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msnbc.com
updated 5/26/2004 4:57:53 PM ET 2004-05-26T20:57:53

For months, I’d been telling my family about a new electric-gasoline hybrid sedan, and so when I finally got my hands on a 2004 Toyota Prius for a long weekend review, I made sure the family got in as well. The kids loved the futuristic looks, but my wife was leery of all the bells and whistles. As for me, I came in with some high expectations that fell pretty short — about 10-20 miles per gallon short.

Every chance I could, I’d look at the display screen that tracks mileage, pleased when it showed 70 mpg or no gasoline being used at all because it was running solely off the battery.

But over the entire 200 miles I drove the car, the average picture was not as pleasant and I never got close to the 51 mpg highway and 60 mpg city certified by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Instead, I averaged 42 mpg in combined city/highway driving.

Frustrated, I sought answers from Toyota and its Prius guru, Dave Hermance. As soon as I said that my commute and other city driving were short trips, Hermance interrupted. “That’s it right there, that’s the problem,” he said, explaining that mileage suffers during the first five minutes of a cold start because of the way the Prius and similar low-polluting cars curb emissions.

That would also explain that while my combined city/highway mileage was 42 mpg, I got just 31 mpg on my five-mile commute to work.

The mystery solved, I still felt some disappointment that I’d never see 60 mpg with my short commutes. Instead, as Hermance noted, “it’s an ideal car for folks who put on a lot of miles.”

On the other hand, that overall 42 mpg was still double what my 1990 Nissan Stanza gets — and a lot less polluting. The 2004 Prius emissions are 90 percent less than a conventional car, and 30 percent less than the 2003 Prius. Emissions of carbon dioxide, a gas many scientists fear is warming Earth, are about half those of traditional cars.

How hybrid works
Hybrids like the Prius — which is taken from Latin and means “to go before” — achieve both high mileage and low emissions by combining a traditional gasoline engine with a battery that powers an electric motor.

The battery does not need to be plugged in. Instead, it’s recharged by the gasoline and by the energy created by using the brakes.

In the Prius’ case, a computer chooses when to use just gas, just electricity or a combination.

And, as counterintuitive as it sounds, the Prius gets better mileage in the city than on the highway. That’s because city driving allows for more use in electric only mode as well as more stops where the engine shuts off to conserve fuel.

Test drive
Named “Car of the Year” by Motor Trend magazine, the Prius does require being open to learning new tricks — like how to start the car.

Instead of turning a key, a cartridge activates the vehicle and accessories like the radio. Actually starting the Prius requires keeping your foot on the brake and then tapping the “Engine Start/Stop” button on the dash.

Shifting into drive is done with a knob that feels like a joystick — an odd feeling at first. In fact, the shifting isn’t done by moving a metal rod into gear, instead the car’s computer sends signals directly to the transmission.

Once on the road, I was constantly tempted to watch my mileage performance on the display screen that also controls the temperature and radio.

My biggest pleasure with the Prius was driving in gridlock, where the engine would shut down or slip into electric mode. On top of that, its distinctive look made it stand tall in the SUV forest around me.

Other pros:

Roomy. Six inches longer than earlier models, the Prius is the roomiest hybrid and nearly as roomy now as the Toyota Camry. The hatchback design, a key difference over earlier models, and split folding seats allow for more flexible cargo space.

Tax break. The $20,000 base price isn’t cheap but it’s about the same as the Camry. On top of that, there’s a $2,000 federal tax deduction for hybrids. An energy bill making its way through Congress would turn that into sliding tax credits, which means anyone not expecting a refund could see even bigger savings than with a deduction. Prius buyers, for example, would see $2,750 in credits, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy estimates.

Sound of silence. In gasoline mode, the Prius still sounds like a typical midsize car, but a wonderful sound of silence kicks in at stops and when the Prius computer says it’s time for electric only mode. Granted, hearing the car shut down at stops is unnerving at first but I got over that soon enough. As for electric only mode, the only way to ensure that is to keep the car under 11 mph or so — a real possibility in heavy traffic — or while driving in reverse, a very limited option.

