In a Nutshell: Great mileage, clean emissions, smooth ride, but Geeky,
overstyled, complex, wierd controls, and an unconventional driving feel.
Well, guys.....sooner or later I had to get around to reviewing this car.
With regular gas at $3 a gallon in many areas and automotive emissions
becoming a greater concern ( even with today's low-pollution cars )
as our cities become more and more traffic-choked, not only has it become
in general the " green " symbol of the auto industry, but environmentalists,
college professors, and the Hollywood elite have also embraced it in droves
as well. The non-enthusiast portion of the automotive press has glamorized
this car like almost nothing else in recent memory.....never mind the fact
that Honda beat Toyota to the U.S market ( in 2000 ) with hybrids by almost
And, while I, for one, could care less about a car's " image "
( I have written much about this in various CL posts ) there is no denying
not only the social appeal of this car but the tax benefits and HOV lane
priviledges this car can qualify for a well, depending on the varying state
laws. There are definitely reasons for buying this car, but there are also
reasons for choosing something else...as we will shortly see. Not only is the
car complex and rather expensive, even without dealer markups, for its size
compared to conventional cars ( although Toyota and Honda both say they lose money on hybrids ) but I found it quite unpleasant to drive except for the outstanding ride quality and the front-seat room. Modern Volkswagen compact diesels ( discontinued for 2007 but returning in 2008 to take advantage of the new low-sulfur diesel fuel here ) offer basically the same fuel mileage as hybrids but with far less complexity, lower production costs, and fewer dealer mark-ups....but admittedly even the low emissions of a modern automotive diesel cannot match the ultra-clean exhaust of the Prius. With a Prius, unless something is way out of line, you will NOT fail an emissions test....and you will pass a lot of fuel pumps just like a diesel will.
Toyota, after about 18 months or so of selling the first-generation Prius in
the home Japanese market with right-hand drive. decided to export a left-hand drive version of it to the U.S.by late 2000 in response to Honda's marketing of the 2-seat Hybrid Insight starting in January of that year. ( I was lucky enough to get a test-drive of an Insight soon after introduction that year but I did not find it very impressive......it was pretty much a toy ). The Prius, in contrast, despite its small size, had four doors and a usable if small back seat....but unlike the Insight and later Civic Hybrid, the first-gen Prius had unconventional and needlessly geeky controls. The new Prius, in that area, IMO is even worse, as I will shortly describe.
First-generation Priuses, in contrast to Honda Hybrids, generally did not
carry much if any of a dealer markup, as the supply-and-demand situation at
that time was more critical for the Honda products. Then, with the second-gen Prius, the roles were reversed....the press suddenly glamorized the new Prius, sales shot up ( at the expense of the Civic Hybrid, of course ), and Toyota shops, of course, started to profiteer from it. Keep in mind that it was the dealers making the money with markups, not Toyota. To this day, Toyota still claims they lose money at the corporate level on every Prius sold, even with fully-optioned ones going for a factory list of almost $30,000. Honda, selling its chief competitor, the Civic Hybrid, claims likewise.
Now, however, the factory has decided to rein in the dealerships a little. Upon noticing today that the few Priuses that were available did NOT have second stickers or ADM ( Additional Dealer Markup ) price-gouging, I asked why. The dealership said that Toyota told them that if the markups did not stop, the invoice prices of the cars ( the price the factory charges the dealership ) would go up while the list would stay the same, making it more difficult for the dealerships to make money, gouging or no gouging. There was also a hint, not expressly stated, that the dealer franchises could be pulled. Scions, already available at many Toyota shops,fortunately already sell for list only, Saturn-style...they WILL lose their franchises if they try to mark up Scions.
(flipside909...you're our expert on Toyota / Lexus marketing.....There's a issue
you might want to look into ).
There is also no denying the fact that high gas prices have strongly pushed up the sales of these cars, even aside from the glamorization of the press, as many people decide they no longer need a gas-guzzling Suburban or a rubber-laying GTO to get them from point A to point B. The chief way of convincing some people, of course, is through their wallets...but it must be said again, as I've said before, that although these cars are true gas misers, they still are not particularly cost-efficient. The difference in price between the average Prius and the average conventional Toyota or Scion compact / subcompact will buy a LOT of gasoline. It also must be kept in mind that those other Toyota / Scion small and entry-level cars are not gas hogs either....they get outstanding mileage too, though admittedly not as good as a Prius....and their emissions are not quite as low. The Prius is EPA-rated at 51 highway, 60 city.( Hybrids often do better in the city because the electric motor usually assists more in stop-and-go driving ). In this area, though, most owners are reporting 45-50 MPG, with an average of 47-48, still nothing to complain about.
Anyhow, after a long examination inside and out, lot of fidgeting with the complex and unconventional controls, and a fairly thorough test-drive, here are my opinions of this quite unique and polarizing car. In many ways I found it much like the French Renaults and Peugeots that were sold here until the 1980's...smooth-riding and comfortable, but with maddening controls and layouts. Unlike those trouble-ridden cars, however, this car holds the promise, already confirmed in Consumer Reports, of Toyota reliability, although the question remains of what will be done with the big battery packs when they finally wear out and how they will be recycled.
