It's the car that started it all. Back in 1997, Toyota introduced the original Prius, which was the first ever mass-produced gas-electric hybrid vehicle. When Toyota launched that first Prius it was venturing into uncharted territories, but that journey into the unknown was rewarded with the automaker's supremacy in the realm of hybrid vehicles, as well as bragging rights to the best-selling gas-electric hybrid vehicle in the world.
The car's name is a Latin word means "to go before" -- in this case denoting a car that was the first in what the forward thinkers at Toyota believed would eventually become the norm. Twelve years later, Toyota rolled out its redesigned third-generation Prius.
For the most part, Toyota is still building upon the basic Prius concept. The car retains a quirky hatchback design, continues to be powered by relatively basic nickel-metal hydride batteries and still offers relatively little to entice enthusiast buyers.
But there are a number of solid improvements and clever features included on the latest model that serve bolster the car's following and potentially lure new customers. These include a moonroof with solar panels, four driving modes, Intelligent Parking Assist (IPA), and steering wheel touch controls. A multi-information display panel that monitors fuel and energy consumption is also standard.
The first-generation Prius was rated 41 EPA mpg, and the second-generation model pushed that figure to 46 mpg. The third-gen model marks another significant incremental improvement to 50 miles per gallon combined, or 51 city, 48 highway mpg.
A larger and more powerful 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle, four-cylinder engine powers the car. Contrary to what one might think, the larger engine actually helps improve highway mileage. By making more torque, the new engine can run at lower average rpm on the highway. Combined output is now rated at 134 horsepower.
An electric water pump and a revised exhaust gas recirculation system also boost efficiency. Furthermore, the engine has no belts under the hood, resulting in better fuel economy and less potential maintenance. The latest transaxle and inverter are both 20 percent lighter, reducing the car's overall weight.
Weight was also saved through use of aluminum in the hood, rear hatch, front suspension axle, and brake calipers. Lighter steel is used in the rocker inner, center pillar, and roof reinforcement.
The Prius offers three alternative driving modes. EV-Drive Mode allows driving on battery power alone at low speeds for about a mile, if conditions permit. There is also a Power Mode, which increases sensitivity to throttle input for a sportier feel, and an Eco Mode, which helps the driver achieve the best possible mileage.
Other energy-saving features include available LED low beams and taillights, a more efficient air conditioning system, and a unique ventilation fan that promises to reduce the need for air conditioning in the first place.
The air circulator -- which is powered by solar panels -- prevents the interior air temperature from rising while the vehicle is parked. This, in turn, makes cool-down time shorter when the driver returns to the vehicle.
The air-conditioning system is also capable of running with the engine off, so the driver can adjust the interior temperature for comfort before getting in the car -- an industry first.
Toyota says it listened to customer feedback, and sharpened handling, reduced road noise, increased interior volume, and improved acceleration. The zero to 60 mph sprint takes 9.8 seconds now -- an improvement of over one second. Disc brakes are now used on all four corners, replacing the front disc/rear drum brakes in the previous model.
Interior space was increased considerably, both by making the car larger and making the cabin design more efficient - the car is 0.4 inches longer and 2.2 inches wider. The battery cooling unit also takes up less space, providing more room for passengers. Rear legroom is further improved thanks to thinner front seats.
Dynamic Radar Cruise Control system is now an available option. The system also enables Lane Keep Assist, which helps the driver stay safely within the lane, and the Pre-Collision System, which retracts seatbelts and applies the brakes in certain conditions when a crash is unavoidable.
The next-generation Intelligent Parking Assist features simplified settings to help guide the car into parking spaces. A backup monitor, which provides a view of rear obstacles when reverse is engaged, is available with an optional voice-activated navigation system. Safety Connect, Toyota's first safety and security service, is also available.
Those looking for an added dose of sportiness in their Prius should consider the Plus Performance Package. This options package starts with a seven-piece aerodynamic ground effects kit that delivers an aggressive and lower-profile stance, including front and rear bumper spoilers, sleek side skirts and a uniquely styled rear diffuser. The custom body kit was aerodynamically designed and engineered to reduce the vehicle's coefficient of drag.
Complementing the body kit are race-inspired 17-inch forged alloy wheels. The higher strength-to-weight ratio reduces the upsprung weight, assists in keeping the corner weight down and performance up, while maintaining the Prius' overall light vehicle weight and high fuel efficiency. The wheels are fitted with low profile 215/45R17 tires and have a custom offset, which increases track width while maintaining low rolling resistance.
The performance side of the PLUS package includes track-tuned, lowered springs that decrease height by 1.1 inches in the front and 1.3 inches in the rear. This enhances the vehicle's on-road performance through quicker turn-in, enhanced steering response and improved cornering ability. A tuned rear sway bar is added to help reduce body lean for flatter cornering and maneuverability. The sway bar is constructed of high carbon spring steel, powder coated to prevent corrosion and road damage
The Toyota Prius has enjoyed a market segment all to itself for years, still to this day not having one true, direct alternative. There are many options, however, if hatchback utility is a primary factor - such as with the Ford Focus Hatchback, or Subaru Impreza Hatchback. There are also strong fuel economy stars like the Volkswagen Jetta TDI, Chevrolet Cruze Eco. There is also a close competitor in the new Ford C-MAX Hybrid wagon.