2010 Toyota Prius: First Drive Over 60 Miles Per Gallon
By Chris Haak
Ask nearly any American to think of the word ‘hybrid’ in any context – including outside of the scope of the auto industry – and odds are that they’ll tell you that they have the Toyota Prius in mind, not some sort of horticultural creation. The Toyota Prius, just entering its third generation, is the car that out-sells every other hybrid vehicle on the market by a large margin. The Prius has practically become a mainstream vehicle,yet one that moves a little more slowly uses far less fuel than any other four-wheeled, mass-produced passenger vehicle sold in the US.
Ever since I attended the launches of both the 2010 Toyota Prius and the 2010 Honda Insight at the 2009 NAIAS in Detroit this past January, I’ve been anxious to drive both cars. I spent a week with a barely-broken-in 2008 Prius a year ago, and wasn’t crazy about its looks, performance, or passenger space, so I really wanted to see if Toyota was able to address those issues in the new version. A half-hour first drive isn’t the best way to get a feel for a car, but it at least gave the car a chance to make a first impression on me.
The first impression was positive. Actually, very positive. It’s amazing how a little sculpting on the side of a vehicle and two-inches-larger wheels can take a car from nerdy to nearly good-looking. The new car’s shape is far more interesting, yet is immediately recognizable as a Prius. The stance appears to be a bit wider as well, which helps with proportions (not to mention helping to alleviate a criticism that I had of the 2008 Prius – it’s too narrow). It’s hard to get a feel for a vehicle’s interior space from a brief solo test drive (which is why we generally prefer to evaluate vehicles for a week for a full review), but I didn’t feel cramped. Interestingly, however, a quick scan of the spec sheet shows dimensions between the 2009 and 2010 models to be very close, except for the curb weight (which grew by 152 pounds, from 2890 to 3,042). The wheelbase is the same, and the 2010 Prius only grew 0.6 inches in length, while adding 0.8 inches in width and 0.6 inches in height.
As I sat in the car for the first time, the improved interior design was obvious. It’s still a little spaceship-like with the all-digital instruments and unconventional gear shift, but it matches the overarching futuristic concept of the Prius. Plus, several BMWs have “unconventional” gearshifts as well. My test vehicle was a pre-production equivalent to the Prius III, which adds Bluetooth and a JBL audio system to the Prius II’s driver’s side smart key, pushbutton start, 15 inch wheels, three-mode ECU (eco, power, EV), four wheel disc brakes, power windows and locks, and tilt/telescopic steering wheel. It also included the solar-powered ventilation system, which is a pricey $3,600 option (but includes the $1,800 navigation system in the price). Overall, based on pricing released by Toyota last month, my test vehicle would probably have an MSRP of $27,350 including destination. ($22,000 for a Prius II, $1,000 for the Prius III upgrade, $3,600 for the solar roof/navigation package, and $750 for destination).
I have an interesting confession to make about the car’s performance: I didn’t test it. Yes, I drove the car – but only on a 6.1-mile loop. As I sat in the car for the first time and adjusted my seat, the Toyota representative asked me if I wanted to enter their fuel economy contest. Being a competitive person, I couldn’t resist. The rules were simple: the trip odometer/computer was reset and I had to tun a 6.1-mile loop that climbed a small mountain (40 mph speed limit), had some highway driving (55 mph speed limit), and some low-speed side-street travel (35 mph speed limit).
Toyota was smart to structure the Prius test drives the way they did; while Honda just turned journalists loose in the Insight, many of us somewhat obnoxiously floored the car and did what we could to get the maximum performance from the car. As a result, the Insight’s trip computer showed just over 36 miles per gallon. I was told that my bogey was 71 miles per gallon (followed by an, “I have no idea how he did that.”) so I turned off the air conditioning and closed all of the windows. I set the car in Eco mode and rolled gently out of the parking space. As the uphill portion began, I settled on a pace of about 35 miles per hour. Fortunately, there were no other cars behind me for the duration of my ascent. I glance at the trip computer showed about 27 miles per gallon. I knew that I had to step up my game. At least the 90-degree external temperature wasn’t affecting my comfort level at that point, thanks to the shade that the trees along the mountain route provided.
As I crested the hill, I noticed how well the Prius was able to coast. By the time I eased onto the four-lane (55 mph) highway stretch, I was going just over 40 miles per hour and the fuel economy number was already creeping into the mid-30s. Not wanting to press the car too hard for fear of burning too much fuel, I kept the speed to between 40 and 45 mph. I also had no interest in being an unsafe traffic impediment, so I kept an eye on my rearview mirror and kept the hazard flashers on. The course took me over a slight incline as I began the highway portion, but eventually I had the opportunity for some downhill travel, so I allowed the car to accelerate itself. I kept my speed to just below 65 miles per hour, and I was happy to see fuel economy in the 50 mpg range. Still, a glance at the trip odometer showed that I was over 5 miles into my 6.1-mile loop. Some quick mental math showed me that I’d have to get ridiculously-high fuel economy for the last mile to beat 71 miles per gallon.
As I exited the highway portion of the loop, I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, because the tree cover that had provided shade to my non-air conditioned car had given way to direct sunlight, and the interior temperature was easily over 100 degrees. With just a few more minutes to go, however, I sucked it up and kept going. Now that I was again on a slower side-street, I decided to try to engage the Prius’ EV mode, which won’t work above 25 mph, or if the battery isn’t at the proper level, or if the gas pedal is pressed too aggressively. No dice; I was only able to engage EV mode very briefly one time. However, having the air conditioning turned off kept the gasoline engine turned off as well. I noticed a line of cars approaching from behind, so I put on my hazard flashers and pulled to the side of the road. I wasn’t using any fuel while waiting for them to pass, as the engine was off. Once they had passed, I set off – very gently – and managed to keep the car in electric-only mode without using the EV mode switch. As I hummed back to my parking spot, I opened my window (the aerodynamic penalty of an open window is zero at parking-lot speeds) and proudly proclaimed that I had hit 60.8 miles per gallon. It wasn’t enough to win the prize (a much-coveted solar-powered cell phone charger that probably didn’t have the right connection for my iPhone anyway), but I did earn a respectable second place.
Immediately following my trek in the Prius, I hopped into a new 2010 Lexus RX450h. (Tip for identifying the hybrid RX450h vs. the conventional RX350: look for the roof rack; the hybrid model doesn’t have one). I reset its trip computer and did the same circuit as I had done in the Prius. However, the RX450h is much heavier than the Prius, has all wheel drive, a V6, more equipment and safety features inside. Plus, I wasn’t about to torture myself with another trip in a car with its windows up and no air conditioning, so I activated the A/C. I didn’t see an EV button in the RX, and didn’t drive quite as conservatively as I did in the Prius, but I managed to achieve 30.4 mpg on the same route that the Prius had gotten double the fuel economy – which is actually better than its EPA rating of 30 city/28 highway, in spite of climbing a mountain and having the air conditioning cranking on a hot day (yet I did keep my speeds down and my acceleration to similarly-gentle levels as I did during the earlier Prius drive).
Having had the opportunity to drive both an Insight and a Prius only about an hour apart on the same day, the Prius was more refined, better looking, more comfortable, and should be a better performer (though I didn’t push the Prius’ performance envelope in a fuel economy-maximizing loop). We’ll have an Insight in the Autosavant test fleet later this summer for evaluation, so I’ll give that car a fair shake, but so far, the Prius is proving to be the winner both on paper and in first driving impressions.
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