Environmentally-friendly, and practical too!
The Toyota Prius was not the first gasoline-electric hybrid car to be introduced in Canada (the Honda Insight took that honour), but it’s the first hybrid car that’s also a practical, five-passenger family sedan. Unlike most of its pure electric and hybrid-electric predecessors and contemporaries, the Prius is a real car that can be used in the real world, everyday.
With a few exceptions, most electric cars and hybrid vehicles are small, two-seater vehicles with limited luggage space. Most have never made it into production, but the few that have, such as GM’s EV-1 electric car (now discontinued) and Honda’s Insight hybrid, achieve low fuel consumption and low or zero emissions performance at the expense of passenger and cargo space.
The Prius, on the other hand, offers excellent fuel economy (average 4.6 l/100 km/62 mpg) and meets strict SULEV (super ultra low emissions vehicle) standards while offering a comfortable, surprisingly well-equipped five passenger interior and a decent-sized trunk.
The Prius’ suggested retail price of $29,990 is high for a compact sedan with 114 horsepower – but it’s only a few thousand dollars more than a similarly-equipped Toyota Camry. And as the Prius uses half as much gas as Camry, there are fuel savings to be considered. If you drive an average of 20,000 kilometres per year, the Prius will save you more than $500 per year in gasoline costs (calculated at 65 cents/litre) when compared with a four cylinder Camry.
The Prius’ hybrid powertrain consists of a 70 horsepower 1.5 litre four cylinder gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine, a 33 KW (44 horsepower) permanent magnet electric motor, a generator, a powerful 280 volt nickel metal-hydride battery, an electronic controller, and a ‘power split device’ which functions as a continuously variable (automatic) transmission. The Prius operates on both the engine and electric motor/battery – one or both of these power sources can drive the Prius depending on load and road conditions – the electronic controller makes that decision with no input from the driver.
As a general rule, when accelerating from a stop light, the Prius is powered by the battery/electric motor only. When more acceleration is needed the engine will turn on automatically and run by itself or in conjunction with the electric motor and the battery. When the engine is running it uses a generator to charge the battery, and when braking, a regenerative braking system also charges the battery, so there is never a need to recharge the battery separately. At ‘idle’, the engine shuts itself off to save gas and reduce exhaust emissions. The transition between the engine and electric motor while driving is, for the most part, seamless.
The Prius offers amazing gas mileage in the city: 4.5 l/100 km (61 mpg) – due in part to the fact the engine is not running a lot of the time! On the highway, where more power is needed, the Prius gets 4.6 l/100 km (63 mpg) – still quite amazing.
It also meets the strictest current exhaust emissions standards (other than zero emissions), California’s Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (SULEV) standard. SULEV is approximately 85 percent cleaner than Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) standard. The Prius is 90 per cent cleaner than conventionally powered cars, produces about 50 per cent less nitrous oxide and about 80 per cent less of other greenhouse gases.
The Prius braking system is an electronic “brake-by-wire” design. Front disc brakes and rear drum brakes include an anti-lock brake system (ABS). As well, the Prius has a regenerative braking system. When the vehicle is coasting or the brakes are applied, the motor is turned into a generator, capturing kinetic energy that would normally be lost as heat and transforming it into useable electricity to recharge the batteries. The system is particularly effective during stop-and-go driving in the city.
The Prius suspension consists of independent MacPherson struts in front and a semi-independent torsion-beam axle with toe-control links at the rear.
For the most part, the Prius drives like an ordinary car, so you won’t have to make any major adjustments when learning to drive the Prius. A couple of differences that you will notice right away: when the ignition key is turned, it must be released before the car ‘starts’. And when braking, the regenerative braking system adds additional braking force – as you apply the brake pedal, pedal pressure seems to increase, requiring you to release brake pressure slightly. Also, when coasting with the engine off, there is no engine braking.
