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Improved Prius packs features, contradictions

The 2010 Prius is the best Prius yet, very effectively balancing fuel efficiency, safety, practicality and comfort. But there are some puzzling features. MotorHead, by Dan Carney.
Image: Toyota Prius 2010
The 2010 Prius is ‘the best Prius yet, very effectively balancing fuel efficiency, safety, practicality and comfort,’ our reviewer writes.David Dewhurst / Toyota

The angels sang, the clouds parted, and the latest version of the Toyota Prius descended from the heavens to save mankind from its self-destruction. Really, that’s just how it happened. At least that seems to be the view of some fanatics who have mistakenly concluded that Toyota is not bound by the same laws of physics or business as every other car-making entity on the planet.

Alas, the company is bound by those same laws. Fortunately, Toyota’s canny engineers have developed good expertise in bending the laws of physics to their own will, even if the laws of business are currently taking a toll on Toyota’s ledger, just as they are for other automakers.

One engineering trick was to make the enlarged, more powerful 1.8-liter gas engine more efficient than the old 1.5-liter engine while improving the car’s passing power. No, Toyota hasn’t made the Prius a drag racer, though the bigger motor does slash acceleration times from glacial to average, answering a top owner complaint.

The bigger motor actually makes the Prius more fuel-efficient, because it doesn’t have to strain at full throttle so often to move the 3,000-pound car and its occupants.

If a company with lesser green credentials made the argument that a larger, more powerful engine was selected because it saves gas, it would be seen as a transparent ploy for the perpetuation of the “petrocracy.” But Toyota makes the explanation stick with EPA mileage ratings of 51 mpg city and 48 mpg on the highway, compared to 48 and 45 mpg for the old car. (In test loops — urban, highway, and mixed driving conditions — the 2010 Prius I tested returned 55, 50, and 53 mpg respectively).

Like every new Toyota, the Prius is an extremely carefully considered and professionally executed transportation device, very effectively balancing fuel efficiency, safety, practicality and comfort. The 2010 version is the best Prius yet. It also represents a strong endorsement of the enduring appeal of the flexibility of the five-door hatchback design, a configuration long disdained in the U.S. market.

The out-of-the-mainstream body style suits the Prius, not only because of the aerodynamic advantages of the shape, but also because Toyota wants the Prius to stand apart from other hybrids (its own and those from competitors).

Toyota’s plan was to position the Prius as the company’s technical flagship, a “halo” car for the brand, the way the Corvette has done for Chevrolet. But instead of having a muscle-bound V8 sports car as the brand’s one-model icon, Toyota chose its frugal family hatchback.

Toyota Prius 2010David Dewhurst

This was, and is, a good plan, except that since the Prius was revealed Honda has released its Insight, a similar hybrid hatch with a combined EPA rating of 41 mpg that was built specifically with low cost in mind, permitting Honda to sell its fuel-miser five-door for $19,800. And the price of gas has collapsed, down to around $2 a gallon from above $4 last summer, relieving American consumers’ manic need for more fuel-efficient cars.

This has caused Toyota to change direction, and rather than positioning the Prius as a premium product above the Insight, the company has decided to hold the line on the car’s base price at $22,000. It further promises to slash the Prius’ plenitude of apparatus to create a still cheaper entry-level $21,000 version that will arrive later this year to more directly rebuff Honda’s challenge to Toyota’s hybrid hegemony.

The slash-and-burning bean counters have a profusion of price-cutting possibilities at their disposal. Likely casualties include current base equipment like a push-button start smart key, a multi-informational display and six-speaker stereo likely casualties. Other potential casualties are thermostatic climate control and heated outside mirrors.

But it is the uplevel versions that are the technology leaders, with available satellite radio, Bluetooth connectivity, ionizing cabin air cleaner, LED headlights and $1,800 voice-activated touch-screen GPS navigation with XM real-time traffic and integrated backup camera. 

Two more option packages set the Prius apart from more common economy cars and aim to establish its wired reputation. First is the $3,600 solar roof package, which includes a solar panel that powers a cabin ventilation fan to keep the interior cooler when the car is parked. It also includes a remotely activated electric air conditioner the driver can use to pre-chill the interior for as much as three minutes before entering the car.

Beyond that is the $4,500 Advanced Technology Package which incorporates features that we might expect to see on a prestige brand car, part of Toyota’s bid to reinforce the cache of Prius ownership. This includes dynamic radar cruise control, a pre-collision system that cinches seatbelts and automatically applies the brakes; automatic lane keeping, which automatically steers the car to help keep it in the lane; and intelligent parking assist to help out with parallel parking.

Well-off customers have shown the demand for munificently accoutered $31,000 Priuses, and it makes sense for Toyota to meet that demand, especially if a byproduct is cultivation of an image of technical leadership and not just green responsibility. Most of us will probably take the opportunity to sample these optional widgets while test-driving Priuses at the dealer, but will then settle for a more affordable version of the car when it is time to sign the papers.

But one result of this technological tour de force is a stirring of cognitive dissonance. Toyota touts the ecological awareness that motivated the company to include a solar-powered air vent and LED lighting. This will save a watt or two, here or there but will have zero measurable impact on fuel consumption. It is, in the parlance of politics, red meat for the base. These gadgets will prove to the true believers that the Prius remains the pre-eminent transportation option for the environmentally responsible. Or perhaps, for the more-environmentally-responsible-than-thou.

This has long been my objection to the Prius. I have always enjoyed the second-generation Prius. Prius is my favorite car in Toyota’s lineup, but I can’t escape the feeling that to most people it is a giant political bumper sticker, and I prefer to keep my political opinions quieter than that.

The source of the stirring of dissonance is that while the Prius touts its energy-saving capabilities, this latest edition includes a remote-controlled air conditioner that runs when the driver isn’t even in the car yet, using more electricity in those three minutes than will be saved by the LED taillights in an overnight road trip.

It only gets worse in the winter, because the available leather-wrapped seats now boast electric seat heaters. These devices, among my favorite options in most new cars, are a contradiction in the Prius because the heating coils amount to a near-dead short in the electrical system that heats the wires built into the seat bottoms.

It’s possibly the most profligate possible use of electricity, though one which I regularly enjoy in various test cars. This single feature probably draws more electricity than anything on the car save the electric motor, and it seems completely out of place on a Prius.

And this doesn’t even address the matter having of leather seats in the car voted “Most likely to haunt the parking lots outside vegan markets.”