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2010 Toyota Prius baseline instrument panel
The baseline model of the 2010 Toyota Prius displays all vehicle performance data in its asymmetric instrument cluster.

2010 Prius: A Great Vintage Just Got Better

EV World cruises Napa Valley in Toyota's third generation hybrid.

By Bill Moore

Here's the central question: Why after five years development does the new 2010 Prius get only three and half miles per gallon better fuel economy than the model it replaces?

That's what a lot of people will be asking Toyota as its newest hybrid goes on sale. Officially, the re-engineered and restyled Prius gets a combined fuel efficiency of 50 mpg: 51 city/49 highway. The 2009 model was rated by the US EPA at 48 city/45 highway or a 46.5 combined.

Surely with thousands of engineers at its disposal and tens of millions of dollars to invest, the world's most popular gasoline-electric car ought to be even better. Right?

Well, having driven the car up and down California's Napa Valley last month during a Toyota press preview, I am here to tell you that it is. No, it doesn't get 100 mpg, but in fact, one driver came pretty darn close. Even I turned in not-too-shabby mileage as part of the "Beat-the-Chief [Engineer]" competition, but more on that later.

My first impression of the new Prius goes back to October 2007 when I and a small group of journalist where ushered into a secret location and shown the full-scale styling model of the car. While I can't speak for the others present, I know that I was expecting the new Prius to be as different from the model introduced in 2004 as it was from the original version I got to drive in early December 1997. Instead, it just wasn't all that different, which was a bit disappointing I have to admit, but Toyota intended it that way for couple very good reasons starting with brand equity.

Few people today could probably point out a first generation Prius from, say, a Toyota Echo of the same late 90's. The second generation car, introduced in late 2003, was the "game changer" for Toyota. It won a slew of awards and became one of Toyota's best selling vehicles while garnering the company its environmental halo. Its distinctive styling allowed owners to demonstrate their environmental commitment and even their patriotism.

It even became the car that "Jesus would drive."

It would have been the height of marketing folly to abandon its distinctive shape, so the 2010 retains its unmistakeable Prius styling cues, though its lines have been sharpened, in part for efficiency reasons, it turns out.

If the new Honda Insight resembles aspects of the Prius there are good aerodynamic reasons for it. As you strive to optimize the coefficient of drag (Cd) of a 4-5 place passenger sedan, you find that a particular shape best lends itself to that function, hence the similarity between the Prius and the new Insight. At least that's the view of Bill Reinert, Toyota's advanced vehicle program manager, as we stood in the mid-morning sunlight of the Bardessono Hotel's entry courtyard in Yountville, California.

There at the newly opened "green" resort, Toyota has assembled a dozen pre-production prototypes for the two dozen journalist it had invited to the second 'wave' press preview. After being given a trio of technical and marketing briefings by key Toyota managers, including one by Chief Engineer Akihiko Otsuka, we were asked to pair up with a fellow journalist. Paul Gabe, who writes for About.com and hails from my old stomping grounds near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and I teamed up for the first test drive out to Lake Hennessy, a recreational reservoir some ten miles away in the hills on the eastern side of Napa Valley. Paul would drive out to the Lake and I would drive back.

With Paul at the wheel and me acting as navigator, we set off north through Yountsville, a tiny resort community on California 29 between Napa and St. Helena. Toyota had laid out three different test drive courses for us, including turn-by-turn instructions. The lake course took us across the valley to Silverado Trail, then up into the California oak-covered hills.

With the state's famous golden light streaming through scattered clouds, it's nearly impossible to not find incredibly photogenic places almost anywhere in Napa to serve as a backdrop for the car,especially with yellow mustard plants in full bloom. Just east of town, with vineyards stretching into the distance, we passed another team who had stopped to take photos. I asked Paul to stop and together, we also took several snapshots, including this one, which is part of a dozen image slide show from my earlier report on the technology in the car.

Back in the car, we cruised quietly, comfortably across the valley floor and turned north on Silverado Trail. We were having such an enjoyable time chatting about the car, the trip and the countryside, that I missed our turn. In short order we were winding our way up a canyon, along the bottom of which was what appeared to be a large water pipe, presumably from the Lake Hennessy.

At the lake, Paul decided to haul out the spare tire and tool tray to get a closer look at the battery pack, which from the outside looks nearly identical to pack in the 2009 model. The 2010 model continues to use NiMH, a chemistry that Toyota is now very comfortable with and will likely continue to power its hybrids for some time to come, at least until lithium demonstrates the same durability and dependability.

