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First Drive: 2004 Toyota Prius

Hollywood Hybrid

By Ed Hellwig

Date Posted 08-25-2003

Try to forget for a minute all your preconceptions about electric cars, alternative fuel vehicles and anything else that uses giant electric plugs or joystick steering levers. The 2004 Prius is a real car for real people, and although the previous version became a status symbol for environmentally conscious Hollywood superstars, the second-generation model is just as capable of scoring points with middle-class families from the Midwest.

What is it about the all-new version that transforms it from high-tech curiosity into a mainstream family sedan? Size for one, as the Prius has moved up from its former compact classification to official midsize status. Power is another, with an all-new drive system that offers quicker acceleration along with even greater efficiency. And finally, features, as the options list has grown to include items like a DVD-based navigation system, xenon headlights and even a keyless entry and start system.

More importantly, despite all the improvements, the Prius still carries a base price of just $20,000 — a bottom line that makes it as attractive for its price as it is for its technology.

Introduced to the U.S. market three years ago, the 2001 Prius wasn't the first hybrid vehicle on the market, but with four doors, a reasonable amount of passenger and cargo space and as much as 52 miles to the gallon in the city, it didn't take long for it to become the most popular. By combining the practicality of a small gasoline engine with the efficiency and cleanliness of an electric motor, the Prius' hybrid power plant not only offered excellent mileage and clean emissions, it never needed to be plugged in.

The 2004 Prius builds on the previous system with its new Hybrid Synergy Drive. Toyota boasts that the new power plant is a "full hybrid system" that can run solely on electricity, gas or a combination of both. Its 1.5-liter gas engine produces 76 horsepower, up six from before, and 82 pound-feet of torque. The electric motor is also more powerful, generating the equivalent of 67 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque, up 23 and 37 notches, respectively.

Such meager numbers might seem unimpressive for a midsize sedan, but with the Prius' lightweight and slippery shape, it feels more powerful than the numbers would suggest. Toyota claims that its hybrid's 0-to-60-mph time has dropped from 12.7 seconds to a more respectable 10 seconds, on par with most four-cylinder sedans. Out on the road, it's hesitant from a stop, but once it begins to build speed, there's plenty of midrange power. It's not quick by any means, but unlike the previous version, you're not reminded of the fact that you're driving a hybrid vehicle every time you step on the gas.

Even more impressive is the fact that although the Prius delivers much improved acceleration, its EPA mileage figures have been improved as well. With a combined city/highway rating of 55 miles to the gallon, the Prius is not just the most economical midsize sedan — it's one of the most economical cars on the road, period. Toyota also claims that its exhaust emissions have been reduced by 30 percent over the previous model earning it both SULEV (Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle) and PZEV (Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle) ratings.

None of these stats would be as impressive, however, if the car itself wasn't a practical everyday vehicle. Although the original Prius offered adequate space compared to most compact sedans, with a price that was several thousand dollars more, you were paying for the privilege of its economy. Now longer, wider and taller, the second-generation model offers more space in every direction. It's still not as big as a Camry, but two adults can sit comfortably in back.

Many of the design cues found in the original version have been carried over, but the overall look is more upscale than before. Materials quality has been improved, and the addition of metallic accents on the vents, center console and doors brightens things up a little. The gauge cluster is still positioned toward the center of the dashboard, but the display is now larger for easier viewing. In place of the ungainly column shifter used in the previous version, the latest Prius sports a smaller, easier-to-manipulate lever just to the right of the steering wheel.

Instead of a traditional twist-and-turn ignition key, the Prius uses a newfangled fob that merely slides into the dashboard as a signal to the car's computer to get ready to go. You then hit the "start" button, wait for the cadre of computer control units to spring to life, and then go. To up the Jetsons factor even more, there's also an optional keyless system. Just keep the fob in your pocket or purse, and when you lift the door handle the car automatically unlocks. To start the car, you just get in and push the start button as the computer automatically senses the presence of the fob without your ever having to pull it out.

Once activated, there's no hum from the engine or any other sign that the car is running, but press the accelerator, and it takes off with a quiet murmur that grows into a moderate buzz once the small four-cylinder gas engine kicks in. With little engine noise and a soft, forgiving suspension, the Prius feels refined beyond its budget sticker price. The standard continuously variable transmission (CVT) has no gears, so choices are limited to forward, reverse and neutral. A BrakeAssist feature is also available for keeping your speed down on long descents.

As in the previous version, an information display in the center of the dash can be toggled to show either a pictogram of the power flow between the two engines, or more detailed numerical charts if that's what you're into. The screen also serves as the interface for the climate controls, a setup that usually makes for overly complicated operation, but in this case it's straightforward enough not to be annoying. Also included are standard steering wheel satellite controls that allow you to bypass the screen entirely when adjusting either the radio or the climate control system. A newly available DVD-based navigation system also makes use of the screen should you check it off the options list, and like all Toyota nav systems, it's easy to use at a glance.

Other options include a premium JBL audio system, satellite radio, high-intensity discharge (HID) headlamps, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and an alarm system. For added safety, you have the option of adding side airbags for front occupants, head curtain airbags that cover the front and rear and a Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) system. All models come standard with antilock brakes, a tire-pressure warning system and traction control.

The '04 Prius' larger exterior dimensions translate directly into a more spacious interior, with more room for the driver and passengers in almost every direction. Although legroom up front has been reduced by just over an inch, there's still enough room for drivers over six feet tall to get comfortable. The steering wheel position takes some getting used to and the seats could use better contouring, but considering the car's modest price, there's not much to complain about.

