Back in 1999, the editor of a prominent American car magazine told me with a straight face that the Toyota Prius, already a moderate hit in Japan then, would fail in America. It was too complicated, not big enough, and was clueless when it came to towing large recreational vehicles and big boats. Further, nobody cared about fuel economy.
The 2010 Prius gets the once-over. (Jim Motavalli photo)
Instead, the Prius, especially in its second-generation 2004-2009 version, caught on big time. Toyota has sold more than 600,000 Priuses in the U.S. since 2000. But sales are down now in the economic downturn, and into the teeth of the storm Toyota is introducing an all-new third-generation Prius.
The new Prius is crucial to Toyota's fortunes, because sales have been falling. The Prius is still a sales leader -- third behind the Camry and Corolla, with 181,221 sold in the U.S. in 2008 -- but it has been suffering along with every other car on the planet. Toyota is still determinedly green, and undeterred by the terrible economic climate; it just announced it is moving up the introduction of its plug-in hybrid from early 2010 to December 2009.
The 2010 Prius is much improved, says the company, which really piled on the innovative features, many of them standard. The car gets more power (134 horsepower) from an engine that grew from 1.4 to 1.8 liters, but despite that it achieves an overall 50 miles per gallon. If Toyota can keep the price down (no numbers have been announced), it could have a sales winner.
At a Prius Connection event in New York attended by current owners, subscribers to chat rooms devoted to the model and city and state fleet managers, the company touted the many virtues of its new model. New York is not exactly a car capital, but it clearly loves the Prius.
At first glance, the third-gen Prius is not a big departure from the second. Same basic shape, but with a nose more in line with current company designs -- it's almost Yaris-like. The key to getting that improved gas mileage is a really slippery shape, with a .25 coefficient of drag. That means a steeply raked windshield, which creates an ideal space for Toyota's new Touch Tracer system, which puts vital information at eye level to prevent distraction. I was impressed with the optional sunroof solar panel, which supplies power to the ventilation system to keep your car's interior cool while it's parked on a hot day. The key fob can also start up the air conditioner a few minutes before you get in the car.
Push the "EV" button, and the 2010 Prius has a one-mile battery-only cruising range. It's a preview of what drivers will be able to do with the forthcoming Toyota plug-in hybrid. The "LKA" button is for Lane Keep Assist. Drift out of your lane, and the Prius uses a bit of torque steer to get you back in line (while also sounding an alarm in case you're falling asleep).
Standard safety features include vehicle stability control, traction control, brake assist, ABS and electronic brake force distribution. There are seven airbags, and in the event of a collision the active headrests come up to cushion your head while the seatbelts tighten. Get in that fender bender and an OnStar-like Safety Connect system triggers a phone call from Toyota HQ to make sure you're OK.
All this in a car with a very low carbon footprint. Toyota guarantees that its nickel-metal-hydride battery pack will get recycled, too.
I don't mean this to sound like a commercial for the 2010 Toyota Prius. After all, I still haven't even driven it. But if they gave out awards for the most innovative environmentally friendly features on one car model, it would probably win.
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