Model Reviewed: 2006 Toyota Prius ( 2007's not yet available )
Base Price: $21,725
Option Combination C: $5730
Cargo Net $49
Delivery, Processing, and Handling: $580
List Price as Reviewed: $28,084
Exterior Color: Super White
Interior: Dark Gray fabric.
FWD, In-line gasoline VVT-i 4, 76 HP @ 5000 RPM, 82 ft.-lbs. torque @
Permanent-magnet AC electric motor, 67 HP @ 1200-1540 RPM,
295 ft-lbs. of torque @ 0-1200 RPM.
Electronically-controlled CVT Transmission.
Treats $3 a gallon gas like it really is $3 a gallon.
Has notoriety and is owned and driven by many celebrities.
Tax and HOV benefits depending on the state.
Very low depreciation.
8/80,000 warranty on battery pack......longer in some states.
No longer selling for markups at some dealerships.
Well-above-average reliability confirmed by Consumer Reports.
S-M-O-O-T-H, pleasant ride with good noise isolation.....an increasing rarity
in today's cars.
Smooth, seamless CVT transmission.
Good legroom front and rear.
Typical Toyota / Lexus first-rate paint-job.
Somewhat dull but nicely done exterior paint colors.
Good exterior hardware.
NAV package includes reverse back-up camera for visibility.
Solid-feeling and solid-shutting doors.
Much more expensive than similiarly-sized conventional compacts......and
expensive option packages.
Terribly overstyled, inside and out.
Absurd, ultra-sweep headlights that go almost back to the windshield.
Ultra-Geek dash and controls.
Very tight fit of twin engines and powertrain ( with covers ) under the hood
and little if any room to get to anything.
Intensive Owners'Manual study required for many simple dashboard operations.
Impossible to see front fenders from the driver's seat for parking.
Sluggish acceleration with A/C even with the high-torque electric motor assist.
Unconventional power-assisted brakes with wierd sensations.
Low-RPM vibrations from the twin powerplants combined.
Roly-poly Cornering.....a characteristic of soft suspension and tires.
Odd transmission stick-out tab instead of a lever.
Battery pack close to fuel tank....could be hazardous in a rear-impact.
No power seats in this super-electronic car?....adjust them yourself.
Flimsy-feeling front console and cupholders.
Droop-down roof lowers rear-seat headroom.
Honda Civic-like digital speedometer and other readouts far forward
at base of windshield.
Video-screen powertrain monitor in center of dash very distracting
Tiny, Mickey-Mouse-sized steering wheel loaded with stereo and climate
Stark, dull look behind the steering wheel....nothing but blankness.
Dull, electric power steering devoid of feel.
Well, the first impression you get of this car as you walk up to it is
that you are looking at a slightly flattened egg. The outside styling
of this car, while it may be appealing to some people, is definitely
not my cup of tea. The absurdly swept-back headlights that go up the
side of the short droop-hood almost to the windshield, the little
triangular port-windows in the A-pillars, and the large expanses of
nothing but paint up and down the sides with little exterior trim...none
of this exactly gives my eyeballs a treat.
I mentioned earlier that I compared this car to 20-year-old French
cars in some things....the rear roofline and tailights, ironically,
reminds one of some older Renaults.
Fortunately, those rather large expanses of untrimmed paint are done
with the typical impeccable Toyota / Lexus quality, which, of course,
means a better paint job for the money than any other products in the
auto industry. If you want a super paint job at a low price, no one
does it better.
Also quite pleasing on the outside is the well-done hardware, with
solid-feeling door handles, solid-feeling outside mirrors, that, unlike
those on some other entry-level Toyota and Scion cars, fold and swivel.
The doors open and shut with a precision-like thunk unusual on small
cars. And even though I myself consider the exterior styling ugly, it
does pay its rewards. The body shape, while fairly small on the outside,
has enough room on the inside to classify it as a mid-sized car by EPA
standards ( EPA vehicle-size ratings are determined by interior, not
exterior volume ). This is shown by fairly good legroom both front
and back, even with the front seat back ( More on those front seats
in a minute ). The egg-shaped roof, though, with its droop-line to the
rear hatchback, significantly affects rear seat headroom despite its
relatively good legroom.
The hardware inside is all of high quality except for the plastic on
the center front console and the flip-open cupholders in the console's
front. The stereo manual plastic buttons, in a straight line under the
NAV screen, are OK but could be better...there are also numerous sound-
system controls in the NAV screen itself and on the pint-sized steering
wheel that is more worthy of a kiddy car than a real one.
And...an interesting question: Though the front seats are otherwise
fairly well-designed and comfortable, why no power controls for them in
a car that is arguably Toyota's electronic showcase? The dealership
people say it was done to cut down on weight with no power motors and
linkages and keep the mileage up. I'm not convinced....they don't weigh
that much, with modern materials used for them.
As bad I think the exterior styling is, I can at least live with that,
but the dash and dash controls are A-W-F-U-L, IMO one of the worst I have
seen in a modern car. In some ways even BMW's I-Drive is easier to deal
with. First of all, just starting this car is out of of the ordinary.
