There’s a first time for everything. In this case, being admonished by my wife for “only doing 30.” To which I readily replied, “Babe, we’re still accelerating!” Welcome to the 2010 Prius, loved by owners, hated by many non-owners. I asked Toyota to lend me one for a week so that I might get past the hype and anti-hype.
The original Prius didn’t sell well, at least not in the United States. Part of the reason: it looked like a cheap econobox. People inherently want a car’s uniqueness to be expressed in its appearance, and the original Prius (and virtually all hybrids without unique sheetmetal) have failed singularly in this regard. In contrast, the second-generation Prius succeeded spectacularly on the strength of its now-iconic Kammback shape.
But the second-generation Prius was not an attractive car. The peak in the arched roofline was too far forward, throwing off the car’s proportions. And the wheels were too small and appeared clunky. The 2010 redesign addresses these shortcomings. The peak in the roofline has been shifted rearward, the body is much better proportioned, and the bodyside surfacing is much more refined. Attractive five-spoke 17-inch alloys are part of the top option package. Overall, the car looks much less odd, while retaining a distinctively Prius look. All in all, there’s much less reason to hate the third-generation car from an aesthetic standpoint.
Inside, the new Prius is mostly hard plastic, yet especially with the optional leather upholstery—with wave-patterned perforations–still looks and feels much more upscale than the thwarted challenger from Honda. The Prius’s interior design is perhaps overly sci-fi, but at least this theme is more warranted than in other similarly-affected Toyotas. One missed element from previous generations: the large, prominent, oh-so-entertaining multi-colored power generation and distribution display has been downsized and robbed of its dramatic coloration in the new car.
The Prius remains about as roomy inside as a midsize car, and roomier than the Honda Insight, especially in the somewhat low but otherwise adult-worthy back seat. Perceived roominess in the front seat has taken a hit from a much more prominent center console. I personally like the sportier ambiance this console creates, but some, perhaps even most people would prefer the additional room provided by a less intrusive center console. One ergonomic oddity: the seat heater switches are buried beneath this floating console. More of an inconvenience: the infotainment display automatically defaults to nav after a few seconds even if you want to keep viewing something else, such as the XM radio screen.
Visibility from the driver’s seat is better than the swoopy styling suggests it will be. The header above the windshield isn’t too low, the pillars aren’t too thick, and you don’t feel like you’re gazing across acres of instrument panel. The view rearward isn’t quite so good, since the rear glass is narrow and split vertically.
One packaging feat carried over from the second generation: despite the space taken up by the hybrid componentry—it nearly eliminates the trunk passthrough in the Camry Hybrid—there’s a useful amount of cargo room beneath the rear hatch. Sadly, the front passenger seat does not fold forward to further extend the length of the load floor.
And now, the topic raised in the intro: the car’s performance, or lack thereof. With its Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder gas engine now enlarged to 1.8 liters, the Prius is not inherently a slow car. Cast away all thoughts of efficiency and it’ll get to sixty in about ten seconds. Back in the 1980s, when I first started driving, this would have counted as quick, and it’s still quicker than most people need a car to be.
The thing is, the Prius is designed so that even a driving enthusiast will seek joy elsewhere, specifically in maximizing fuel economy. A display located poor man’s HUD style near the base of the windshield offers a wide array of information options, which can be selected on the move using controls mounts on the steering wheel. These include a bar that displays, in real time, the efficiency of your throttle and brake inputs. Keeping this bar within the efficiency-maximizing range becomes an entertaining challenge. To facilitate, an “Eco” mode can be selected to dramatically retard throttle responses. The engine provides further feedback. Employ these tools together and you get acceleration so gentle that my wife was unaware it was happening.
No matter, I was going to find out just how efficient the Prius could be. No crazy hypermiling tricks, but most certainly judicious throttle inputs, taking corners with a minimum of slowing down, and scanning the road well ahead to avoid calling for a more rapid reduction in velocity than the regenerative braking could provide. The upshot: over that particular ten-mile stretch of suburban driving, which included about half a dozen full stops (took advantage of traffic circles and hit some lights just right), the trip computer reported 66.4 MPG even with two adults and three kids on board. Even if the trip computer is, as has been alleged but I did not confirm or refute, a bit optimistic, this was none too shabby.
