2004 Toyota Prius
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photos by Grant Yoxon

The 2004 Toyota Prius is a significant advance in gas-electric hybrid technology, a vehicle that eliminates many of the compromises found in the earlier model that, along with Honda’s Insight, pioneered the technology.

The new Prius is spacious and refined, as powerful as most four-cylinder compacts, and elegant in its design, features and technological sophistication.

No, it is not in any way sporty. Handling is still below where it should be. And fuel consumption, though excellent, cannot match Transport Canada’s published fuel economy rating. But it is way ahead, in terms of fuel consumption and emission reduction, of any four-wheeled vehicle that uses gasoline.

There is still an element of risk in buying a Prius. Long term owners may be faced with an expensive battery replacement 10 to 15 years down the road – but how expensive is impossible to determine. Much will depend on the popularity of the new Prius – in volume there is economy of scale.

The volumes, by the way, are growing. Toyota expects to sell 47,000 Prius in the US this year and took steps to increase production by 50 percent, from 10,000 units per month to 15,000 units, to meet demand that has left many consumers waiting months for a Prius.

Still the uncertainty about replacement costs for the nickel-metal hydride battery is an often cited reason not to purchase a gas-electric hybrid vehicle.

Other reasons to stick with a single-fuel gasoline engine – gas-electric hybrid systems are complex. Reliability is unknown. Only dealers will be able to fix them should a problem occur. Repair costs will outstrip any saving at the pump.

2004 Toyota Prius

2004 Toyota Prius

2004 Toyota Prius

2004 Toyota Prius
Click image to enlarge

To me it sounds a bit like deja vu. Remember carburetors? When fuel injection (FI) began to replace carburetors as the principal method of metering fuel in the early 1980s, there was plenty of resistance.

Remember the arguments? FI is too complex, too finicky and too expensive to fix. No one can repair it except a dealer with expensive diagnostic equipment. FI will drive private service facilities out of business.

Although the technology wasn’t new – GM had experimented with it in the fifties under the hood of a few Corvettes and Chevy sedans – its benefits couldn’t be overlooked. Fuel injection promised better fuel economy, lower emissions and more power from smaller engines. But those early FI systems were troublesome – not to mention expensive – and with plenty of cheap fuel available, power-hungry consumers couldn’t see the sense in paying a premium for a small fuel injected V8 when a far more powerful big block could be had for much less.

Fuel injection wouldn’t catch on as mainstream technology for more than two decades. It would take two oil crises, a tripling of oil prices, pressure from regulators to reduce emissions, and significant advances in computing technology before FI became the norm rather than an engineering oddity.

Today we can thank the advent of FI and a host of other advanced engine technologies like variable valve timing and electronic controllers for 250 horsepower V6s and in-line four cylinder engines that produce as much power as a V8 did forty years ago.

And rather than finicky, FI has also proven reliable. Can you imagine taking your car to the garage twice a year for a tune-up?

Early critics of fuel injection turned out to be just plain wrong.

Advanced hybrid technology will replace single fuel vehicles just as surely as FI relegated the carburetor to the museum of automotive technology.

While the old Prius and Honda’s Insight were pioneers, appealing mainly to early adopters and environmentally conscious consumers, this new Prius (and Honda’s hybrid Civic) is a car for every consumer. And like the pioneers that opened the western part of this continent two hundred years ago, it will soon be joined by a wave of hybrid vehicles entering the market over the next few years – hybrid versions of the Lexus RX330, Toyota Highlander, Ford Escape, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima are a few that we know about.

And with oil prices heading toward $60 a barrel the timing couldn’t be better.

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