The Toyota Prius is not just a car. It’s a statement of environmentalism. It’s also a figurehead for cutting-edge transportation technology. And to many, it’s the vehicle to be seen in around Southern California. For the 2010 model year, Toyota has completely revamped its gas-electric hybrid darling, but to the likely delight of the car’s fans, it still looks very much like a Prius.
Even though the shape of the outgoing Prius has become a familiar one, the 2004-2009 variation was actually the second generation of the car. The original Prius was launched in Japan in 1997 and went on sale here in early 2000. That car was a little more conventional looking than the hump-backed hatchback that’s become known as the hallmark of hybrid cars. That’s the version that really put the Prius on the map.
So how do you do an encore with a car that’s so well known and beloved? The first order of business was to apply the latest technology, with newer, smaller hybrid batteries and other components that make for a car that’s better overall. At the same time, those technologies also give it even higher fuel economy numbers. The 2010 beats the 2009 with an overall EPA rating of 50 miles per gallon.
What’s even more amazing is that the new car is also more powerful than the old one, and drivability is greatly improved. While the first two generations of the Prius were a little on the pokey side when it was time to giddy up, this one actually gets up and goes pretty well when it needs to. It’s still no dragster, but the poster child for green driving really doesn’t need nor want to be.
My favorite improvement to the car’s mechanical layout is that the steering actually provides some feel to what the front tires are doing with respect to the road surface. I never cared for the steering in the previous Prius, and always felt that I was just turning around control that was connected to an electronic switch, much like on the console on a video game.
Another chassis improvement comes in the form of optional 17” wheels and tires. Part of having an “eco” car often meant rolling around on dinky little wheels with skinny tires as part of an overall effort toward efficiency. There are standard 15” wheels – as there were on the previous car – but those who want something a little more aggressive in appearance can opt for the larger wheels for the first time. From a visual standpoint, they really set the car off.
The new Prius is actually bigger than the old one, although just barely. It grows by an inch or so in every direction on the outside, but this really isn’t enough for most people to even notice. The big difference is on the inside, notably in the rear seat and in the cargo area. Sitting behind the wheel, it’s immediately apparent that this is a roomier car.
There has also been a lot of development in making the Prius more luxurious. When the second generation model debuted in 2003, there was no option for leather seats, only cloth. But Toyota noticed that lots of dealers were adding leather upholstery at customers’ requests, so eventually leather became a factory option.
You can deck the 2010 Prius out with leather, and for the first time, a sunroof. But since this is the darling of environmentalism, it’s not just any sunroof. This one contains solar panels which capture sunlight when the car is parked and power a ventilation fan. This cuts down on air conditioner use when the Prius is started up, so it adds to overall efficiency.
This advanced hybrid also offers other technologies, including automated self-parking, which was first seen on the high-end Lexus LS. For those who never quite mastered the art of parallel parking, Intelligent Parking Assist takes over the task and glides the car into your selected spot automatically.
All other modern amenities are either standard or available as well. Automatic climate control, fingertip controls for audio and other functions built into the steering wheel, a navigation system with a color back-up camera, and so on. The Prius may be an environmentally friendly car, but its buyers won’t really be sacrificing anything they may have become used to in a modern vehicle.
Those buyers will be proud to show off their new hybrids, knowing that the Prius says many things. It says “I’m saving fuel.” It also says “I’m helping the environment,” and “I love technology.” But what the Prius says above all is “I’m driving a Prius…you can tell by its shape.”
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz@pacbell.net.