Toyota's fuel sipper: new look, more zip, same price

For environmentally conscious drivers, going green just got easier. Toyota has redesigned the Prius, making the 2004 electric-gasoline hybrid far more roomy, comfortable, and useful than its predecessor.

The biggest change: a hatchback replaces the trunk used in the 2003 sedan. The switch allows for more storage space and makes the Prius about the size of an early 1990s Camry.

Like the 2003 version, the Prius runs on a battery-powered electric motor as well as a gasoline engine. The electric-drive system accelerates the car from a stop and provides a boost when climbing hills at higher speeds. It can also power the car alone when stuck in traffic jams. Unlike pure electric vehicles, the Prius never needs to be plugged in since its batteries are charged by the engine or by recouping energy from braking.

Starting the vehicle feels like a scene from the Jetsons. First, insert the key fob into a slot on the dashboard. But don't turn it. Instead, step on the brake and press the start button. Digital gauges illuminate on a screen below the center of the windshield. Look for the "ready" sign, and select "drive" from the spring-loaded wand protruding out of the dashboard.

The hatchback rides quietly, eerily so, except when climbing hills or zooming onto the highway. The car accelerates from zero to 60 miles per hour in about 10 seconds - hardly fast, but nearly three seconds quicker than the old model.

While the hybrid's power falls short of a sport utility vehicle, it does everything most cars do - and far more efficiently.

In a week of hard driving, about half in city traffic, the Prius managed 40.8 miles per gallon. Go light on the throttle and the gasoline engine doesn't start until about 17 m.p.h. The car burns no gas while idling and during one five-minute stretch in city traffic, it ran using only the electric motor. At that point, the Prius was averaging more than 100 m.p.g., according to the fuel-economy graph built into the dashboard. (The EPA estimates the car gets 60 m.p.g. in the city.)

On the highway, however, the gasoline engine powers the car for long distances. At high speeds, the car managed only about 38 m.p.g - good, but far short of the EPA's rating of 51 highway m.p.g. Regardless of which fuel estimate you believe, the Prius gets much better mileage in the city than on the highway - the opposite of most cars.

Inside, the five-passenger hybrid offers a full complement of air bags - front, side torso, and head. Many of the audio and climate controls are buried inside menus on the central navigation touch screen. Toyota provides handy buttons on the steering wheel to operate the most common features. They even light up at night so you can tell them apart. Great, except that the lighting is so dim you can't see them without taking your eyes off the road and staring at the steering wheel for several seconds while your pupils adjust.

The regenerative (electric) brakes are easier to gauge than in the old Prius, but they still feel grabby at times. The handling feels more confident than the old Prius, but it's still somewhat squishy. The car also becomes a bit boring to drive. Playing gas mileage games in a very competent car is interesting for a while. But after a day or two, it feels like driving a video game.

Aside from that, however, the Prius is almost the perfect commuter car. At $20,510, the same as last year, the car is priced comparably to most family sedans. On top of that, it's a far more efficient than the Tauruses, Camrys, and Accords that most families use as second cars.

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