2008 Toyota Prius: Green-friendly mid-size is constantly evolving
By Mike Blake, Carlisle Events
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Toyota, the world leader in sales of gas-electric hybrid vehicles, will build its first plug-in hybrid by 2010. That puts Toyota head-to-head with General Motors in the plug-in arena, as GM has plans to sell its own plug-in, the Volt, in 2010.
To hit that deadline, Toyota is developing a fleet of plug-in hybrids that run on lithium-ion batteries, instead of the nickel-metal hydride batteries that currently power Toyota’s Prius and other models. The next generation of hybrids can be recharged externally, from ordinary power outlets. In a conventional hybrid the battery is recharged from power generated by its wheels.
But before plug-ins take over, Toyota already has the No.1-selling hybrid, its Prius, now in the final year of its current generation. As early as the next model year, Prius will be built with a new hybrid drive, offering new batteries that will be lighter than the current generation and will offer greater performance. This new battery pack will be similar to the lithium-ion batteries debuted in Toyota’s FT-HS hybrid concept.
Prius, Toyota’s flagship hybrid, is Latin for "to go before". The wedge-shaped environmentally attentive car is the green-friendly preference among American buyers and the Hollywood favorite of such ecology-minded celebrities as Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, Angelina Jolie, Harrison Ford, Kirstin Dunst, Leonardo DiCaprio, Owen Wilson, Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez and Billy Crystal.
The 2008 Prius has evolved into more than simply an econo-car, as additional option packages add quality, style and tiers of luxury to its selling point as the mid-size that gets 48 mpg in city driving and 45 mpg on the highway. My week of testing yielded about 43 mpg, as I got lower mileage than advertised, in the city.
The standard four-door hatchback retails at $20,950, and the upscale Touring Prius is base-priced at $23,220. The Prius Touring trim is differentiated from the standard trim with a larger rear spoiler, alloy wheels and high-density headlamps. With such add-ons as the Toyota antiskid system, navigation system, rearview camera, keyless access and starting, JBL AM/FM radio with in-dash 6-disc CD/MP3 changer, digital-media player connection, wireless cell phone link, universal garage door opener, alarm, leather upholstery, leather-wrapped steering wheel, first-aid kit, cargo net, floormats and Satellite radio, you can expect to pay an additional $4298. Add destination charges of $660 and you can drive out a lavish, environment-saver such as my test ride, for about $28,178 plus tax and license.
On the road, I found the Prius ride and handling to be hesitant, while the steering was slow-reacting. Acceleration and passing are not the vehicle’s strong points, but it does contend with traffic at acceptable speeds and it can pass slower-moving cars. Performing and riding in a manner one would expect from a sub-compact, road irregularities are felt within the cabin, and there is more road noise inside than I would have expected, but there was never a feeling of instability during my tests.
Not billed as a fast car … my test Prius lived up to that reputation, as my zero-to-60mph times were in the mid-10s, and my best quarter-mile time was 18.5 seconds. But one doesn’t buy a Prius to win dragstrip heats. The Prius is a “green” buy that protects the earth and saves you from spending your greenbacks at the pump.
The power behind Prius is a 1.5-liter four-cylinder (I-4) Atkinson-Cycle gasoline engine combined with an electric drive motor to purr out a combined 100 horsepower and peak torque of 295 lbs./ft. The gasoline engine produces 76 horsepower and 82 lb.-ft. of torque, with a Variable Valve Timing with intelligence (VVT-i) plant helps to optimize power delivery across the engine speed range. The permanent-magnet electric drive motor produces its maximum power of 50 kW (67 horsepower). A full hybrid, the Prius can operate independently on either gas or electric power, or a combination of both, and while the switch from electric to gas is not 100-percent seamless, there is little shudder or notice when the system moves from one source to the other.
Built with safety in mind, Prius is armed with advanced dual-stage front airbags that inflate according to collision severity. The front passenger seat sensor is equipped with an occupant classification system to verify the front passenger's weight category to determine whether the airbag should inflate. My test vehicle was also outfitted with a rear back-up camera that displays the image on the cockpit DVD screen. Also on-board are anti-lock brake system, brake assist and electronic brake-force distribution that work in concert to apply optimum braking response when called upon.
In the cabin, Prius provides a surprisingly roomy 14.4 cubic-feet of cargo space and comfortable front and rear seats. Intuitive controls and redundant fingertip operation on the steering wheel make for a pleasing interior experience with the cabin upgrades mentioned earlier. Smart Key operation can unlock the doors and start the engine with the key fob in your pocket and a push of the dashboard power button.
Prius is plugged into the public’s desire for green-friendliness, and soon, it will be plugged in literally, for re-charging at home.
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