It's the hottest car on the road, Toyota's (TM ) hard-to-get 2004 Prius. By the time the fuel-stingy, gasoline-electric hybrid went on sale in mid-October, dealers had already pocketed more than 10,000 orders, many from current Prius owners. I just spent a week driving one around Southern California, and it's easy to see why they're trading up.
This is a bigger car, more powerful, and better equipped, but Toyota has held the base sticker price at $19,995, the same as the first Prius cost three years ago. Instead of feeling like a compact Toyota Corolla, the new Prius has moved into the midsize class. It's not quite as big inside as Toyota's Camry, but it has more rear-seat legroom than the Camry, and the cargo space -- about the size of the Camry's trunk -- is easily expandable, thanks to fold-down rear seats and the new hatchback.
The latest Prius drives better than the old one, too. Although no one buys an enviro-friendly hybrid car for its power, the Prius now accelerates from zero to 60 mph in just over 10 seconds, a couple seconds faster than the old one. It's also more sparing with fuel: It gets 55 mpg in combined city and highway driving, up from 48 mpg before.
For me, acceleration wasn't the problem with the old Prius. Hybrids recapture energy to recharge their batteries while you're braking. In the earlier Prius, I always felt the brakes were too jerky as they tried to recover as much energy as possible. Now, the braking is smooth.
About the Jetsons-like styling: Whether you love it or hate it, it makes a statement. Celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz are ponying up for the new Prius because of that, and Toyota has layered on upscale options befitting that crowd. You can get side-air bags and side-curtain bags, which protect your head; a navigation system; and a very cool way to connect your cell phone to the car audio system so you can make and receive calls without touching your phone. You can even open the door and start the car without taking the key out of your pocket. With all the extras, the Prius comes in under $26,000.
Don't think of the Prius as a dolled-up science project. We're talking about a family car: big enough for four or five, plus all their gear, and gentle enough on the environment to make your kids proud.
By Larry Armstrong