Review: 2010 Toyota Prius

The new 2010 Toyota Prius, with more horsepower, more cargo space, and more fuel economy, is better than everand all at an affordable price

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Roomy cabin, low price, 50 mpg!

The Bad: No federal tax credits, plain cabin

The Bottom Line: The king of fuel economy gets even better

Up Front

Toyota (TM) has done a masterful job of redesigning the Prius, the nation's top-selling hybrid vehicle since first coming out in 1997. The 2010 Prius, which is just now hitting dealer showrooms, is the first mainstream model to be rated at 50 miles per gallon (up from 46 mpg before), even though it's noticeably peppier than the previous version. The new Prius also is surprisingly spacious, with rear seats that verge on being downright roomy, which also fold down in a 60/40 pattern to create a big hauling space, and a 21.6 cu. ft. luggage area in back.

Even so, the 2010's base sticker price is just $21,750, (though the new, entry-level Prius I model at that price won't be available until September), which is $1,000 less than the cheapest '09 Prius. You can get a conventionally powered compact for cheaper, but it won't be roomy enough for most families. Factoring in fuel, insurance, repairs, and other costs over five years, Consumer Reports calculated in its April issue that the 2009 Prius offered the best overall value of any model on the market. Given its better fuel economy, I'd guess the 2010 Prius will earn the same distinction.

The 2010 Prius' powerplant consists of a 1.8-liter, 98-horsepower gasoline engine and two electric motors tied together by a planetary gearset that acts as a continuously variable transmission. Total horsepower is now 134, up from 110 before.

Until the new, entry-level model comes out, the Prius is available in four trim levels. The Prius II, which starts at $22,750, comes standard with keyless ignition, full-power accessories, cruise control, a six-speaker sound system, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, and a hybrid display. The Prius III ($23,750) has all that plus Bluetooth capability and an upgraded sound system. The Prius IV ($26,550) adds leather upholstery, heated front seats, an auto-dimming mirror, and driver-adjustable lumbar support. The top-of-the-line Prius V ($28,020) adds 17-inch alloy wheels, fog lamps, and LED headlights.

Toyota has also added some techie features to the Prius in three option packages. The $1,800 Navigation Package includes a navigation system, plus an upgraded, eight-speaker sound system, backup camera, and the possibility of adding real-time traffic alerts. The $3,600 Solar Roof Package includes the navigation system as well as a moonroof and a solar-powered system that cools the car when it's parked on hot days. The $4,500 Advanced Technology Package includes the navigation system, as well as a dynamic cruise-control system, lane departure alert, and Intelligent Parking Assist (which you may have seen in Lexus TV commercials—it more or less parallel-parks the car automatically).

The Prius is now rated to get 51 mpg in the city and 48 on the highway (up from the previous Prius' 48/45). That puts it well ahead of its main competitors, including Honda's (HMC) new Insight (41 city, 43 highway, and 41 on average); the Honda Civic Hybrid (40/45/42); the Ford (F) Fusion Hybrid (41/36/39); the Toyota Camry Hybrid (33/34/34); Nissan's (NSANY) Altima Hybrid (35/33/34); and Volkswagen's (VOWG) Jetta TDI diesel (29/40/33).

The government hasn't yet crash-tested the 2010 Prius, but the previous model had four- and five-star ratings in all categories.

The 2010 comes standard with stability and traction control, antilock brakes, and front, side, and head-protecting airbags, as well as a separate bag to protect the driver's knees.

Toyota is getting clobbered in the U.S. market this year, but with the new model coming out and gasoline prices low, the Prius is doing even worse than the rest of the company. Prius sales were down 49%, to 32,662, in the first four months of the year. However, my guess is that Prius sales will pick up now that the new model is available.

Behind the Wheel

The Prius isn't, by any stretch of the imagination, a driving enthusiast's car. Even though a new electronic power-steering system has improved the feeling of connection to the road, to me the car still has the stiff, awkward feel of a gigantic toy. That impression is reinforced when you actually drive the Prius. You put the knobby little shifter in forward, reverse, neutral, or "B" (which adds extra braking on long downhills) and hit the gas. The engine is almost silent and the CVT unwinds in a continuous skein without ever shifting. The whole experience is a little unsettling until you get used to it.

The new Prius is now rated to accelerate from zero to 60 in 9.8 seconds, down from more than 10 seconds for the second-generation Prius. But that's still relatively slow. I clocked the Camry Hybrid at more than a second faster, and the Nissan Altima Hybrid at a comparatively blazing 7.6 seconds in zero-to-60 runs.

The Prius now has three power settings. For day-to-day driving there's "ECO," which conserves gas. When you want a bit more oomph, pushing the "Power" button quickens throttle response, mainly in the midrange between, say, 30 mph and 60 mph. In the "EV" setting, the car runs for a short time on electric power, though only at speeds under 25 mph.

The Prius' appeal is that you become obsessed with finding new ways to eke out higher mileage readings from the multiple graphic displays on the dashboard. If you work at it, by toggling back and forth between gas pedal and brake (to get the maximum charging out of the regenerative braking system), accelerating gently, braking gradually to a stop, and starting off in EV mode, you can boost mileage over 70 mpg for short spells. Trying to get mileage even higher becomes a game.

Buy It or Bag It?

The Prius remains the quirky alternative vehicle that is immediately identifiable as a hybrid. It still has its signature hard-to-see-out-of (but distinctive) two-tier rear window and the relatively plain interior that reinforces its penny-pincher image. But it's also roomy enough to be practical as a family sedan.

The Prius' most direct competitor is probably the 2010 Honda Insight, which is also newly redesigned, also comes only with hybrid power, and has a slightly lower starting price ($20,470). More on the Insight in an upcoming review, but it's targeted directly at the Prius and definitely worth a test drive.

The Prius' other competitors are adapted from—and look similar to—conventional models. The least expensive of them is the Honda Civic Hybrid, which sells for an average of just $22,122, according to the Power Information Network (PIN), compared with $25,417 for the '09 Prius. The new Ford Fusion Hybrid sells for an average of $29,299, the Altima Hybrid for $28,210, and the Toyota Camry Hybrid for $27,618, according to PIN (which, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies (MHP)).

Keep in mind, however, that these prices don't take into account federal tax credits, which neither Toyota nor Honda hybrids qualify for anymore (the credits phase out as a company's cumulative hybrid sales mount). The federal credit is $1,700 on the Fusion hybrid, $2,350 on the limited-production Altima Hybrid, and $1,300 on the diesel-powered Volkswagen Jetta TDI. Check out credits on all hybrids and diesels and at the federal Energy Dept. Web site.

An alternative to a hybrid is the newly redesigned Jetta TDI, a great little car that sells for an average of just $22,861. The Jetta TDI is quicker and handles better than the Prius, but isn't nearly as fuel-efficient. Diesel fuel also costs about the same as premium gasoline, while the Prius uses inexpensive regular. That always seems to be the bottom line with the Prius: Factor in all your costs and it always seems to come out ahead.

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