance car. It’s actually the anti-performance car of the century. Toyota’s traction control, ABS, and VSC (vehicle stability control) are all incredibly aggressive in the Prius, ostensibly to protect the hybrid drive. Unfortunately, it won’t let you spin the wheels, drift, burnout, or indeed, to do anything to prove your manliness.
The suspension in the standard Prius is quite roly-poly around corners, too. I recommend getting the Touring version, which includes a tighter suspension and premium 16” wheels (my ’07 has the wheels but not the suspension).
As far as reliability goes, Toyota has really done themselves well. The reliability of this Prius has been second to none. It’s never left me stranded, it’s never overheated, and precisely zero things have broken inside the car since I bought it. The only things I’ve replaced in a year was a headlight, the 12 volt battery that came originally with the car, and I swapped out Toyota’s wimpy horn for a beefier one.
Verdict: As a method of reliable, fuel-efficient, safe personal transportation, this car is as brilliant as it gets. As a track car, though, I’d rather go on a bus than drive one of these.