Recalling a great car



As I recall, I first heard about Hybrid vehicle technology in the early 1990s and, as usual, it was coming from Japan where both Honda and Toyota were said to be developing hybrids for the marketplace. I don’t recall which came first, the Honda Insight or the Toyota Prius, but I do recall that it was the Prius that really proved that there was indeed a marketplace for a hybrid vehicle.

Toyota announced that it was to develop the Prius in the mid 1990s, and it came out with the first generation of the car, for the Japanese market, in 1997, as I recall. By the time it hit the US market, with the 2001 model year, it was the second generation and I recall that it made quite a splash, what with its rating of 42 mpg city/41mpg highway, which was astonishingly high for a car in America at the time, if you’ll recall.

Then they made some modifications and by 2005, as I recall, they had upped the fuel economy to 48mpg/45mpg. When I first drove a Prius in 2002, I recall that I had to explain, over and over again, a few things about hybrids: First, that they get better gas mileage in the city than the highway, a complete reversal than normal gas engines; Second, that, no, you didn’t have to plug them in (the batteries recharge through inertia, braking et cetera), so they operate just exactly like we were all used to automobiles operating; and, Third, no they aren’t underpowered, that in fact with the electric engine they feel more powerful than a tiny gasoline engine by itself. People just didn’t get it, and to some extent they still don’t as I am forever explaining these three things to the uninitiated even to this day in spite of there being several hybrids from multiple manufacturers on the market. Perhaps people really know, but they just don’t recall.

Anyway, I liked the Prius the first time I drove it, loved it the next time I drove one, and absolutely think it is among the best cars on the market with its Third-Generation launch, the 2010 model.

Unfortunately, during my week-long test drive, in early February, the very Prius I was driving, the new 2010 model, was recalled by the manufacturer over a reported brake malfunction. It was said that there was a nerve-racking delay in applying the brakes and then having them actually brake in the ABS system, and this was further said to be exacerbated in slippery road conditions, like ice and snow. And, of course, it all came during the more expansive, not to mention expensive, recall of up to nine other Toyota models concerning the issue of unintended acceleration (there have even been reports of unintended acceleration in the new Prius itself, in the cruise control mode, although this has yet to be subject to recall).

I had no such problems. I used the cruise control and it worked as advertised. I drove in ice and snow (and who didn’t this winter in Denver) and the brakes not only didn’t malfunction, I was prepared to say – still am – that the ABS brakes on the new Prius are among the best brakes I have had in any car, any time, especially in slippery road conditions.

I will say that at the time I recall thinking that Toyota was mishandling the recall issues, and I believe that even more strongly now. I am convinced that, contrary to what Toyota keeps insisting, that the real problem lies in the electronic software in the Toyota system, and not in a series of mechanical problems or floor mats, as the company claims. I am skeptical.

But I can only report my experience, and my experience in the Prius was excellent. This new version is rated at 51 mpg city and 48 mpg city, in spite of having a larger powerplant. The new gas engine is a 1.8 liter 4, replacing the 1.5-liter, and it generates 98 horsepower, versus 76 hp in the second generation model. The new electric motor is rated at 80 hp, up from 67p, and the new combination puts out a combined 134 hp, up from 110hp. It also seems smoother, more quiet – and more powerful. This car has an amazing amount of get-up-and-go in the city, thanks to the electric powerplant, and on the highway you’d think this thing has more than 200hp, even going uphill. It has power to spare.


And I like the new size – somewhat larger (half an inch longer, two-tenths of an inch slimmer, half an inch less height), more aerodynamic, but still all Prius – that inside feel much more (more rear seat room, or at least it feels that way. Plus it handles very well – the Prius is very fun to drive, responsive (electric engines really move off the line), and it has great balance in all conditions.

The other cool part of the new Prius is that all of the plastic things inside – the dash, the controls, all that – are now not derived from petroleum, but rather from plants – bioplastics from the cellulose in wood and grass, specifically two plants called kenaf (related to cotton) and ramie (called Chinese grass and similar to flax). So not only is the Prius the most fuel efficient regular car on the market (except for maybe the brand-new Nissan Leaf all-electric model just out), it is built green. You gotta like the statement all this makes.

You’ll have to judge all the recall stuff and the Toyota reputation for yourself, of course, but until this year I would have said without problem that Toyota makes the best line of cars in the world, and the Prius is a stunning example. I am worried about the recall and the company response, but my opinion hasn’t changed.

The new 2010 Prius comes in four trims: the II, III, IV and V. They all have the same engine and specs; the differences are in the extra equipment. The base price on the II is $22,800.

I drove the V, base price $27,270, and it came with a ton of nice stuff: stability control, LED headlamps, different power modes (for boosting either fuel efficiency or power), a JBL sound system with all the modern stuff (including Bluetooth), keyless entry/push button start. The options on my test-drive model – the Advanced Technology Package for $4,500 – included Dynamic Radar Cruise Control, pre-collision system, lane keep assist, intelligent parking assist, voice-activated touch-screen DVD Nav system, XM radio, hands-free phone, and integrated backup camera. For whatever reason, they also added on $200 for floor mats and a cargo mat, and $359 for the V.I.P. Plus Security System. Add $750 in destination charges, and the bottom line is $33,079.

Now that’s not cheap, but this is one first-class car as I recall. Solid feeling, great heater, easy-to-use-and-understand climate control, nav, sound system and onboard computer.

I recall that during the whole test drive, in spite of the Prius recall during the week, that I loved the car, was not horrified by the price for what you get, and it made me feel good.


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