The 2010 Toyota Prius has a bank of LCD monitors that relay information about how efficiently you're driving.
What was tested? 2010 Toyota Prius IV ($25,800).
Options: Navigation package ($1,800).
Price as tested (including $750 destination charge): $28,350.
Pros: It's a miracle that this car exists. It's capable of carrying four people comfortably and is rated for 51 mpg in town, a triumph of engineering.
Cons: The emphasis on light weight makes it feel cheaper than other Toyotas.
When you read a review of a hybrid vehicle, you'll usually find a variation of this sentence: "It drives like a normal car." But you won't read that about the new Toyota Prius, because it doesn't. It feels like the result of a golf cart and a spaceship having a wild night in Vegas.
Sure, it has four wheels and four doors, but that's where the similarities with normal cars end. This latest generation of Toyota's gas-electric hybrid feels so different, and so remarkable, that it makes you wonder if you're driving the future of cars rather than just another evolution of a Toyota sedan.
Virtually every other car in the world has a gear shifter, for example, so drivers have become used to the familiar "ka-chunk" sound as they slide it into drive. But the Prius doesn't have that.
Instead, it comes with a little electric switch that lets you pick between forward, backward and neutral. No shifter, no ka-chunk. When it's time to park it, you press a button on the dash. When you go into reverse, it beeps like a dump truck. And when you're driving in a parking lot, it changes to golf-cart mode and shuts down the engine, letting you cruise silently under electric power.
Of course, the Prius isn't really about beeps and fancy dashboard graphics. It's all about getting great mileage, and it doesn't disappoint.
The new Prius is rated for 51 mpg in town and 48 on the highway, making it the most efficient hybrid available today. It gets that great mileage by combining battery-powered electric motors with a small four-cylinder gasoline engine to produce a combined 134 horsepower. That's not a whole lot of horses, but because Toyota did such a great job of reducing weight on the Prius, acceleration really isn't that bad.
In fact, the Prius lets you choose between three different driving modes depending on how much acceleration you want. You can pick EV Mode that will let it run on pure electric power for the first mile or so. There's Eco Mode, which helps the driver get the best gas mileage. And there's Power Mode, which improves throttle response and makes the Prius feel sportier.
The spaceship genes show up in the cabin, where a big bank of LCD monitors on the dash shows you everything you'd want to know about the car, including how efficiently you're driving and how the car is routing power at the moment.
Style-wise, there's nothing too unusual about the new Prius. It keeps the same predictable hybrid shape as the old model, with excellent visibility in all directions. The overall shape was refined, though, to produce less aerodynamic drag.
Pricing starts at $22,400, which is $2,600 more than the Honda Insight, but it's also a better car. The Prius is bigger and feels like it's built to a higher standard than the Honda, plus gets better mileage.
That's quite a deal for a car that doesn't feel like a car.