Driving Impressions – April 2011

2011 Toyota Prius: Getting Better With Age

By Greg Cavanaugh

Gallup Journey Driving ImpressionsThere’s no doubt about it.  The Toyota Prius is “the” hybrid.  For over a decade now, it has defined the genre . . . in fact, I didn’t even find it necessary to put “hybrid” in the title.

A recent blog post by Car and Driver magazine showed the Prius’s sales at 13,000 vehicles for the month of February. The blog then went on to state how GM hopes to sell 10,000 of its new “it” car, the Volt, for the entire year.  In fact, the blog pointed out that Toyota sells more Prii than all other manufacturers’ hybrids combined.  While other manufactures have some great hybrids out there, think Ford Fusion Hybrid, the Prius is more than just a great fuel-efficient car; it’s the crème de la crème, the Michael Jordan of hybrids, if you will.  In 2012 Toyota is hoping to capitalize on this popularity by expanding the Prius model with the Prius C (a smaller car) and the Prius V (a bigger one) in addition to the Prius you see here.

And like Michael Jordan, the Prius backs up the hype.  A reasonably priced, adequately roomy four door, it sets the benchmark for all others at 48 mpg highway/51 mpg city and 50 mpg combined.  Using a 1.8-liter, 4-cylinder on the Atkinson cycle that makes 98 hp and 105 lb. ft., combined with a Ni-Cad battery pack, CVT transmission and the electric motor, the total output is a more than adequate 134 hp and 153 lb. ft.

With all this technology working in concert to eek out uber mileage, the 2011 Prius was the first car I tested in almost 3 years that I needed a quick tutorial about before I left the lot.  Here’s why: Firstly, the Pruis does not use any kind of mechanical shift linkage from the center console shifter to the transmission, its all electric.  The “shifter” is used to tap the Prius into “Drive” or “Reverse” but then returns to its home position (it doesn’t stay in “Drive”). “Park” is not a shift at all, but simply involves pushing the Park button. While not difficult, it can be easy to forget, allowing the Prius to roll away as you try to get out.

Secondly, the third-gen. Prius offers three different driving modes: Economy, Power and EV (electric vehicle).  While some cars offer similar modes, this is the first car I’ve driven where the modes are so drastically different.  While not typically thought of as a “driver’s car,” using the various modes for different situations actually makes the Prius quite engaging.

  • In Eco mode, the Prius is all about maximum mileage.  The throttle is SLOW and the engine is super quick to shut off whenever possible.  At times I even found myself loafing along at 25 mph on electric only.
  • In Power mode, the Prius is an entirely different animal.  Summoning all the electric and gas needed, the bottom end torque is compelling and can even chip the tires . . . not typical Prius fare, and dare I say almost spirited!  This, of course, hurts economy some, but makes merging onto the freeway, passing on a 2-lane or climbing some of Gallup’s super-steep hills more manageable.
  • EV may be a bit of a hoax, as I really couldn’t get it to do much.  It’s not intended to put the Prius in full EV lock, but rather to allow creeping along in parking lots and bumper-to-bumper traffic mainly on electric.  EV mode requires a full battery charge and anything over around 7 mph turns it off.  In essence, it doesn’t really get you far.

Lastly, the Prius allows the driver to choose the amount of regenerative braking they want by toggling the center shift level into and out of “B.”  This mode is mainly used more as an engine brake or hill descent control than to boost economy.  With Gallup’s many hills, however, it’s actually quite useful.

Being the third generation of the Prius, Toyota has worked to continually perfect it, while still maintaining all that is “Prius.”  Outwardly there’s no mistaking you’re driving a Prius.  The trademark shape – some call it “fish,” others “wedge” – is still instantly identifiable, but now in a larger size, making the third-gen Prius more comfortable and more capacious.  The split window hatchback design is still present, too, making for the perfect obstruction every time you look in the rearview mirror. It’s tolerable and it may better help the Prius hit its impressive 0.25 drag coefficient number, but I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a better solution from Toyota.  The wind noise on the highway was more than I expected, too.  While more than tolerable, with a Cd this low I’d think it would be virtually non-existent. What impresses me most is Toyota’s ability to package a battery pack, gas tank, spare tire and trunk space into the rear of the car while not infringing on the rear seat space or forcing the driver to go run-flat with an air can.

Inside the Prius uses a floating center stack that puts everything within easy reach, but takes some getting used to.  There’s an open space and shelf below that is relatively large, but a little hard to access, making its practicality marginal.  The Prius’s plastics are not top-shelf and are all of the hard variety.  While not ugly, they’re also not particularly welcoming either and on a cold Gallup morning they squeaked all the way to work. High up in the dash, just under the windshield, is the Prius’s informational display.  Switching between several different screens allows the driver to access different information.  While not as cool and engaging as the Fusion’s growing leaves display, I still used it a lot.  I particularly liked the screen that shows how the Prius’s power is being used, battery capacity, and when charge is being created.  Annoyingly, the Prius beeps incessantly when you put it into reverse . . . on the inside.  If this is defeatable via driver’s settings, I couldn’t figure out how to do it.

Keeping the options list short makes the Prius a very attractive vehicle.  At $24,578 out the door, this base trim level Prius had power windows, locks and mirrors, cruise control, and A/C.  Interestingly, even the base model includes a smart key, just leave it in your pocket and use the start/stop button for ignition and touch the door handle to lock/unlock the car.  This is my second experience with a smart key and I love it.  I’m not sure of its long-term dependability, but it certainly eliminates ignition key tumbler wear and tear.  The Prius has lots of cool options available to feed your inner techy like roof mounted solar panels, LED headlamps, etc.  Frankly though, with its incredible fuel economy, varying driving modes and decent space, a base Prius makes a compelling case for everyone to start driving a hybrid.

To see more of the Prius and some of its features check out my short video on Youtube.  Just search for “Gallup Journey.” Check it out and leave me a comment or two!

A special thanks to Jim at Amigo Toyota for setting me up with this Prius on such short notice.

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