Thanks to a sophisticated drive-by-wire system that connects the gas pedal to a computer to control the two power plants (gas and electric) and variable transmission, the front-wheel-drive Prius stretches a gallon of gas without compromises. Together, the side-by-side gas and electric power plants deliver 110 horsepower that's as smooth and quiet as a purring sewing machine. (Find out more about how hybrid cars work in CNET's hybrid buying guide.) For pulling away from a stop sign, the motor taps into the 500-volt battery pack for pure electric energy. It then switches to the 1.5-liter gasoline engine when needed and uses a combination of fuel and electric power for quick maneuvers. While the electric-to-gas transition generally occurs at about 15mph, if you're careful, you can push it to 35mph. You can watch all the action from the control screen that displays an animated power-flow diagram, which has the look and addictive quality of a video game. But whether you're cruising uphill, downhill, or on a flat road, the computer sees to it that the car has lively acceleration and the battery gets charged through the regenerative braking system.
Nearly silent in its idle state, the Prius goes from 0 to 60mph in 10.3 seconds, a suitable number for an economy car but hardly high performance. Still, that's 1.8 seconds faster than Honda's electrically assisted Civic Hybrid. On the other hand, the drivetrain is short on midrange torque, taking 7 seconds to go from 30mph to 50mph and making for a little on-ramp performance anxiety. With MacPherson strut front and torsion bar rear suspension, the Prius handles well, but you'll feel every bump in the cabin. This car calmly cruises at 60mph and stops in a reasonable 152 feet, although the brake pedal feels soft. The car has other quirks, too, such as the circular dashboard power button that starts the car and the toggle-switch gear lever (see picture below). And as with most hybrids, the engine shuts itself off about a second after stopping at a light--unnerving for those who haven't experience it. Fear not, the gas engine automatically restarts when needed, and the silent operation is actually a sign that you're saving fuel. Despite all these oddities, economy is the Prius's raison d'être, and its gas mileage of 45.8 miles to the gallon is welcome news as nationwide fuel prices hit more than $2.50 per gallon. A tank of gas will take the Prius more than 500 miles.
Make no mistake--the Prius is no cramped econobox. Weighing in at 2,980 pounds, the low, sleek hatchback is a midsize car that has a lot of headroom, can seat four comfortably, and has enough space for a run to the discount warehouse. In addition, the folding rear seats (60/40 split) yield room for skis, a bicycle, or seven-foot-long lumber. Unfortunately, the cloth seats don't provide enough lower back support, and the car suffers from annoying rattles. And to achieve the Prius's enviable aerodynamics, Toyota engineers had to severely rake the windshield, creating a shape that's a conversation starter at the gas pump, but the huge dashboard is big enough for a child to sleep on, and the wiper blades barely reach the driver's eye level. Another complaint: rather than placing the digital instruments close to the driver, they sit at the base of the windshield, and the car's wide front pillar creates a large blind spot on the driver's left that makes for anxious moments; the view behind is obstructed by the split rear window.
The Prius's center-mounted 6-inch color display controls just about all the car's functions; be sure to set aside some time to read the manual to get acquainted with the system. Also, the screen shows fingerprints as easily as an episode of CSI and blanks out in bright sunlight. Its eight buttons are easier to use than conventional car controls but less versatile than BMW's single iDrive knob. Happily, the most important controls for the stereo and hands-free phone are duplicated on the steering wheel, but its rubberized surface is more suited to a BMX bike than a $25,000 car.
Our $5,065 option package included an antitheft system and an autodimming rearview mirror with a HomeLink universal transceiver for opening a garage door. It also came with Toyota's Smart Key, high-intensity headlights, fog lamps, and Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), along with the nine-speaker stereo, voice-activated navigation system and Bluetooth wireless connection for hands-free cell phone use (for a list of compatible phones, visit Toyota's Web site with links to third-party resellers).
Toyota's GPS navigation computer delivers colorful and accurate maps. The car's position is updated frequently as you wheel through the streets, and inputting an address is easier than in most GPS systems with separate screens to enter the destination's number, street, and town; it boasts excellent predictive entry, so you can start with the first few letters and let the computer fill in the rest of the word. It can't create a 3D bird's-eye view of the route, however, and the system tends to generate routes that favor highway driving over more direct back roads. A calm female voice can direct you to your destination, and if you happen to miss a turn, it quietly reroutes your course. Unfortunately, it often warns you so early that there's a risk of making the wrong turn; nonetheless, we like its emergency screen with the locations of the closest police station, hospital, and Toyota dealer.
Despite shelling out extra money for the option package that includes the JBL CD player with nine speakers, the audio on our review car sounds muddy with booming bass. To our chagrin, the Prius has no options for satellite radio, a DVD player, or an emergency communications system such as OnStar. The really bad news is that the radio is not a standard design and can't be replaced unless you go to a custom car shop.