The Prius 1.5 litre DOHC 16 valve four cylinder engine with VVTi (variable valve timing) develops 70 horsepower at 4500 rpm and 82 ft-lb. of torque at 4200 rpm. The 33 KW electric motor offers 44 horsepower between 1040 and 4500 rpm and an impressive 258 ft-lb. of torque between 0 and 400 rpm. With a total of 114 horsepower and a curb weight of 1255 kg (2766 lb.), the Prius goes from 0 to 100 km/h in 13.1 seconds – somewhere between quick and leisurely, or about three seconds slower than a Toyota Corolla. Off-the-line acceleration is quick enough to keep up with ‘non-hybrids’, and highway merging power is snappy enough to keep you ahead of looming semi-trailers.
Braking distances are as good or better than other compact cars, the Prius needing about 43 metres (141 feet) to brake from 100 km/h to 0.
The Prius’ electrically-powered steering requires little effort, but has virtually no ‘road feel’ – there’s little communication between the front wheels and the steering wheel. Handling, while reasonably balanced with minimal lean, is prone to understeer, and its limits can be reached fairly quickly. The Prius is not ‘sporty’ or ‘fun-to-drive’ but it is very comfortable personal transportation. Its soft ride, quiet and roomy cabin, and good outward visibility make it easy to drive around town.
The Prius’ passenger compartment is generally very quiet – not surprising since the gasoline engine isn’t running all of the time. Even when it is running, the engine emits a dull buzzing sound which gets louder under hard acceleration – but not any louder than a Corolla. When braking, the regenerative braking system makes a whining sound, and there’s a low whine from the electric motor. There’s also a minor, continuous rotational drumming sound from the hybrid drivetrain – I didn’t find any of these noises to be uncomfortable or intrusive – just unusual.
Even though the gasoline engine turns itself on and off as the car is in motion, it’s very hard to tell when it happens. The transition is surprisingly transparent. After a while you learn to feel and hear when the engine cuts in, but it’s very subtle.
Forward outward visibility is excellent – the short hood can’t be seen from the driver’s seat providing panoramic down-the-road visibility. Large side windows make lane-changing easier, and rear visibility is OK, but is hindered slightly by the add-on rear spoiler. I would recommend removing the rear spoiler.
Roomy, but unusual interior
Though the Prius is about as long as subcompact Corolla, it has the interior room of the mid-size Camry. This is because the Prius has a long passenger cabin and a very short hood and trunk. In addition, its body sides are very upright, increasing interior space.
The seats are covered in a soft cloth material, and the front bucket seats are quite wide and offer generous legroom. The rear bench seat is also very comfortable, in part because the front seats are raised allowing generous foot room for rear passengers under the front seats. The rear side windows will roll down all the way.
The driver’s and front passenger’s seating position is higher than normal, and the steering wheel is positioned quite low relative to the driver. Personally, I like this arrangement because it’s easier on the arms and provides panoramic outward visibility. But I know that some drivers will find it unusual.
The dashboard is similar to the subcompact Toyota Echo. There are no instruments behind the steering wheel – a bright green LCD digital instrument display is located on the top of the centre dash area. Toyota says it’s easier to refocus your eyes from the road to this position, and I have to agree – although I found I just couldn’t get used to seeing a blank space behind the steering wheel.
The digital instrument display includes a digital speedometer, transmission select numerals, fuel gauge and trip odometer – but no tachometer.
In addition to the digital instruments, there is a 15 cm wide screen in the centre of the dash which shows a real-time display of the energy path between the engine, electric motor, battery and wheels. The ‘touch’ screen also shows a bar graph display of electrical energy regeneration, instant fuel consumption, average fuel consumption, and outside temperature gauge, as well as some radio pre-select stations. The screen has the potential to be used for a navigation system at a later date.
A column shift lever for the transmission is positioned vertically just to the right of the steering wheel. After getting used to its unusual position, I found it just as easy to use as a conventional column lever because the lever pivots in line with the driver’s shoulder joint – kind of like a slot machine handle!
