2008 Toyota Prius. Click image to enlarge
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Review and photos by Jil McIntosh

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2008 Toyota Prius

Oshawa, Ontario – I remember the days when my car would stop running when I came to a light, and it definitely wasn’t a good thing. Little did I ever think the time would come when I’d pull up to a red and feel very good about the fact that it did. That’s just one of the tricks the Toyota Prius has up its sleeve to improve its fuel economy and reduce its emissions.

The Prius remains the best-known of the hybrid vehicles, and for good reason. It’s the oldest of the available gasoline-electric nameplates in North America – it was actually the first mass-produced hybrid, but the now-defunct Honda Insight made it to our shores first. It’s the only one that isn’t a hybrid version of an existing gasoline model, and as such, can’t be mistaken for anything else. Its oddball styling isn’t to all tastes, but that’s an important marketing tool in itself. Many people want other drivers to know exactly what they’re piloting, and the Prius’ unmistakable lines broadcast that much more effectively than a green badge on an otherwise conventional vehicle.

For 2008, the Prius is upgraded with a few new safety and trim features: standard auto-dimming rearview mirror, garage door opener, 16-inch alloy wheels, coloured rear spoiler and fog lamps, along with front seat-mounted side airbags and curtain airbags.

2008 Toyota Prius. Click image to enlarge

The Prius comes in a single trim line, starting at $29,500, which includes a number of features such as air conditioning with steering wheel-mounted climate controls, CD stereo, power windows, power locks, floor mats, tonneau cover, cruise control, cargo net, tire pressure monitoring system, heated mirrors, variable intermittent wipers and automatic headlamps. My tester was further enhanced with a $3,030 Premium Package of stability control, six-CD stereo with auxiliary input jack, Bluetooth hands-free system, Smart Key system and backup camera; buyers can also opt for a $5,780 package that includes all of that plus a DVD-based navigation system.

The Prius uses a 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine with a system the company calls its Hybrid Synergy Drive, combining the gasoline engine with an electric motor and a sealed nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery pack, along with a continuously variable transmission (CVT). You don’t plug it in; instead, the system captures energy during slowing down and braking, and stores it as electricity in the battery pack.

It’s a full hybrid, meaning that it’s capable of running solely on electricity (mild hybrids can only use their electric motors to assist the gasoline engine). While the electronics that go into making it work must be phenomenally complex, what the driver sees is actually quite simple. The Prius can run solely on its gasoline engine; it can run on gasoline with assist from the electrical motor when more power is needed, such as during acceleration; it can run on electricity alone; and when you come to idle, the gasoline engine stops running. (The engine restarts using the electric motor, so there’s no fear of a conventional starter wearing out.) It all happens automatically, without any input from the driver, and it depends on several factors, including how well the battery is charged, how much throttle you’re using, and ambient and engine temperature; there is no switch to manually go from one mode to the other. For the most part, it’s seamless (sometimes there’s a slight shudder when the gasoline engine starts), and it can switch between the two modes at any time when you’re driving.

2008 Toyota Prius. Click image to enlarge

The gasoline engine by itself produces 76 horsepower at 5000 rpm, and 82 lb-ft of torque at 4200 rpm. The combined system of engine and electric motor produces a net 110 horsepower. The electric motor produces 295 lb-ft of torque and, like all electric motors, starts making its maximum power the moment it starts spinning. While the Prius is no sports car, it handles itself in everyday traffic, both on urban streets and the highway. The biggest drawback is that you find yourself unwilling to really push it (and often holding up traffic if you’re not careful), because you very quickly become obsessed with seeing just how little fuel you can use. And that’s easy because the Prius constantly lets you know.

The central display screen contains an “energy monitor”, and the first thing you have to do is learn to steal the quickest of glances at it (or turn the screen off entirely), because you’ll find yourself mesmerized by it and not looking at the road. The animated display works in real time, with a series of coloured lines and arrows that tell you if you’re running on gasoline, electricity or a combination of the two, along with a readout of current fuel economy. Touch the screen and it’ll take you to a series of bar graphs that show your average fuel use in five-minute intervals.

2008 Toyota Prius. Click image to enlarge

I have a love-hate relationship with the Prius’ interior. On the plus side I like the quality of materials, the roominess (the rear legroom is incredible for a midsize car), storage space (including a double glovebox), great visibility (helped by the double-window rear hatch), and the comfortable seats. Accessing the climate control requires pressing a button to reach its computer screen (not good), but there are redundant buttons on the steering wheel for adjusting the temperature and switching to automatic climate control (still not as good as real centre-stack dials, but better than the computer screen alone).