HOV use. Virginia allows single occupant hybrids to use HOV lanes and other states — Arizona, California, Georgia and Washington among them — are looking at that, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

Some cons and potential cons:

Battery replacement. Toyota warranties the battery powering the electric motor for eight years or 100,000 miles. Replacing that today would cost $3,500 but Toyota hopes the price will come down to $1,000. It also notes that the battery pack has been tested to 150,000 miles without degradation.

Display screen visibility. While it’s not required to operate the car, the display screen that shows mileage performance and radio/temperature controls can be very difficult to see in bright sun.

Traffic visibility. The front window frame is at more of an angle than some cars, creating a wider bar that can obstruct views. The rear window has a bar three-quarters of the way down, which also takes some getting used to.

Backseat vent. It’s not immediately noticeable, but a venton the backseat door frame plays an important role cooling the battery pack tucked under the luggage area. In fact, Toyota warns not to cover that vent because that could case the battery to overheat.

Other features
Apart from the standard manual, Toyota includes a quick reference guide, a pocket reference guide and even a starting/shifting/parking instruction card to give to valets. The manual includes some tips for maximizing fuel efficiency but I could have used more detailed tips and even a video to visualize those.

Image: Valet parking instruction for Prius
A packet of parking instructions for valets is included with the Prius purchase.
The manual is, however, required reading given Prius’ special features, among them:

Towing. The Prius must not be pulled by a camper, or towed with its front wheels on the ground. Doing so can damage the transmission and/or overheat the battery, causing a fire.

Storage. If the car is not driven for extended periods, the battery should be charged every two weeks by starting it for 30 minutes with all accessories turned off.

Running out of gas. Never, ever try running the Prius on electric mode if you run out of gasoline.

Driving tips
The manual also offers some tips for improving mileage, such as keeping tires at correct pressure, linking trips to minimize cold starts, and limiting use of the air conditioner and defrost.

But Hermance acknowledged that there’s a Prius learning curve and that more could be done to help owners get the most out of the car.

His mileage tips include not trying to baby the gas pedal. That’s especially tempting when viewing mileage on the display screen. “Go ahead and accelerate fairly aggressively,” he said, since the sooner you get to cruising speed the better the mileage will be.

Not satisfied with my own 42 mpg average, I sought out a local Prius fanatic for some driving tips. Mike Watkins, a retired master mechanic who owns a Prius he bought in 2001, was willing, ready and certain he could boost my performance using his “passive/aggressive” teaching technique.

So off we went in his Prius, with Watkins first putting on his passive gloves. That meant courteous driving — not putting the pedal to the metal or making abrupt lane changes. That’s a basic tip for driving any car, he said, but the Prius is even more sensitive than most.

Watkins also urges trusting the computer, not one’s foot, to optimize performance. So instead of eyeing the mileage monitor and trying to adjust with your foot, just let the computer decide, Watkins advised. That trust included using the cruise control in light traffic as soon as possible. At one point, we were cruising along at 35 mph in electric mode only.

“The human foot is not as sensitive as people would like to think,” he said during the drive that saw 50 mpg, compared with 36 mpg when he went into “aggressive” driving. “The computer is a better driver.”

Trying to “feather the throttle to keep it on electric all the time” will only interfere with the computer and cause inefficient shifting between gasoline and electric modes, he insisted.

Watkins expects his own Prius to last up to 400,000 miles and believes its battery will outlive the car. As for repairs and maintenance, he’s certain the Prius is cheaper over its lifetime than conventional cars, mainly because of its simplified transmission.

But he also wishes Toyota would do more to help Prius buyers get more from the car. “People are not aware of what this car is capable of,” he said.

Toyota does have a prius.com Web site that includes information under “Dealer Locator” on how to rent one for longer test drives.

And Hermance advised checking out Prius owner Web sites for additional support, in particular this http://autos.groups.yahoo.com/group/2004-prius/ and http://john1701a.com/.

Additional reviews are available at autos.msn.com.

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