2004 Toyota Prius
Click image to enlarge. Exterior photos by Grant Yoxon. Interior images provided by Toyota Canada.

by Grant Yoxon

Pasadena, California – From the Mount Wilson Observatory, high in the San Gabriel Mountains, one can occasionally see the city of Los Angeles stretched out below and beyond it the Pacific Ocean. But on this day, the city is obscured – as it most frequently is – by a thick haze of ozone creating pollutants.

In the valley, it is just another warm, hazy day. But at 1,700 feet above sea level, the sky is a brilliant blue.

The smog – the term is a combination of smoke and fog – is often locked in place over the Los Angeles basin, trapped by a naturally occurring air inversion, by the mountains that surround the city and by the prevailing onshore winds that push the mess against the mountains.

Smog below Mount Wilson
Smog visible below Mount Wilson. Click image to enlarge

It is not hard to understand why the state of California has some of the most restrictive anti-pollution measures in the world and why it has aggressively pursued lower emissions from Mobile sources.

“Mobile sources,” what California’s Air Resources Board calls cars, trucks and motorcycles, account for well over half the emissions that contribute to ozone and particulate matter pollution in California.

The long term goal is to reduce those emissions to “near zero.” To do this, the State of California is depending on technological innovation and the near zero emissions that fuel-cell powered vehicles promise. But fuel cells are still a long way off .

While we wait for the fuel cell holy grail, manufacturers haven’t been sitting on their hands. They’ve been developing, building and, in the case of Toyota and Honda, selling vehicles – gasoline/electric hybrids – that contain some remarkable fuel saving and emission reducing technology.

Gasoline/electric hybrids take a variety of forms, but the basic set up involves combining an efficient gasoline engine with an electric motor, which together or separately provide power to move the car. The engine is coupled to a generator to produce electricity which is stored in a battery. The stored electricity powers the electric motor. Additional electricity is also captured from kinetic energy produced by the brakes and stored in the battery.

Because a gasoline/electric hybrid generates its own electricity, the vehicle never needs to be plugged in.

The first gasoline/electric hybrid to be sold in Canada was the Honda Insight, a two seater hybrid. It was soon followed, in 2000, by the Toyota Prius, an updated version of the Prius hybrid that had been sold in Japan since 1997.

For consumers considering a hybrid, actually buying one meant putting principles ahead of practical concerns. It meant putting trust in unproven technology, compromising on passenger and cargo space and paying a premium that could not be recovered in fuel savings in any reasonable time.

The Insight can only carry two people. The new Honda Civic Hybrid offers a hybrid drive train in a more conventional five seater compact car, but it is a $28,500 Civic. The Prius, priced at $29,990, was a little larger than a Corolla, but cost nearly twice as much as a base Corolla. For most consumers, it just didn’t make good financial sense to buy a hybrid.

Despite these shortcomings, Toyota has sold more than 150,000 Prius sedans around the world since 1997 allowing the company to recover its investment in the car. To their credit, over 1,100 Canadians put their principles first and bought a first generation Prius.

Still, these are not great numbers. Clearly, Canadians were not prepared to compromise their lifestyle to buy a hybrid.

Stephen Beatty, Managing Director of Toyota Canada, says, Canadians “are not willing to give up any of the attributes of their current vehicle and they are only willing to pay a small premium for environmental benefits.”

2004 Toyota Prius

2004 Toyota Prius

2004 Toyota Prius

2004 Toyota Prius
Click image to enlarge

Now things are about to change. The car I have driven to the top of Mount Wilson – the 2004 Toyota Prius – may well be the hybrid that North American consumers have been waiting for – a functional vehicle with proven technology and priced to compete with conventional mid-size sedans.

Mid-size? Yes. The new Prius is larger and more practical. It is longer, wider and has more space for both passengers and cargo. Although slightly smaller than a Camry, it is now classed as a mid-size sedan.

And with a base price of $29,990, the same as the much smaller 2003 Prius, the new car is more economical to buy and to own. Take into consideration the $1,000 the Government of Ontario (Ministry of Finance) or the B.C. government will give you to buy a hybrid and the Prius could compete against other mid-size sedans on price alone.

Add in fuel consumption that is nearly twice as good as a four-cylinder Camry – 4.3 Litres per 100 kilometres (65 miles per gallon) in combined city and highway driving compared to 8.6 L/100 km (34.5 mpg) – and the Prius begins to look like a bargain.

