Slowly but surely, Americans are getting the opportunity to choose hybrid vehicles, those fuel-efficient cars that use both gasoline and electricity.
The second such model on our shores, Toyota's Prius, arrived for the 2001 model year and shows just how well the novel technology can work to power a compact sedan.
With a length of nearly 170 inches and width of 66.7 inches, the four-door Prius is similar to the Toyota Corolla in size, but 4 inches taller.
But with estimated fuel economy of 52 mpg in the city, the Prius delivers 20 more miles from each gallon of gas in urban driving than does a manual-transmission Corolla.
The Prius is also a "cleaner" car in terms of emissions. It's one of the few vehicles on the road that's certified by the government as a super ultra low-emission vehicle (SULEV).
Toyota officials say the Prius is such an environmentally friendly car, it doesn't include an ashtray.
Most newfangled, high-mileage vehicles have, over the years, looked cramped and other-worldly and forced buyers to change their driving habits. Electric cars, for example, offered limited range and needed to be plugged in between trips.
But the gas-electric hybrids are not as finicky. The first hybrid offered in the United States was the Honda Insight, which went on sale in December 1999.
A two-seat hatchback, it's smaller and lighter than the Prius and comes only with a manual transmission. The Insight is designed to maximize fuel economy. In fact, it's rated as the most fuel-efficient new vehicle in the country, getting an estimated 61 mpg in the city and 70 mpg on the highway.
The beauty of the Prius is it seats up to five, has a decent-sized trunk and is driven just like a regular car.
In fact, anyone getting in the driver's seat wouldn't automatically realize the complex power system at work under the little Prius hood.
Drivers do, however, immediately notice a sort of "mod," space-age design to the Prius dashboard.
For one thing, the gearshift stalk juts out awkwardly from the dashboard, to the right of the steering wheel, rather than from the steering column.
In the middle of the dash is a rather sizable, 5.8-inch-wide display screen that features a schematic showing an engine, an electric motor, a battery and a tire. Arrows point to the graphics during driving to indicate what power sources the Prius is tapping. It's educational but, frankly, a little distracting.
I squealed the tires on this car easily, partly because of the low rolling-resistance tires that Prius wears. They're made of a hard rubber and are designed for maximum fuel economy.
Another factor, though, is the Prius hybrid system that manages power from an onboard electric motor, a nickel-metal-hydride battery and a 1.5-liter, four-cylinder, gasoline engine.
Essentially, the system constantly monitors throttle position, speed and battery power and assesses what power source is the most efficient. It could be just the electric motor or the gasoline engine or a combination. All of it is handled in a very seamless way and doesn't affect driver behavior.
For example, electric motors are known for their great torque, and the 33-kilowatt motor in the Prius is no exception. It provides a full 258 foot-pounds of torque to get this car scooting -- and quickly. See why the tires can squeal so?
But torque from the electric motor is tapped pretty quickly, up to 400 rpm, and that's where the 70-horsepower gas engine comes in. On highway runs, it's the primary power source.
The neat thing is you don't really notice when the power source is changing. There's no jerking or strange noise.
In fact, the Prius provides some unexpected moments of silence when the engine turns itself off.
This can happen when you're at a stoplight or stuck in a traffic jam. The idea is to conserve fuel by not keeping that engine idling unnecessarily. When needed, the engine starts up again at the press of the accelerator.
Handling in the front-wheel-drive Prius didn't quite match my expectations.
The front-wheel-drive car is relatively heavy for its size, at 2,765 pounds, and steering feels heavy, and the small, 14-inch tires don't provide the grip a sporty-minded driver might want.
The Prius brakes also took getting used to. An initial press on the brake pedal seemed ineffective so I pressed harder. Suddenly, then, the car braked sharply. This made it difficult to modulate braking.
The cause? The Prius uses regenerative braking to capture excess energy as the car brakes, so the electric motor turns into a generator at this time to recharge the batteries. This does affect the braking sensation.
Toyota advertises the Prius as a five-passenger car, but the back seat would be a tight squeeze for three adults. Two sit back there just fine as do three children, though the flat, bench-like seat has an inexpensive, foam cushion feel.
All riders sit a bit higher than they do in a traditional car. This, and a low-positioned dashboard and very short hood, help give the Prius driver good visibility.
But gauges aren't in front of the driver. They're in the middle of the dashboard, up by the windshield, as they are in another Toyota car, the Echo.
Toyota claims this positioning causes less strain on drivers' eyes as they shift focus from the road to the gauges and back again.
Trunk space in the Prius is a competitive 11.8 cubic feet.
Commendably, the Prius is priced to sell, with a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price plus destination charge of $20,450. That compares with $19,420 for the Honda Insight.
Toyota projects 12,000 Prius sales in the United States in the 2001 model year. Some car shoppers may worry about committing to a new-technology car. Toyota's research shows Americans tend to be more cautious than Japanese consumers. To help allay concerns, the Prius comes with an eight-year/100,000-mile warranty on the battery and hybrid-related components.
Because the Prius is a new model, Consumer Reports does not list reliability reports.
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