At the lake, we changed drivers -- after taking a ton of photos -- and I slide in behind the wheel finally.

The first thing you notice is the new placement of the transmission shifter, which finally has been moved off the dash and onto the centerline console, a much more natural position. Also the look of the instrument cluster and general aesthetics of the driver's controls seem much more advanced and stylish.

After the shifted shifter, the second most notable change is the missing display screen that has been a standard feature on all previous Priuses. Now all of the vehicle performance monitors are displayed in the asymmetric instrument cluster near the windshield. In place of the monitor is the AM-FM/CD player. You can order an optional navigation system that fulfills all the functions of the previous displays found on Generation 1 and 2 models.

Driving back towards the Bardessono, I deviated from Toyota's planned route and cut across the valley towards Rutherford, stopping at the palm tree-lined entrance to the Round Pond Estate Winery for more photos.

To be honest, the trip was memorable for the scenery, not the car, which is, in a sense, the way it should be in my book. An automobile is a machine to get you from here to there and back. It should do it reliably, efficiently, as comfortably and safely as possible. The 2010 Prius easily accomplishes that mission. It's a tad roomier inside, has a bit more horsepower at its beck 'n call, and it is certainly pleasing to look at, as well as ride in. It's not meant to raise testosterone levels or stimulate sexual pheromones. It's a nicely grafted, head-of-the-class, fuel efficient vehicle for moving one to five passengers and some of their possessions down the road with as little aerodynamic fuss and muss as humanly practical. Until someone comes along with something better -- the Fisker Karma being one possible contender, but at four times the price -- Toyota can be assured the 2010 Prius will keep it at the head of the pack.

As to the question of why the car, with some five years in which to be improved, only gets a 3.5 more miles per gallon in EPA tests, the answer here is also a two-parter. Since the Generation II model hit the bricks in 2004, the EPA, under pressure, revised its test procedures which had a significant impact on all car mileage estimates, but particularly on hybrids. The original EPA ratings on the 2004 model of 60 city, 51 highway proved wildly inaccurate. It now rates the Generation II model at 48 city/45 highway, though as a pediatric surgeon friend of mine told me over breakfast this morning, his Gen II Prius got 52.3 mpg driving over to the Perkins where we members of the Nebraska Solar Energy Society gather to plot and plan.

Dr. Pinch's experience is mirrored by tens of thousands of other Prius drivers. The car can do better than what the EPA tests suggest. Of course, it can do worse, a lot worse.

Take for example one of the press teams who took up the "Beat the Chief" challenge to drive a 33.8 mile course down California 29, winding back and forth through the city of Napa, heading north on Silverado Trail and then back across the valley and down a narrow mill road into Yountville. Chief Engineer Otsuka drove the course and got 62.9 mpg. Several press drivers turned in scores in the 70-to-75 mpg range. One hyper-miler actually got an amazing, but totally unrealistic in real world terms of 94.6 mpg, and it took him nearly twice as long to complete the course as everyone else. At the other end of the spectrum one driver perversely bucked the trend, breaking every efficient driving rule imaginable and pulled back into the hotel courtyard with 26.8 mpg showing on the car's display.

How' I do? Of the 13 drivers in the second press wave to take the challenge, I came in third to last, but with a still respectable 68 mpg. Sure, most of us drove as carefully and conservatively as we possibly could -- and as often in EV-mode as the battery permitted -- but it shows that, in point of fact, the 2010 Prius's fuel economy can be significantly better than what EPA numbers might suggest.

Before calling it a day, I asked Toyota officials if I could borrow one of the cars to drive up to St. Helena to visit a long-time EV World subscriber, Don McGrath, who owns both a Generation I and Gen II Prius, as well as a Corbin Sparrow electric three-wheeler. Back in 1997 Don and I both got to drive one of the very first Priuses brought to America. Now I wanted to give him the chance to drive the 2010 model. In exchange, he gave me bottle of Tesouro, vintage 2005. It's a luscious California Dessert Wine he blends in Napa. I couldn't think of a better way to sum up a very memorable day in the heart of California wine country.

Like Don's wine, the Prius keeps getting better with age.

Times Article Viewed: 18915
Published: 26-Mar-2009

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