As well, with the Prius, buyers will get some of the most advanced technology found in any car built.

Toyota’s new hybrid system, named Hybrid Synergy Drive, is more sophisticated, more powerful and more fuel efficient than the previous generation Toyota Hybrid System.

The Hybrid Synergy Drive system combines a 1.5 litre 4-cylinder Atkinson Cycle gasoline engine with a permanent-magnet electric drive motor, a generator, high-performance nickel-metal hydride battery and a power control unit. It is a full hybrid system, meaning the Prius can operate in either gas or electric modes or on gas and electric power combined.

The engine produces 76 horsepower, 6 more than before, while the drive motor can produce 67 hp, up from 44. Innovative circuit technology in the power control unit allows the motor and the generator to operate at up to 500 volts, significantly improving power and extending electric-only operation. The motor produces peak torque of 295 lb.-ft from 0 – 1,200 r.p.m.

The new Prius will accelerate to 100 kilometres per hour in a respectable 10 seconds, compared to 12.6 seconds for the old Prius.

Energy created by the generator and regenerative braking is used to charge the nickel-metal hydride battery. With eight fewer cells (28 compared to 36) the new battery is smaller, lighter and more powerful than previous. It is warrantied for eight years, but Toyota expects it to last 15 years – the effective life of the vehicle.

Concerns about the cost of battery replacement dogged the original Prius. Stephen Beatty says that in Canada the company “has not replaced a Prius battery pack under warranty” since its introduction three years ago. In fact Toyota officials say the general warranty experience with the Prius has been better than with other Toyota products.

Emissions – already very low – have been reduced by 30 percent over the previous hybrid system. Hybrid Synergy Drive produces nearly 90 percent fewer smog-forming emissions than a conventional internal combustion engine. The Prius has been certified by the California Air Resources Board as a “Super-Ultra-Low-Emission-Vehicle.”

2004 Toyota Prius

2004 Toyota Prius

2004 Toyota Prius

2004 Toyota Prius

2004 Toyota Prius
Click image to enlarge

The new car includes many advanced features – a multi-function, touch sensitive display, steering wheel mounted audio and climate controls and keyless entry and start – standard features not normally found in a mid-size family sedan.

Gone are conventional throttle control and the shift lever. The Prius has an electronic throttle control (drive by wire) and an electronic shifter (shift by wire). Power is transmitted to the front wheels by an electronic continuously variable transmission. So the Prius has two ‘gears’, forward and reverse, in addition to a ‘Park’ setting. A small joy stick mounted on the dash is used to ‘shift gears’ with a tap of the finger.

Traditional belt driven air conditioning systems don’t work well with hybrid systems. The engine must be running for the air conditioning to work. Air conditioning in the Prius is fully electric and will continue to cool the cabin even when the engine is not running.

Climate controls and audio controls – the Prius includes a standard 6-speaker AM/FM/CD audio system – are managed via a touch sensitive display mounted in the centre of the dash. The screen also displays operating information about the Hybrid Drive System. Since fiddling with a touch screen can be distracting, audio and climate controls are also mounted on the steering wheel.

Keyless entry is standard, while a ‘smart key’ is optional. With the smart key, the doors will automatically open when the driver approaches the car and the key is not required to start the car. The smart key system is part of a $4,065 optional package that also includes vehicle stability control, Premium JBL audio with nine speakers, anti-theft system, fog lamps, garage door opener and front seat mounted side air bags and side curtain air bags.

It is unfortunate that these safety features cannot be ordered separately.

The Prius key is an unusual item. There is a typical metal key, but it is housed within the key fob. To start the Prius, you insert the fob into a slot in the dash, then press the start button, or simply press the button if the car is equipped with a smart key. The Prius starts silently, in electric mode. Activity on the centre display and a display mounted high on the dash under the windshield which houses the speedometer and odometer alerts the driver that the car is ready to go.

A tap of the shifter joystick puts the Prius into drive. As with every car, the accelerator pedal moves the Prius forward. All the features consumers now expect in a mid-size sedan are present – cruise control, power windows and doors locks, heated side mirrors, air conditioning and cabin air filtration.

And functionality has been greatly enhanced with the addition of a lift back and 60/40 split folding rear seats. The battery which was placed vertically between the rear seat and trunk in the old Prius, now resides under the floor just ahead of the rear axle.

