2005 Toyota Prius Review
Viva Las Prius
Driving a Toyota Prius is like stepping into a brand new world where certain things feel familiar, but everything else seems to be done just a little differently. It’s like visiting Tokyo or staying in a Las Vegas hotel for the first time. The old rule book just doesn’t apply any more.
This becomes readily apparent the second one sits in the Prius, Toyota's groundbreaking hybrid-electric vehicle. There is no key to turn in the ignition. There is no console- or steering column-mounted shifter. There are practically no dashboard buttons. There is no instrument panel with dials behind the steering wheel. Welcome to Prius world.
And what better place to experience an entirely different breed of car than in an entirely different breed of city? That’s right, Las Vegas, baby. We set out for Sin City on a mission to find out how useful the Prius and its hybrid-electric powertrain are on a road trip. Most importantly, we had to find out just how close to the insanely high and unrealistic EPA gas mileage numbers (60 mpg city, 51 highway) we could get.
At the heart of those impressive gas mileage numbers, and of the Prius itself, is its innovative engine. Known as a full hybrid, the Prius combines a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine with a regenerating battery-powered electric motor that, when put together, send a maximum of 110 horsepower to the wheels through a continuously variable automatic transmission. It all works in beautiful concert without any input from the driver, as the car decides how much juice is needed at any given time.
The most common question we received in our week with the Prius was, “do you need to plug it in?” No, you don’t. Rather the battery is recharged with energy generated by the brakes or by the alternator while coasting. Fuel is also saved when the Prius is stopped and the gas engine shuts off, which is a somewhat odd feeling.
Because of the reliance on battery regeneration, however, our trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas uncovered the one flaw in the hybrid set-up. Since most of the roughly 375-mile drive is on the highway and uphill, the Prius didn’t get much opportunity to coast or brake. Subsequently, for most of the trip through the Mojave at around 80 mph, the battery was close to drained and most of the power was coming from the anemic and rather noisy four-cylinder. That’s not very good for the Prius’ otherwise excellent fuel economy and it’s even worse when trying to pass the dreaded road-clogging minivan. Overall, we averaged 41 mpg both there and back, which is a far cry from the EPA numbers but still exceptional.
Dynamically, the Prius is nothing special. Its electronic steering feels artificial, and although it’s nicely weighted, it gives about as much feedback as a pit boss being asked the best way to win at blackjack. It nonetheless has a very comfortable ride and winds noise is reduced to a whisper even at high speeds.
Inside, the Prius is a model for squeezing the most passenger room out of a smallish midsize frame, since three full-sized adults fit comfortably. The liftback trunk with 60/40 rear seat swallowed a lot of stuff with room to spare. Rear seat leg room was impressive, but front seat leg room for the driver was simply unacceptable for taller folks — our 6’3” driver’s right leg began cramping up in Los Angeles traffic. We’ve found this to be a common problem with smaller Toyotas.
Like the rest of the car, the dashboard layout is different, but it works very well once you get used to it. Redundant buttons on the steering wheel control the most frequently used radio and A/C features, while everything else — including our test car’s excellent navigation system — is controlled with the touchscreen LCD monitor that unfortunately tends to disappear in direct sunlight.
Once in Vegas, the Prius quite understandably stayed in the Harrah's parking garage, save for a quick jaunt to Star Trek: The Experience at the Las Vegas Hilton. While the Prius might not be as futuristic as the starship Enterprise, it comes pretty darn close in terms of letting the driver explore strange new worlds of automotive engineering. The Prius proved on our road trip to Las Vegas and back that there is such a thing as a comfortable, quiet, useful vehicle that also sips fuel at a rate that would make a tip-hungry cocktail waitress nervous. The Prius does everything just a little differently, but like that first stay in Vegas, different can be a very good thing, indeed.