After the success of its predecessor, the advent of the 2010 Toyota Prius created a lot of expectations. But instead of incorporating sought-after features such as a lithium ion battery pack or plug-in capability, Toyota opted for incremental changes, tweaking the power train to get more power and better fuel economy.
On the cabin tech side, we expected big advances, as competitors have stepped up the game with such options as external data sources, which provide useful location information, and better compatibility with electronic devices. In this area, the 2010 Prius takes a few steps forward, but not as many as we hoped.
The new Prius model can be had in four trim levels, which Toyota dubs II, III, IV, and V, apparently preferring simple Roman numerals to arcane combinations of S, E, and L. Our test model was the Prius IV, which included navigation, upgraded JBL audio system, Bluetooth phone system, a back-up camera, and, most interestingly, the solar-roof option.
From the outside, the 2010 Prius shows some subtle, but smart, body changes. When spotting the new Prius in the wild, you will want to look for the notched back, a horizontal rear crease that lets the hatchback lip stretch out a little, creating a spoiler effect. Less obvious will be the roofline change, which moves the peak back a few inches for better aero efficiency and to add a little headroom for rear passengers.
Looking inside, Toyota adopted the floating console that Volvo started using a few years ago, creating an airy feeling in the cabin and a little storage space. Strangely, Toyota chose to put the Prius' seat heater controls in that open space, so you'll have to reach down in cold weather. Otherwise, the dashboard is still bare of analog gauges, retaining the monochrome digital strip just below the windshield. The steering wheel has a slightly flattened bottom, something more commonly seen on sports cars.
As with the previous version, the 2010 Prius starts out under electric power, creeping forward silently at low speeds and with light acceleration. And light acceleration is all you get with even half throttle applied--the Prius doesn't feel like it wants to move at all, which is one way to save gas. It takes almost full pressure on the accelerator to feel some pull from the front wheel drive, but that also takes the Prius out of electric drive. We found a constant tension while driving the 2010 Prius between playing the maximum mileage game and actually trying to get to a destination.
Initial acceleration may be unsatisfying, but Toyota gave Prius drivers options with the 2010 model in the form of three buttons labeled EV, Eco, and Power. While driving city streets, we tried the EV button, a program designed to maximize the use of the electric drive. The first time, a message on the car's display said our speed, 27 mph, was too high. The second time we tried it, a similar message gave the excuse that the battery was too low. We wondered if the car would cite a headache as the next excuse.
As we expect, Eco mode makes that slow acceleration even worse. But Power mode is tolerable. These modes are merely throttle programs, so a light touch on the accelerator when in Power mode can still produce good mileage. Although we enjoy getting the Prius moving under electric power, in the real world, we found it necessary to stab the accelerator to get moving from a stoplight, engaging both gas engine and electric motor and working toward the peak hybrid system's 134 horsepower. Once up to speed, easing back on the accelerator lets the Prius cruise at speeds of 25 to 30 mph under electric power.
Before getting on the freeway, the navigation system shows us the traffic conditions, a new feature for the 2010 Prius. But this unit is still DVD-based, and searching through the points-of-interest database to find a destination takes some lengthy pauses to retrieve information. New, nice-looking graphics indicate the different means of destination entry through the touch-screen LCD, but most of these are locked out while under way.
However, the voice command system does an excellent job of recognizing our inputs, and offers feedback on the LCD showing which commands are available at each step. With route guidance active, the navigation system shows familiar graphics mapping out upcoming turns and which lanes to be in for freeway junctions. We also discover another new feature for the Prius' navigation: it does text-to-speech, reading out the names of streets.
While driving on city streets, we noticed the new Prius still had the wobbly feeling in turns from which its predecessor suffered. On the freeway, the Prius wanders in its lane as wind buffets it around. The steering feels solid, making it easy to control, but it doesn't have that stable road feeling offered by similar midsize cars.
At freeway speeds, we fight to keep the instantaneous fuel economy gauge above 50 mpg while maintaining reasonable freeway speeds of 65 to 70 mph. Toyota has migrated its various power and fuel economy displays to the monochrome instrument screen, from their former placement on the LCD. Although not as graphically rich, it's safer. We find ourselves settling on the Eco screen, which uses a horizontal bar to show how much throttle we are applying.