Prius styling was and remains controversial. Some potential buyers were turned off by the “Echo-like” styling of the original Prius. These people are unlikely to warm up to the new Prius styling either, described as a “triangular monoform.” But it is a car that reaches into the future in more ways than one and its styling, depending on consumer taste, may well be as advanced as its technology. The unique triangular shape is aerodynamic – delivering a coefficient of drag of only 0.26..

As expected, the Prius is eerily quiet to drive. The Toyota system is geared toward urban driving – the engine shuts off at stop lights and starts imperceptibly only when required to assist the electric motor to accelerate the car or to charge the battery. The contribution of regenerative braking is also maximized in stop and go driving. As a result, the prius gets better fuel mileage in the city (3.9 L/100 km) than on the highway (4.7 L/100 km).

The regenerative brakes, equipped with anti lock and brake assist systems, are powerful. New electronics modulate the final few feet, providing a more natural stop.

2004 Toyota Prius

2004 Toyota Prius

2004 Toyota Prius

2004 Toyota Prius
Click image to enlarge

The Prius feels strong when the throttle is initially depressed, but wide open throttle can be deceiving. With its continuously variable transmission, acceleration is more linear than a standard automatic transmission that provides a rush of power to the shift point. I found myself urging the Prius forward, but certainly the Prius has sufficient power for freeway merging and passing.

As we drove up the steep, winding road to the Mount Wilson Observatory, we could see the power reserve in the battery declining, as the vehicle was using both engine and motor to accelerate and climb. On the way down, an often silent, electrically powered descent, braking at every turn, the battery quickly recharged

The new Prius is not perfect. I would wish for more pleasing surfaces on the dash and door panels for example. And despite improvements in performance, I would still like more power.

But the 2004 Prius is a giant step forward for gasoline/electric hybrids, launching the technology into the mainstream of the automotive market. The Toyota hybrid system has proven reliability, such that other manufacturers have expressed an interest in licensing it. Look for a Nissan Altima in the near future that combines a Nissan engine with Toyota’s electric components. A Lexus RX330 with Hybrid Synergy Drive that will provide six cylinder power with the fuel economy of a four cylinder engine is planned for next year.

Priced to compete against conventional sedans, The 2004 Prius will also put downward pressure on prices of existing hybrids and new hybrid vehicles about to enter the market. Consumers will have greater choice and fewer difficult decisions.

Stephen Beatty says, “If you can take two vehicles and price them comparably, operate them the same way, maintain them with the same frequency, obtain the same performance and reliability, and offer similar styling, we know that the Canadian consumer will choose the one that uses less fuel and creates fewer emissions.”

The 2004 Prius could well be that vehicle. It offers all the functionality (and more) that consumers would expect in a conventional sedan, plus the added bonus of planet-saving low emissions and industry leading fuel economy.

The 2004 Prius goes on sale in Canada this October, but it might be a few months before you can buy one. Current Prius owners – ‘Prius Pioneers’ – will be given the first opportunity to trade up for a new Prius.


Pricing and features: 2004 Toyota Prius

Base price $29,990
Options $4,065 (Vehicle stability control, Premium JBL audio with nine speakers, front seat mounted side air bags, side curtain air bags, Smart Key system, anti-theft system, fog lamps and garage dor opener.)
Standard features Six-speaker AM/FM/CD audio, cruise control, heated side mirrors, power windows and door locks, remote keyless entry, two-step dual front airbags, 60/40 split/folding rear seat.
Technical features shift-by-wire, electronic throttle control, electronically controlled regenerative braking with anti-lock and brake assist systems, electronic continuously variable transmission, traction control, electric inverter air conditioning, multi-function display and steering wheel mounted audio and climate controls, push button start.
Type Mid-size 5-door hatchback, gas-electric hybrid
Engine 1.5 litre 4-cylinder, DOHC 16 valves (high expansion ratio cycle)
Horsepower 76 at 5,000 r.p.m.
Torque 82 lb.ft. at 4,200 r.p.m.
Motor Synchronous AC motor
Horsepower 67 (50 kilowatts) from 1,200 – 1540 r.p.m.
Torque 295 lb.ft. from 0 – 1200 r.p.m.
Transmission Continuously variable
Fuel consumption City: 3.9 L/100 km (72.4 mpg)
  Highway: 4.7 L/100 km (60.1 mpg)

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