Image: Toyota Prius solar panel roof
Toyota
The photovoltaic solar panel on the roof of the Toyota Prius generates electricity that runs a cabin vent fan to cool the interior on hot, sunny days.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/18/2009 9:28:43 AM ET 2009-05-18T13:28:43

Instead of calling its hybrid the “Prius,” Latin for “first,” a change in strategy at Toyota could be summarized by renaming the car “Plurimus,” for “most,” because Toyota’s new plan is to make the 2010 Prius the company’s technology flagship car, equipped with all the gadgetry the company can muster.

Time was when all the Prius had to do to stand apart from other new cars was to show up. Launched in Japan in 1997 and the United States in 2000 as a 2001 model, it was the first practical car with a fuel-sipping hybrid electric drivetrain.

Yes, Honda’s original Insight was also available back then, but that model was a claustrophobic two-seater that felt more like a contender in a collegiate fuel economy contest than a real, everyday car. But hybrid technology is so widespread now that it spans the market from frugal fuel misers to the massive Cadillac Escalade NBA image-mobile. Having been first a decade ago doesn’t really matter anymore.

Recognizing that first-ness is a perishable commodity, Toyota has deployed an array of new technologies in its latest third-generation Prius aimed at cementing its appeal to the electron-heads who comprise a core constituency of the car’s fan base.

Some of these features ought to do it. How about automatic steering? The Prius can not only parallel park itself, using the Intelligent Parking Assist feature, it even steers at highway speed, when the Lane Keeping Assist system helps keep the car in its own lane by turning the steering wheel.

Image: LED low-beam headlights on Toyota Prius
Toyota
The LED low-beam headlights of the 2010 Prius use 17 percent less energy than high-intensity discharge lights, Toyota says.
In both cases, the driver is still actively involved. For the parking system to work, the driver must first position the car correctly, activate the system and maintain control of movement with the brake pedal.

For the lane assist, the car will apply slight corrections, but doesn’t do much real steering.

Left to its own devices, we found that it would, within a couple corrections, begin to bounce from one side of the lane to the other at too great an angle for the system to correct and the car would barge into the adjoining lane. At least the Lane Departure Warning system is there to announce when that happens.

Then there is automatic braking. The Prius uses the same forward-looking radar employed by the automatic cruise control system to keep an eye out for obstacles in the path of travel. If it spots one, the system issues a warning to the driver and it automatically tightens the seatbelts in anticipation of a possible crash.

If the driver hits the brake pedal, the computer instantly applies maximum braking force to shorten the stopping distance and try to prevent a crash. But if the driver does nothing, the computer automatically applies some braking force in a bid to reduce the force of impact.

Ideally, one day, cars will be permitted to automatically stop themselves short of impact, but automakers’ fears of legal liability in the event of a crash prevents them from offering such brake systems.

Not all of the Prius’ gadgets are related to transportation. In a nod to comfort, the car features an optional solar roof panel that uses the sun to power cabin vent fans that keep the interior from reaching oven-like temperatures in the summer.

If that isn’t cool enough for the sensitive driver, there is also remote control air conditioning. Toyota made the Prius' air conditioner electric, like a home unit, rather than running it off a fan belt so that it can run even when the car’s gas motor is shut off. So it was a simple step to let drivers run the air conditioner when they aren’t even in the car. That means that a press of a button on the remote key fob will provide three minutes of cool air to the cabin before the driver gets in it.

And when the sun sets, the Prius still has cool widgets to fascinate technophiles. In addition to the now-commonplace LED taillights, the Prius is available with LED headlights.

Yeah, they only save 17 percent of the power used by high-intensity discharge low beam lights, but they look awesome, and punks in tricked out 10-year-old Honda Civics cannot attempt to duplicate their appearance with silly colored bulbs from Pep Boys, as they have done with HIDs.

More buttons to push
Driving on electric power alone is a primary appeal for many hybrid buyers, so Toyota boosted Prius' ability to do that with an “EV” mode button. Pressing that button lets the driver hum through the neighborhood on battery power alone for about half a mile at speeds below 25 mph. This is cool, but falls short of the Ford Fusion hybrid’s ability to drive at up to 47 mph on electric power.

The new Prius' electric motor, power inverter and transaxle are slimmed by 20 percent in size compared to the previous package, but the motor spins twice as fast and operates at 650 volts rather than the previous 500 volts. These changes contributed to a 20 percent reduction in torque losses.

The driver can optimize fuel economy by pressing the “Eco Mode” button, which makes the throttle position lag the movement of the gas pedal to smooth out calls to the engine room for more power. This is especially helpful to those digital drivers — you know who you are — who treat the gas pedal as an on-off switch, alternately flooring it and coasting. The Eco Mode is not used for EPA fuel economy testing, in which the Prius scored a combined city/highway rating of 50 mpg, so using it should help drivers top that score.

The opposite of Eco Mode is Power Mode, another button which causes the throttle to snap open more abruptly than normal, in case it is the driver’s preference to annoy passengers with neck-snapping jerks when starting from a stop.

The button doesn’t actually deliver any additional power or improve maximum acceleration, it just delivers it more suddenly, making Power Mode a strong candidate for the “Technology for Technology’s Sake” award.

'Energy monitor' feature
Of course the driver wants to track the activities of this advanced electric drivetrain, reveling in the fuel saved through judicious use of the right (gas/electron?) pedal. In the previous Prius this meant having a costly LCD video screen which provided vehicle information to anxious drivers.

That screen is still available to those customers who choose to pay for a navigation system, but the efficiency information is now conveyed through a vacuum fluorescent display in the middle of the dashboard.

It contains an “energy monitor” which displays energy flow and battery state of charge, a hybrid system indicator, which encourages smooth acceleration and braking and demonstrates how driving style affects fuel economy, and real- time fuel consumption depicted in 1-minute or 5-minute increments. It also contains indictors for the radar cruise control system, pre-collision and lane- keeping assistance systems.

Additionally, the Prius has all of the trendy new technologies we’ve come to expect, with connections for a Bluetooth phone and iPod, letting drivers wirelessly stream audio from their mobile device to the car’s available 8-speaker JBL audio system. The optional nav system includes real-time traffic information.

The Prius starts at $22,000 without a lot of equipment and tops out at nearly $32,000 with all the techno-gadgets.

There is no doubt that Toyota’s new hybrid features an impressive array of emerging technologies. It just remains to be seen whether this Plurimus strategy will sustain the car’s popular appeal.

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