Additional leg- and shoulder room in back make the Prius a legitimate four-person car, but headroom is still tight for taller passengers. Not only has cargo space increased to a more Camry-like 16.1 cubic feet, it's easier to access thanks to the Prius' new hatchback design. Fold the rear seats and there's plenty of room to haul bulky items that would otherwise never fit into the trunk of a traditional sedan.

Hatchback practicality is just another reason why the Prius is more than just a green machine with funky styling. If you want nothing more than an inexpensive, well-built sedan to cart the family around, the Prius would serve you well. The fact that it also gets incredible mileage while generating significantly lower emissions than any other car on the road makes it all the more appealing. Throw in traditional Toyota build quality, a sharp-looking interior and the pseudo-celebrity status you'll get just for driving one, and the Prius is one high-tech hybrid anybody could love.


great....now the wheels are too small...

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Originally posted by bigpoppanils

Other options include a premium JBL audio system, satellite radio, high-intensity discharge (HID) headlamps, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and an alarm system. For added safety, you have the option of adding side airbags for front occupants, head curtain airbags that cover the front and rear and a Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) system. All models come standard with antilock brakes, a tire-pressure warning system and traction control.

Vehicle stability control gets cool reception in USA

By Jayne O'Donnell, USA TODAY

What if there were a way of preventing vehicle rollovers, but no one knew about it? That's not far from the situation facing auto suppliers who make stability control systems, which sense when drivers are about to lose control of their vehicles and help them regain it.

By preventing spinouts and other mishaps, stability control could reduce single-vehicle crashes by up to 35%, studies in Europe and Japan show.

That kind of crash prevention could save as many as 6,000 lives a year in the USA. Almost 90% of rollover accidents involve a single vehicle and about a quarter of the 42,000 car-crash fatalities every year are in rollovers.

On vehicles with stability control, sensors detect when a driver is about to lose control of a vehicle, and brakes are applied at the necessary wheels to bring it under control.

Despite what many believe is compelling evidence that stability control works, government regulators aren't endorsing it, safety advocates are pushing vehicle redesigns instead of it, and automakers are slow in installing it.

Just 6% of vehicles on the road here have stability control, compared with 30% in Germany.

No warm embrace

Auto suppliers and safety experts cite several factors for the resistance — or at least cool reception — in the USA to a potentially life-saving technology:

• Car companies are under intense pressure to keep prices down and don't want to add an expensive technology that isn't in hot demand. Stability control sells for $300 to $1,000, but the price will go down as it gets more popular.

• Car buyers in the USA don't appear to be as interested in safety technology as those in Europe, where auto magazines are prolific and cover safety as aggressively as they cover horsepower.

• Government officials and some safety advocates have been leery about embracing new safety devices after air bags and anti-lock brake systems (ABS) proved to have dangerous downsides when they weren't used properly.

Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, is approaching stability control cautiously because he sees parallels between the technology and the early promise of ABS, which he strongly endorsed.

ABS did not prove to be as effective as hoped and has contributed to some crashes, in part because many people didn't know they weren't supposed to pump the brakes.

"There's a danger with these technologies that one can get seduced with test-track performance," says O'Neill.

But he says that in the case of stability control, testing shows that at least in the case of sport-utility vehicles it has potential for preventing rollovers.

SUVs are more prone to roll over because of their taller, proportionately narrower stance. An increase in SUV and pickup rollovers in 2002 accounted for more than half of the increase in fatalities to people in vehicles last year.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which says vehicle rollover is one of its top priorities, also has been reticent about stability control. Agency officials say there are too many versions on the market for them to make any sweeping recommendations. They plan to study the effectiveness of stability control in a few years, when it becomes more widely available.

There are no standards on how stability control systems must perform, but the National Transportation Safety Board recommended last month that NHTSA should require the technology — and set standards for it — if NHTSA's planned study shows it is effective.

A high-end feature

Auto suppliers Delphi, Continental Teves, TRW and Bosch all sell versions of stability control. It is most common on high-end vehicles but is becoming more popular as an anti-rollover feature on SUVs. BMW and Audi models are among those offering stability control as standard equipment. Luxury and other carmakers offering optional stability control include Acura, Infiniti, Jaguar, Lexus, Saab, Toyota and Volvo.

Bill Kozyra of Continental Teves is frustrated with the slow acceptance. A DaimlerChrysler study of single-vehicle accident rates in Mercedes-Benz vehicles in Germany showed single-vehicle crashes dropped 29% from 1999 to 2000 after stability control became standard.

A Toyota study in Japan showed even better results: a 35% reduction in single-vehicle crashes and a 30% reduction in head-on crashes.

"This is a proven safety technology that saves lives," says Kozyra. "As an industry, we need to make these types of safety technologies standard equipment."

Kozyra says the industry has a "huge educational undertaking" to get people to know enough about stability control to ask for it as an option if it's not standard equipment.

When stability control is offered as an option, it's often part of an expensive package of features. But, Kozyra says, it's still often cheaper than, and should be preferable to, a CD player or sunroof.

Josef Pickenhahn, TRW's vice president of braking engineering, says there shouldn't be a choice: "Safety shouldn't be an option."

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Stability control is gay.

if you roll your fucking minivan or your sport-utility veehickle over on the way to the stupid grocery market, or on the On-Ramp to the highway because you're too fucking stupid to know how to control a vehicle and understand the concept of "center of gravity", then [and say it with me now]


we're going to give handicap technology to people who shouldn't be piloting a tricycle, nevermind a three ton Lincoln Navigator or even one of today's goofy "taller is better" sedans.

So basically we're making it easier for people who dont know how to control cars, to get on the road and trod along until just the right situation where their stupidity coupled with the vehicle's inability to manuver, is going to put their ass in a jam.

and if my MR2 is hurt in the process, then may God have mercy on their souls because I sure as hell won't.

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