What’s bad? The dash is a very odd and not terribly attractive shape, with a weird texture to the plastic; the speedometer is a digital readout, which I don’t like; while the considerable number of wheel-mounted buttons are backlit, the only light on the door controls is for the driver’s window; the centre console and door armrests are covered in soft brushed fabric instead of easy-clean vinyl; and I want to have a long talk with the engineers who came up with the starting system and gearshift lever. I think starter buttons are silly at the best of times, but to put one on a hybrid vehicle is unforgivable. While owners may get used to the sequence, it’s simply ridiculous that you don’t need a key to operate a vehicle that stops running when it decelerates. It is not intuitive to shut off a car that has already shut off, and if you don’t press the button before you get out, the car’s electrical system remains active. I left it on in a Nissan Altima Hybrid, and I did it in the Prius, too.

The gearshift lever is a little knob jutting out of the dash, which must be pulled over and up for Reverse, and over and down for Drive. Put it into Reverse, and there’s a backup warning chime that continues to beep inside the car for as long as you’ve got it in Reverse. I can understand a beep when you first put it into the backup gear, but this incredibly annoying device just keeps on going, sounding exactly like the warning signal on a delivery truck – except that those are on the outside of the vehicle. Faced with the prospect of sitting and waiting for three cars to go by before I could back out of my driveway, I put the car into Drive rather than listen to this damn thing.

The shifter’s “B” setting is for engine braking, and you can pop the lever down into it to slow the car on hills, although you must then pull the lever sideways and down again to return to Drive. The final item is Park, which is not a spot on the lever but a separate button that must be pressed. If there’s anything I truly hate about the Prius, it’s this unnecessarily complicated two-step gearshift system.

This was the first Prius I’d driven since the car was initially introduced into Canada, and it’s certainly come a long way. That first model followed every rut in the road, and its handling was so vague that it felt like the wheels weren’t connected to the steering wheel. The electric steering still feels a bit numb, and it requires a lot of correction on the highway, but overall, the driving experience is fine, especially for a car that’s meant to spend most of its time in the city. Hybrid brakes can often be very stiff and artificial, but those on the Prius have a nice, conventional feel to them. I live in the country, and according to the instant-read consumption meter, got my best mileage during a couple of trips into the heart of Toronto when I could take the most advantage of the idle stop feature and was more likely to run on the battery alone. My overall combined fuel economy was 5.3 L/100 km, compared to the published combined figure of 4.1 L/100 km. That’s the thing with the Prius, or with any other hybrid: while I’m certainly not complaining about my mileage, which worked out to a phenomenal 53 mpg Imperial, each driver has to look at how the vehicle will be used, how it will be driven, and measure the purchase price against the fuel savings.

2008 Toyota Prius. Click image to enlarge

The Prius is also fairly cargo-friendly. With the seats up, the cargo space measures 90 cm in length, and when you lift the floor panel, there’s a plastic storage well under it. Unlike some hybrids, which either have fixed rear seats or a protruding battery pack that juts into the trunk and limits storage, the Prius’ rear 60/40 seat folds and opens the space completely (there’s a battery air intake alongside the seatback that stays put). It isn’t quite flat, but it increases the storage space to 152 cm in length. The front passenger seatback can also be fully reclined, and while it isn’t exactly flat either, it’s possible to carry long, narrow objects up to 255 cm in length.

The overall vehicle warranty is three years or 60,000 km comprehensive, and five years or 100,000 km on the powertrain components. Items related to the hybrid system, including the battery pack, battery control module, hybrid control module and the inverter/converter are covered for eight years or 160,000 km. Toyota estimates that replacing a battery pack out of warranty would probably be similar in price to replacing a transmission, but also reports that while it has had a recycling program set up since the Prius’ introduction in 2001, it has not received any defective batteries.

I have a secret to confess: over the years, I’d lost touch with the Prius, and I know it’s entirely because of outside forces. Quite simply, I do not believe the resolution to our transportation and environmental issues is going to be a single, simple answer, but rather, a number of solutions, with each person picking the one that best suits his or her needs. But many people like a simple answer, and “drive a Prius” was adopted by many. Not long ago, I picked up a magazine that asked a number of celebrities what would make this world a better place. The sole automotive answer came from a woman who said, “A Prius in every driveway.” That infuriated me, because not every person is the right fit for this car, and that’s the type of parrot answer that doesn’t help anyone.

So I got into the Prius with that preconceived prejudice, and also with the memory of that inaugural model’s iffy handling. And I’m glad to say that, with the exception some aforementioned interior issues, this car has won me over. It’s roomy, it’s fun, it’s fascinating, and I sure liked pulling up to the pump marked $1.06 per litre and spending only $32.03 to go 595 km. This car is not going to single-handedly save the planet, not by a long shot. But it’s certainly proving itself to be a viable piece of a very complicated puzzle.

Pricing: : 2008 Toyota Prius

Base price: $29,500
Options: $3,030 (Premium Package of vehicle stability control, premium JBL Audio with six-disc CD changer and auxiliary input jack, nine speakers, Bluetooth capability, Smart Key system and backup camera)
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,240

Price as tested: $33,870
Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives

  • Specifications: 2008 Toyota Prius

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