Take the square plastic ignition module about the size of a book of matches
( there is no metal key at all built into it ), stick it straight into the
rectangular-shaped HOLE next to the steering column, do not turn it, set
the buttons in the center of the dash ( the salesman had to fiddle with them
for a few seconds ), push the POWER button, and either the gas or electric
motor starts up depending on the computer. It takes some more fiddling with
the NAV screen buttons to get the Video-screen monitor up so you know what
mode the drivetrain is in. Then, pull on the stubby dash-mounted
transmission lever, slide its spring-loaded action into the one small gate
either forwrd or reverse, and it springs BACK into the neutral position while
the bluish shift-indicator at the base of the windshield with the digital
speedometer indicates what gear range you are in for the CVT transmission.
There is a conventional step-on-and-off parking brake under the dash on the
left, but it can also be activated electronically ( don't remember how ).
On the road, the car is a curious and interesting mixture of pleasant and
unpleasant. The thing I liked the most about actually having it on the road
was the VERY smooth ride, especially for a car this size. It is quite
softly-sprung by today's standards and has narrow, high-profile tires with
a lot of give over bumps...you glide over road irregularities just like they
weren't there. Noise isolation, particularly with the quiet-running electric
motor, is quite good as well. I wish more cars still rode like this.....cars
that do are becoming increasingly rare these days, with the continuing
obsession with trying to make everything into sports cars and sports sedans
with Porsche 911-like handling and steering response.
The transmission was smooth and seamless as well, although it filtered out a
lot of the two engine's power as well, surprisingly so for a CVT, which are
usually very efficient.
Unfortunately, the rest of the driving experience was less than pleasant, to say
the least. The two engines, unlike the older Honda IMA ( Integrated Motor
Assist ) systems can work either in tandem or separately, depending on driving
conditions, engine temperature, and computer input. Sometimes the car comes to
a stop in complete silence as the gas engine shuts off. It will start up again
sometimes like an electric golf cart....no noise at all. Punch it or give it some
throttle from a stop and you get an odd vibration and grinding noise as both
engines spool up at once for max power. But don't let that 295 ft.lbs. of
electric-motor torque fool you...this car barely gets out of its own way from a
stop and at low speeds, especially with the A/C on. ( Toyota doesn't say much in
its literature about this but I think this car has both conventional compressor-based
A/C for the gas engine and heat-pump-based A/C for the electric motor so you
don't have to sweat or have lousy defogging when the gas engine is off.
The center video-NAV screen for the Electronic Powertrain monitor is distracting,
to say the least... twice I almost crossed the center line into oncoming traffic
while trying to figure it out ( fortunately it can be turned off ). and many
other touch-screen buttons are built into it as well. It is, IMO, a major step
backwards from the simpler, straightforward Powertrain Indicator in the original
Prius, where simple red and blue arrows showed you what was going on under the hood and which motor was driving you. Technology can be a real PITA sometimes.
As to be expected, the very soft suspension and the narrow, high-mileage and
comfort-based tires combine to give less-than-Formula-1 handling precision. The car rolls like a ship in heavy seas in anything but gentle cornering. The electric
power-steering has several deficiencies...from the kiddy-car wheel to the novicaine-like numbness to the almost complete lack of road feel. It is proving quite difficult for engineers to design all-electric steering and brake systems with the feel of conventional hydraulic ones. The brakes are effective and have a firm pedal feel but, like other electronic brake systems, are hard to modulate, and this particular setup also gave the impression of the calipers and pads dragging on the rotors after you let off the pedal.....a pecuiliar quirk of the regenerative braking system built in to recharge the battery pack on deceleration.
So...the verdict? I like the car's Cream of Wheat suspension and tires, the cabin
space efficiency, the Lexus-quality paint, the door solidness, the
gas-dollar-stretching mileage, and the tax and HOV benefits of ownership.
Otherwise there is little, in my opinion, to praise this car for. The front end is ugly
and droops too much to aid in parking, the headlights are outrageous, the dash layout and controls are a disaster, especially when you are not used to them, the powertrain is either stone-cold silent or vibrates and grinds like a massager, the brakes feel like you are dragging your feet out the door, ( even more in the engine-brake hill-descent mode ), and the power-steering system needs a lot of tweaking. Toyota needs to learn some serious lessons from Honda in how to design a proper hybrid dashboard, as Honda does in the superb Civic Hybrid's, ( although the new Civic's two-level dash is less conventional than before ) just as Honda needs to learn some serious lessons from Toyota in ride smoothness and noise isolation.
The Prius, IMO, is also somewhat overpriced ( Toyota's claims to the contrary )
and not very cost-effective with gas when you consider how much gas you can buy with the difference between the price of the Prius and a conventional small car....and the mileage competition that small diesels give, with less complexity. The main reasons for buying a Prius seem to be extremely low emissions...the lowest this side of a pure electric, the desire to make an environmental statement, the need to keep up with the Jones's, and the glamour of driving a car that is popular with celebrities and movie stars and idolized by the press.
If this is what you want from a vehicle, then buy one. Otherwise there are, in my opinion, better alternatives.