Preview Drive: 2010 Toyota Prius

Third-generation Prius changes modestly in appearance, while promising greater gas mileage

by James M. Flammang

2010 Toyota Prius

MIAMI, Florida - Ask anyone to name a hybrid car, and chances are, "Prius" will be the response. The model designation for Toyota's top-selling gasoline/electric model has become almost synonymous with "hybrid."

Redesigning of the Prius for 2010 hasn't produced dramatic changes in appearance. Anyone who's driven or seen the second-generation model will easily recognize the new one, which exhibits essentially the same hatchback profile. (Toyota's first Prius, offered in 2000-03, was a four-door sedan with a trunk.)

Most notable of the differences is the roofline, which has been pushed back about 4 inches. The rear spoiler is flatter, but it still obscures a portion of driver vision, resembling a horizontal bar slapped across the back window - one of few drawbacks in the prior generation. Up front, the main grille opening is smaller than before, but the lower opening has grown. Both the front and rear bumpers have been squared-off. Wheelbase is unchanged at 106.3 inches, and the 2010 Prius is only a fraction of an inch longer and wider. The end result "looks like a Prius," said Chris Risdon of the University of Toyota, "and we like that."

Toyota says the powertrain is about 90 percent newly-developed. Making the engine larger (now 1.8-liter rather than 1.5) doesn't sound like a logical approach to boosting fuel economy. Yet, because the new engine develops greater torque at lower engine rpm when driving at highway speeds, gas mileage actually is higher. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gives the 2010 Prius an estimate of 51 miles per gallon in city driving and 48 mpg on the highway. That compares to 48-mpg city/45-mpg highway for the prior-generation Prius: a 3-mpg difference in each driving mode.

Toyota also advises that the new model's drag coefficient (a measure of aerodynamic slipperiness) is just 0.25. According to national small car manager Ed LaRocque, that figure is "one of the best in the world for a production car."

Occupants get more rear headroom and legroom in the new generation. Front seatbacks now are contoured, and rear knee space has increased. The gearshift lever has moved leftward. Cargo space has grown to 21.5 cubic feet with rear seats folded, and 39.6 cubic feet with all seats raised.

Atop the dashboard, the multi-information display now includes hybrid-operation information. All Priuses will have automatic climate control.

Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive employs the same principles as before, but components have changed. Prius is again a "full" hybrid, meaning that it can run on battery power alone (up to a mile, at 25 mph), using only the gasoline engine, or a combination of both. Eco mode is the choice for best gas mileage, which provides a reduced throttle opening and makes the air conditioner most efficient. Power mode adds a touch of sporty behavior.

Acceleration to 60 mph is about half a second quicker in this generation. An Exhaust Heat Recovery System preheats cooling water with the exhaust gases, which cuts warm-up time by about 3 minutes. That in itself helps reduce emissions. A conventional fuel tank now is installed, rather than the prior bladder. So, there should be no issues when refueling at certain temperatures. Brakes are now all-disc.

One factor has changed markedly as the 2010 Prius was developed: competition. In spring 2009, Honda is in the process of launching a brand-new Insight Hybrid Hatchback, billed as the "affordable" hybrid. Toyota has not yet announced pricing for the 2010 Prius, but Honda's Insight starts at $20,470 (including destination charge). Honda's Civic Hybrid sedan, which has been on the market, has a Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price that begins at $24,320, To help counter the new competition, Toyota advises that its Prius offers more standard and convenience features than the Insight.

Seven airbags are standard, including a new driver's knee airbag. Newly optional Lane Keep Assist includes a Lane Departure Warning. Intelligent Parking Assist also will be available.

Gentle driving lets Prius top EPA's fuel-economy estimates

Slipping behind the wheel and starting off in the 2010 Prius is an utterly familiar experience to anyone who's been in the prior-generation model. Plenty of details have changed, but this Prius looks and feels much like its predecessor.

Although the Prius handles better than before, a bit of deadness in the steering is noticeable in turns. On the expressway, a tiny touch of wander may occur, but otherwise the Prius maintains control easily. Ride comfort is appealing, though the Prius isn't especially cushiony and has a light overall feel. Acceleration is at least as satisfactory as expected, so the driver never needs to feel overwhelmed by traffic. Also as expected, the Prius is extra-quiet.

Front-seat occupants get plenty of space. Backseat riders also have sufficient room, though head space could be better and the center rear position falls short on comfort - a common malady these days. Visibility is clear enough, except for that bar across the rear window. Windshield pillars are somewhat thick, too..

In addition to evaluating the redesigned Prius during normal driving, journalists were invited to try to achieve the highest possible fuel economy over a specified urban circuit. With reasonable care and an easy foot on the gas pedal, keeping speeds down as much as possible, achieving 60 miles per gallon wasn't too difficult. One test-driver managed to reach 78 mpg, partly by keeping road speeds especially low. As one Toyota executive put it, for the most frugal driving, the Prius loves to stay around 35 mph.

Production begins in late April, and dealers should begin to get 2010 models in late spring. Some 150 plug-in hybrids are expected to go to universities and other organizations, for evaluation purposes, late in 2009. By 2012, Toyota intends to have 10 new hybrid models on the market, with a full battery-electric model arriving around the same time.

Toyota also is promoting its Certified Pre-Owned Vehicle program, which now includes the Prius. One drawback: used Priuses haven been priced so high, not far removed from new-car figures, that they become less-compelling values secondhand.

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© All contents copyright 2009 by Tirekicking Today
Text and photos by James M. Flammang
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