Let me say this up front: When it comes to cars that get their power from multiple fuel sources, I've consistently been a soft touch for whatever is new and improved. But I have good reason for being so fickle. Each new generation seems to offer a significant improvement over the last.
First, I liked Toyota's (TM ) Prius more than Honda's (HMC ) Insight because it had four seats rather than two. Then, I liked Honda's Civic Hybrid more than the Prius because this gasoline-electric hybrid version was an exact replica of the gasoline-driven Civic. It looked like, felt like, drove like just another Civic.
Now I'm back to Toyota's Prius, whose second-generation model goes on sale next month, and I'm wearing my heart on my sleeve again. I spent a recent afternoon driving the 2004 Prius around Pasadena, Calif., and in the hills north of Los Angeles. I also took the current model for a brief spin. My advice to Prius owners: You're going to want to trade up.
HOW MANY PONIES?
This is a bigger car, more powerful, and better equipped, yet Toyota has held the base sticker price at $20,485, same as the first one cost three years ago. And instead of feeling like a compact Corolla, the new Prius has moved into the midsize class. It's not quite as big as a Camry, also a midsize car, but it has more rear-seat legroom than a Camry. And the cargo space -- about the size of the Camry's trunk -- is easily expandable, thanks to fold-down rear seats and the Prius' new hatchback design.
This Prius drives better than the old one, too. I may be stating the obvious, but no one buys an enviro-friendly hybrid for how powerful it is. Plus, it's tough to figure out what power you've got when you're driving partly on a gasoline engine's horsepower, partly on the electric motor's kilowatts, and sometimes on both. Toyota says acceleration from zero to 60 mph is somewhere over 10 seconds, faster than the original Prius and close to that of a Camry with a conventional four-cylinder gasoline engine.
Despite the boost in power, the new Prius is even more sparing with fuel: Toyota estimates that this one will get 55 mpg in combined city and highway driving, up from 48 mpg before.
For me, the drivability issues with the old Prius had nothing to do with acceleration, but deceleration. All hybrids try to recapture energy with what's called regenerative braking: When you're coasting downhill, or applying the brakes, the electric motor acts as a generator, creating electricity to recharge the batteries that power the motor. That's why, unlike electric vehicles, you never need to plug hybrids into a wall outlet to charge the batteries.
JETSONS' FANS REJOICE.
With the earlier Prius, I felt that the brakes were too aggressive, even jerky, in their attempt to recover as much energy as possible. A slight brake tap felt like a big drag on the engine, like downshifting to second when you're going downhill.
This time, Toyota got it right. The brakes feel like brakes should feel. And if you want to downshift on slopes, a little joystick just to the right of the steering wheel can put the car into a "brake assist" mode. The other modes are more conventional: drive, reverse, and neutral.
A word about the Jetsons-like styling, inside and out. You may love it or hate it, but it's a way to express yourself. With the exception of the original Honda Insight, or General Motors' (GM ) discontinued EV-1 electric car, it's the only alternative-fuel vehicle on the market, or even planned, that plays on its different looks. You don't buy a Hummer to blend in. Same goes for the Prius.
NO KEY NEEDED.
In fact, what this car says about the owner is undoubtedly the reason it has a celebrity following. That's also probably the reason that Toyota has layered on the upscale options in the new version. You can get optional side air bags (they're standard in the Honda Civic Hybrid) and side-curtain bags to protect your head. A navigation system is available and so is a very cool way to connect your cell phone to the car so that you can make and receive calls without ever picking up your handset.
Through the miracle of microchips, you can even open the door and start the car without ever taking the key out of your pocket. Even with all these extras, the Prius comes in at a little more than $25,000 -- less than the average price for a new car in the U.S.
Heck, what we're talking about here is a family car. Big enough for four or five, plus all of their gear. Bold enough to make a statement. Gentle enough on fuel and the environment to make your kids proud. In short, a family car for the 21st century.
By Larry Armstrong in Los Angeles
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht