“While the potential cost of battery replacement in ten years is a disincentive to Prius ownership, it might help to recall that in 1991 a 1.5 gigahertz Pentium 4 desk top computer was not only unaffordable, it was unobtainable. And if you could buy such a computer, it would have cost a fortune and crashed routinely.”
Advanced technology that works
Toyota Canada’s decision to begin selling the fuel-efficient Prius in the frozen Prairies and the Maritime snowbelt on the first day of February was a gutsy move.
Prius is high technology and, as most anyone with a PC or high speed internet connection knows, technology is wonderful – when it works. So it is only natural that Canadians might wonder if a highly-sophisticated gasoline/electric hybrid vehicle that employs unfamiliar technology and a bunch of computers to monitor and manage itself could weather a Canadian winter.
Toyota is confident its technology is winter-worthy and launching a sales campaign in Saskatchewan in February is one way of showing it. But we wanted to see for ourselves how well the Prius performed in winter and took the opportunity to test drive the vehicle the same week Toyota launched its February sales campaign.
There is nothing like a temperature of -18 and a foot of snow to bring out the worst in any vehicle. Things you can never test in summer – the heater and defroster, traction and handling in snow and cold starting – often turn out to be a vehicle’s weak points.
But not the Prius’ weak points. The heater and defroster were among the best I’ve seen and traction and handling in snow were on par with most front wheel drive compact sedans. As for cold starting, I wish every vehicle could be this easy.
Starting the Prius is one of its unique features. You turn the key to the ‘on’ position, wait a few seconds for the vehicle’s computers and electronic systems to power up, then turn the key to the start position and let go. The Prius’ gas engine springs immediately to life, no cranking. There is no externally mounted starter or alternator. The Prius’ electric motor serves as a starter.
This is only one of the many ways in which the Prius’ 70 horsepower 1.5 litre four cylinder gasoline-fuelled internal combustion engine works in concert with the 33 KW (44 horsepower) permanent magnet electric motor that make up the dynamic duo in this gasoline/electric hybrid drivetrain.
The Prius operates on both or either of these power sources depending on a variety of load and road conditions. An electronic controller is the brains of the system, while a ‘power split device’, which functions as a continuously variable transmission, channels the power to the front wheels.
When demand for power is low, such as starting, travelling in stop and go traffic or stopping, the Prius is powered solely by the electric motor. The gasoline engine will start when more power is required, such as under acceleration, travelling at highway speeds or when required by use of accessories such as the air conditioner. At normal speeds, the gasoline engine is the primary power source, driving the wheels and a generator which supplies power to the electric motor and to the high voltage nickel metal-hydride battery. The engine and motor work separately and together, with the controller determining the ratio of power input from either source.
Under full acceleration, the gasoline engine receives assistance from additional power flowing to the electric motor from the battery. When decelerating or braking, the wheels drive the electric motor which acts as a generator and recharges the battery. When stopped, the engine will stop automatically unless the air conditioner is running. The system monitors itself continuously to ensure that it is running in the most energy efficient, least polluting mode.
The hybrid system operates without any input from the driver and goes largely unnoticed to driver or passengers. At first it is difficult to tell when the gasoline engine starts or shuts off – it is that seamless. But each component has its own unique, though almost imperceptible vibration or sound and you soon come to know when the vehicle is running under gas, electricity or both.
It is a quiet running car, even when the gas engine is operating and eerily silent at a stop light when the gas engine shuts down. Only when pushed will the sound of the gas engine intrude into the passenger compartment, but it is no worse than many non-hybrid compacts.
Performance – in the straight line acceleration sense of the word – is not a word you will associate with the Prius. The car has adequate acceleration for most requirements, such as merging into freeway traffic or highway passing, but zero to 100 kilometre times are leisurely. My entirely unscientific calculation – counting one thousand, two thousand… – recorded a zero to 100 km time of about 14 seconds with only the driver and over twenty seconds with driver and four passengers.
During my week with the Prius, we had plenty of snow in the Ottawa area. Handling on snow covered streets was uneventful. As with many compact front-wheel drive cars, there was a tendency to understeer, but nothing unusual.
Braking was excellent thanks to four-wheel ABS brakes (front disc/rear drum) and the Prius’ unique regenerative braking system, which converts energy, normally lost as heat, to useable energy to recharge the battery. As you press down on the brake pedal and the car slows, brake pressure seems to increase slightly. While disconcerting at first, you soon learn to modulate the brakes to account for the additional external brake force.
The hybrid drivetrain takes nothing away from interior space or functionality. With its short, steeply sloped front and short trunk lid, the Prius manages to squeeze as much space as a Camry from nearly the same dimensions as a Corolla.
The battery pack is placed directly behind the rear passenger seat, so there is no folding rear seat, but the trunk is bigger than you might expect and will hold plenty of luggage.