Over my week with the Prius I experimented with all three calibrations. “Power” quickens the car’s responses dramatically, at the cost of perhaps two MPG as long as you continue to drive with efficiency in mind. Overall I saw about 52 MPG. My wife, who didn’t modify her driving behavior in the slightest, achieved 50. Drive the Prius like you stole it and the MPG drops into the 30s. But it certainly doesn’t ask to be driven that way, not even in “Power” mode. Given the minimal impact of “Eco” mode, and the sluggish feel it imparts, it seems of little benefit as long as you’re able to control your right foot.
The largest problem with “Eco” mode: even if you don’t mind accelerating slowly, and doing so becomes second nature in the Prius, the car behind you does. Expect to be tailgated, even if the light up ahead is clearly red.
The powertrain design does continue to impede traditional sources of driving enjoyment. There’s a decent amount of power, but minimal control over the powertrain. You press on the accelerator, then the car’s computer decides how to apportion the supply of power between the gas engine and a pair of electric motors. The transmission is a CVT, but not the belt-and-pulleys sort. Instead, it’s a planetary gearset that serves to determine how much engine power goes to the wheels and how much into electricity generation in addition to altering the transmission ratio. Unlike in the Honda Insight EX, with a conventional CVT that serves solely to alter the ratio between the engine speed and the wheel speed, there’s no way to hold the transmission at a specific ratio. So get used to having a computer as an intermediary.
What the powertrain does best in typical driving: deliver smooth, quiet acceleration with none of the shifting of a conventional automatic. Push harder, and engine noise markedly increases, and the sensation, typical of a CVT, that a clutch is slipping. Though this noise isn’t too objectionable, consider it one more efficiency-facilitating bit of feedback.
Another reason the original Prius didn’t sell well: clunky transitions between the hybrid and conventional powertrain and braking systems. These transitions were considerably smoother with the second-generation, and they’re often unnoticeable in the latest iteration. Don’t try to detect them, and you won’t notice them.
Handling improved from the first to the second generation, and has improved again with the new car. The latest Prius feels more stable and composed than earlier iterations, pretty much like a good conventional compact. Roll in turns has been reduced to the point where only driving enthusiasts will desire less of it. The steering is numb, but this is typical of today’s cars, and it’s not overly light (unlike in the Camry I had the previous week). A larger issue: the Prius has a more ponderous feel than conventional cars this size. It’s only a little over 3,000 pounds, but feels like it’s pushing two tons.
Typical of a Toyota, the 2010 Prius feels especially smooth at low speeds, and it remains quiet at highway speeds, with almost no wind noise and just a small amount of road noise. The ride is more taut than in the past, and with the 17-inch wheel option some Euro-style thumpiness over minor pavement imperfections implies that the tires are overinflated. The Honda Insight rides much more noisily and bumpily, and feels cruder and cheaper. Between this and the interior appearance, it’s as if Honda set out to create a $20,000 car, while Toyota set out to create a $30,000 car.
The problem for Honda: the Prius isn’t much more expensive than the new Insight. Base price to base price, the Toyota is $3,000 more, with a base price of $23,550. But The Prius also includes about $2,400 in additional standard equipment. Adjust for this, and the Prius is only about $700 more. And its advantages are easily worth $700. The tested car listed for $32,720, but it included a large number of features that are not even available on the Honda.
Despite all of the talk of declining Toyota quality, the Prius remains among the most reliable cars you can buy, judging from responses to TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey. Usually the more complex a model is, the more problems it has. So the Prius’s exemplary reliability is especially surprising. Even among older cars—and the 2004s are, on average, approaching the 100,000-mile mark– battery replacements remain rare.
The Prius is certainly not a driver’s car in the traditional sense, and no enthusiast would want one as an only car. But as a commuter, especially if the commute tends to be stop-and-go, the Prius makes a lot of sense. In addition to outstanding fuel economy, the Toyota offers reliability, a roomy, functional interior, the highly refined feel pioneered by Lexus, and, with the latest revision, even a stylish exterior. That Toyota has managed to bundle all of these attributes and leading-edge technology into a package most new car buyers can afford borders on incredible. So I forgive the Prius its numb steering, the prevalence of tailgaters in its constricted rear view, and even the never-before-heard orders from my wife to drive faster.
Toyota provided the vehicles, insurance and one tank of gas for this review
Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online provider of auto pricing and reliability data