March 25, 2009 at 1:00 am

Scott Burgess: Auto Review

Toyota's revamped Prius hybrid gains higher mileage, better interior

The new Prius keeps its iconic profile but the car has been stretched slightly -- about a half inch. The bump on the roof was moved back. (Toyota Motor Corp.)

The worst possible gas mileage you'll ever get in the 2010 Toyota Prius is 26.8 miles per gallon.

I know this because I did every thing humanly possible to beat this redesigned hybrid into submission.

The car's sticker reads an eye-popping 51 mpg city, 48 mpg highway -- 50 mpg combined -- and most people will best that mileage without even trying. So I had to see what it would do if I did everything wrong.

I rolled the windows down, turned the AC on high and gunned the 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine in the parking lot, hoping to spin the optional 17-inch low rolling resistant tires in defiance; let's put all 134 horses, a combined total from the engine and electric motor, to work.

Clicking on the headlights and toying with the sunroof like a 6-year-old, I wanted to leave the car's batteries depleted by the time I returned. Thumping the accelerator harder than John Bonham thwacks the drums in the "Immigrant Song," I took off with a laugh.

The course Toyota set up in Napa, Calif., for journalists testing the vehicle was supposed to demonstrate how efficient the company has made its third-generation Prius. But Toyota wasn't going to fool me with its California eco-speak. Detroiters know better: The Prius is evil.

It has insidiously crept its way into the mainstream automotive world with its high mileage, clean emissions and cult following. Half gas, half electric, it's a marketing monster, devouring everything around it -- including Detroit's lunch -- with a silent little electric hum. The new model is even quieter, as it debuts its first completely belt-free engine. Every accessory, from the air conditioning to the water pump, is electric only.

Prius best in midsize mileage

I took to the road in "braking mode" instead of "drive." The brake mode is great for cruising down mountainsides but lousy for attempting to achieve respectable gas mileage. Every time I took my foot off the accelerator, the engine would start to slow the car through compression braking. (Think downshifting on a manual.) And I was doing my best to never let the hybrid system take over -- Toyota has improved 90 percent of the system. When the engine silently shuts off at traffic light, you can't even rev in neutral.

Foiled again!

This is the car that embodies all of Detroit's fear and loathing. People throughout America think the word Prius means hybrid. Make that mistake in Motor City and auto executives break out in facial ticks. It's no wonder I wanted to take out my misguided aggressions on it.

But coasting this 3,000-pound machine up hills and accelerating down them, randomly coming to a full stop before flooring it again, did not work. The Prius still bested the city mileage of every single gasoline midsize sedan.

Sorry Detroit, I tried.

With no attempt to hyper-mile, the new Prius will likely top 60 mpg. Seventy miles per gallon is not impossible and requires just a little concentration.

But, wait, it gets worse.

Quirkiness replaced with function

Toyota's overhaul makes the Prius almost fun to drive -- certainly a lot more fun than the previous generation. Some of the car's quirkiness has been replaced with function and Toyota has given the Prius a significantly better interior.

If the first-generation Prius was a gimmick, and the second generation a threat, the third generation just might be a punch in the gut for anyone trying to catch it. It's scary good. Here's why:

  • The new Prius is better looking. Toyota has managed to keep the iconic profile and make it better. The car is stretched slightly (just over half an inch) and designers moved back that bump on the roof. The exterior sheet metal has sharper creases, giving it a much cleaner look. It looks like an unfinished pinewood derby entry, but if it was, it'd probably win. Due to exterior changes and wind channeling under the car, the Prius is one of the slipperiest cars in a wind tunnel. (Geeks might appreciate a drag coefficient of .25 -- I only know that I've never seen that number associated with a mass produced car.)

  • Improved is an understatement: Every change Toyota made spiraled into more improvements. It shrunk many of the hybrid's key components, creating more interior space and a lighter vehicle; it used a bigger engine to give it more power as well as run at lower rpm and use less gas; it added three driving modes to the car, and even the power mode is more efficient than if you tried to drive aggressively. (I had to turn off the power mode in order to lower the mileage. I never considered the new EV mode, which allows for low speed electric-only driving or the Eco mode that also helps your overall gas mileage.).

  • Impressive new features: The solar panels surrounding the sun roof add to the car's look as well as power an electric fan that helps keep the car's cabin from overheating. If the car senses the interior space is getting too hot, the fan switches on and draws in fresh outside air. This helps reduce the strain on the air conditioner. Oh, if you want, you can also activate the electric-only air conditioner by remote before getting in the vehicle.

    Then there's the adaptive cruise control, found on much more expensive vehicles, which will adjust the car's speed based on the vehicle in front of it. There's also an intelligent park-assist feature, back-up monitor and a lane-assist system. This helps you drive the straight and narrow and holds you in your lane. For multi-taskers yapping on their cell phone, yelling at their kids and driving, this system might prevent a few accidents.

    Toyota also debuts its Safety Connect system, which will notify authorities after an accident, has an SOS call button and can locate the vehicle if it's stolen. Of course, if any future owner chats up this system too much, just reply "On-Star." Not every great idea starts at Toyota.

  • Performs better: Owners may love the first- and second-generation Prius, but those were awful cars to drive. The goofy shifter mounted on the dash, the silly hybrid screen. It has the performance of a row boat on a raging river. The steering was numb and the ride was noisy. It may have gotten good mileage but it had laughable performance. Detroiters rejoiced.

    However, Toyota has a new platform for the Prius and this one responds to the road and the driver. The steering has much better feedback and the car bites into corners. That may not be the best eco-friendly way to drive, but the car's suspension handles aggressive driving pretty well. The rear drum brakes on the previous generation were replaced with discs and all of the electronics, such a stability control, help but were never overbearing. It's never going to be a racer, but now it can race.

  • Better interior: The previous Prius models didn't measure up inside. It was as close to cheap patio furniture for cars as it could get. But the redesigned cockpit is very driver friendly. The floating center console holds the gear shifter in a normal place. The previous dash mounted shifter looked more like the controller to Space Invaders than it did a serious eco-friendly machine. The quality of the materials on the seats are better and by making the Prius over two inches wider, there feels like there is a lot more space inside the cabin.

    The center mounted digital gauges feel natural and futuristic. There was little to dislike, as hard as I tried.

    Revving the engine as I returned, I felt exhausted. My leg ached from thrashing the throttle and the herky-jerky driving left me beaten. The worst I could do was 26.8 mpg -- which was way better than it should have done. Drive it normally and it will produce incredible mileage.

    Now, with so many improvements, even at its worst, when it arrives later this spring, it's one of the best cars out there.

    Scott Burgess is the auto critic for The Detroit News. He can be reached at (313) 223-3217 or sburgess@detnews.com">sburgess@detnews.com.

    Report Card

    Overall: HHHH
    Exterior: Excellent: Sharp crisp lines give the new Prius much better definition.
    Interior: Good. Clean and well made, the interior offers more space and more comfort.
    Performance: Excellent. Good power at launch and extremely quiet ride at any speed. Transition from electric to gas is seamless.
    Safety: Excellent. Four front airbags, side curtain airbags for both rows, electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes and active headrests
    Pro: High mileage and good ride create a good eco-friendly package.
    Con: Not made for fast twisty roads.

    Grading Scale

    HHHH Excellent HHH Good HH Fair H Poor

  • The redesigned cockpit is driver friendly. The floating center console ... (Toyota Motor Corp.)
    The quality of the seat materials is better and the Prius is two inches ...
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