The Prius design is similar to the sub-compact Echo, with high seating positions and plenty of under seat foot room for rear seat passengers. Though tight, I would say rear seat room is better than most compact sedans. And rear windows roll down completely, something my children liked.
Like the Echo, the instruments are placed high and in the centre of the dashboard at the base of the windshield. Although some people find this location odd, I like it because I can see the gauges without taking my eyes off the road. The audio system is located below the instrument cluster, as is a 5.8-inch-wide touch-panel display monitor which shows the condition and energy flow of the hybrid drive system.
Audio system controls are split between buttons on the instrument cluster and touch screen controls on the display. This arrangement was unnecessarily confusing.
The transmission shifter is oddly located, sticking out from the dash, like a slot-machine handle. This unusual orientation is easy to get used to, but when in the drive position obscures some of the radio controls.
Those concerned about giving up modern comforts and conveniences to save fuel and contribute to environmental responsibility need not worry. The Prius comes equipped with a variety of standard features such as remote power door locks, engine immobilizer, power windows and mirrors, cruise control, automatic air conditioning, antilock braking system (ABS), AM/FM radio plus cassette and CD player. Optional equipment includes a block heater, cargo net, license plate cover, splash guards, wheel locks and a 6-disc CD changer.
Other features which enhance fuel efficiency include light weight aluminum wheels, low rolling resistance tires and heat absorption glass which enhances air conditioning efficiency in warm weather.
Standard safety features include four height-adjustable head restraints, three-point seatbelts in all five seating positions and SRS air bags for both driver and passenger.
Advertised gas consumption – as determined by Transport Canada – is 4.5 litres/100 kilometres in the city and 4.6 l/100 km on the highway. Government fuel consumption ratings, measured on a dynamometer, can’t replicate real world driving conditions. But real world experience is an unreliable measure too, because many factors – fuel pump shut off, driver habits, road conditions, use of accessories and ambient temperature to name a few – influence fuel consumption.
I averaged 7.2 l/100 km during two weeks of driving with two different drivers, while my co-tester registered 6.3 l/100 km. While we had hoped for better, extreme cold and excessive use of accessories such as the heater and defroster probably hurt fuel consumption.
The difference in fuel consumption recorded by two drivers may be explained by the Prius gas tank. The tank contains a plastic liner, or bladder, which minimizes evaporative emissions. As fuel is burned, the bladder collapses, minimizing the volume of gasoline vapour that would normally remain in the tank. Cold weather affects the flexibility of this bladder. As a result, it is practically impossible to fill the tank to exactly the same level at each fill-up making fill-up to fill-up measurements unreliable.
Nevertheless, fuel consumption is still considerably better than a four cylinder automatic equipped Toyota Camry, which Transport Canada rates at 10.1 l/100 km city and 6.8 l/100 km highway. Although fuel consumption didn’t meet expectations, remember you will get three times better gas consumption in a Prius than the average mid-sized SUV.
But saving fuel and money should not be the primary reason for buying a Prius – contributing to a cleaner environment would be a better justification.
The Prius meets the most stringent exhaust emissions standard, California’s Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (SULEV) standard. It 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 gasoline engine is a 1.5 litre DOHC 16 valve four cylinder engine with VVTi (variable valve timing), which helps to maximize efficiency across the full rpm range and minimize emissions. Also reducing emissions are a Toyota hydrocarbon absorber and catalyst system for reduced exhaust emissions.
The Toyota Prius is as clean running as a vehicle that burns gasoline can possibly be at this time. While not as clean as a pure electrical vehicle, it is a car you can use everyday, all day and in any season, without recharging batteries or carrying enormous battery weight. It also has all the functionality and familiarity of ‘normal’ gasoline powered cars.
The Prius’ nickel metal-hydride battery pack is warrantied for eight years or 160,000 km, as are all hybrid-related components, although Toyota says the battery should last 10 to 15 years. Toyota Canada won’t predict the cost of replacement (rumoured to be between $4000 and $7000 today) because it is expected that technological advancement will bring the price down.
And the technology is moving ahead rapidly. The battery pack in a Canadian Prius is 30 per cent lighter and 60 per cent smaller than the units in the Prius introduced in Japan in 1997.
While the potential cost of battery replacement in ten years is a disincentive to Prius ownership, it might help to recall that in 1991 a 1.5 gigahertz Pentium 4 desk top computer was not only unaffordable, it was unobtainable. And if you could buy such a computer, it would have cost a fortune and crashed routinely.
Prius is no PC. It is advanced technology that works.
|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|
|Peak Torque||258 ft-lb @ 0 to 400 rpm|
|Battery||Nickel metal hydride|
|Peak Horsepower||34 (25 kW)|
|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|