However, when in Drive position, the lever obscures the controls for the radio and some of the heater controls – oops!
The Prius comes equipped with many of the luxury features you’ll find in well-equipped gas guzzlers. Standard Prius features include automatic climate control, power windows, power door locks with remote key fob, automatic transmission, power mirrors, cruise control, and AM/FM/cassette/CD player – which just goes to prove that you don’t have to give up any luxury features to go green.
Optional equipment includes a a 6-disc CD changer, block heater, cargo net, license plate cover, splash guards, and wheel locks.
The standard AM/FM/cassette/CD includes a separate CD player under a cover in the lower centre dash area. The Prius also includes a foot-operated hand-brake, large central storage bin, two front cupholders which pull out from the front console, two rear fold-out cupholders, front map lights, front door map pockets, and four grab handles.
The Prius 335 litre (11.8 cu. ft) trunk is wide but not very deep, but still roomy for a car of this length. The Prius does not offer a folding rear seatback because the big nickel metal-hydide battery pack is positioned behind the rear seats.
For safety, the Prius has five three-point seatbelts, and four height-adjustable head restraints.
In addition to the standard 3 year/60,000 km warranty and 5 year/100,000 km powertrain warranty, the Prius includes an 8 year/160,000 km warranty on ‘hybrid-related components’, which includes the electric motor, generator, power split device, electronic controller, and battery.
An interim solution?
As advanced as the Toyota Prius is, I wonder if it’s only an interim step towards future hybrid gasoline-fuel cell cars and dedicated fuel cell vehicles. Some major vehicle manufacturers have already stated that they will introduce their first fuel cell vehicles in 2003 and 2004. Does that mean that today’s hybrid gas-electric cars will then be out of date? What will that do to the Prius’ resale value?
Another concern I have is battery life. The Prius’ 280 volt nickel metal-hydride battery pack is covered under the Prius’ eight year/160,000 km emissions warranty, but what will it cost to replace it after that? Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to obtain that information, but I’m guessing it will be in the two or three thousand dollar range. The possibility of an expensive battery replacement would also affect the Prius’ resale value.
If you buy the Prius new, you can expect to get at least eight years of life out of the battery. In addition, the whole car is covered by Toyota’s three year/60,000 km warranty and the powertrain is covered by a five year/100,000 km powertrain warranty.
Remember, if you hold on to your Prius for eight years, saving $500 a year in gasoline costs, you’ll save $4000 – enough for a deposit on a zero-emissions fuel cell vehicle!
|2001 Toyota Prius|
|Type||4-door, 5 passenger mid-sized sedan|
|Layout||transverse front gas engine/electric motor/front-wheel-drive|
|Engine||1.5 litre 4 cylinder, DOHC, 16 valves, VVTi|
|Horsepower||70 @ 4500 rpm|
|Torque||82 @ 4200 rpm|
|Electric motor||Permanent magnet, synchronous alternating current|
|Horsepower||44 @ 1040 rpm-4500 rpm|
|Torque||258 ft-lb @ 0 to 400 rpm|
|Battery||Nickel metal hydride|
|Transmission||power-split device (continuously variable)|
|Tires||175/65R-14 low-rolling resistance|
|Curb weight||1255 kg (2766 lb.)|
|Wheelbase||2550 mm (100.4 in.)|
|Length||4305 mm (169.5 in.)|
|Width||1695 mm (66.7 in.)|
|Height||1463 mm (57.6 in.)|
|Trunk space||334 litres (11.8 cu. ft.)|
|Fuel consumption||City: 4.5 l/100 km (61 mpg)|
|Hwy: 4.6 l/100 km (63 mpg)|
|Warranty||3 yrs/60,000 km|
|Powertrain warranty||5 yrs/100,000 km|
|Hybrid components warranty||8 yrs/160,000 km|