This morning I finished a week and 800 miles behind the wheel of a 2010 Toyota Prius. I’m impressed. On one of my 68-mile legs (which includes a highway-biased mix of stop-and-go traffic and open road), the car informed me that I had managed 53.3 mpg overall. Fantastic.
In fact, not one of my to-and-fro trips in the car averaged much less than 50 mpg — particularly impressive considering the Prius is EPA rated at 48 mpg on the highway. And let me dismiss the naysayers by stating here and now that I made no attempts at “hypermiling”; I drove the Prius as I do any car in which I make my 140-mile daily drive (albeit one with 98 horsepower — okay, 134 total system horsepower). I matched or bettered the speed limit (to keep up with traffic, officer), and did my best to take off from stoplights with reasonable zing, rather than risk straining the limited patience of my fellow Florida motorists. And the car still kept returning big numbers —;46 mpg, 48 mph, 52 mpg, 53.3 mpg. And it did it all on regular fuel, too: $2.35 a gallon.
All in all, I found the new Prius to be rather easy to live with, too, and not just for its aversion to gas stations. Sure, it’s poky, but it’s plenty spacious and smooth riding, and my test car was certainly about as loaded as a Prius gets. Thirty-five grand as tested (it starts at $22,000), the car included leather, xenon headlamps, and a really nice JBL audio system with XM Satellite Radio, along with the $4500 Advanced Technology Package (navigation, radar cruise control, Lane Keep Assist, Intelligent Parking Assist, and plenty more). But wait, that’s not all: We enjoyed a $220-extra Blizzard Pearl paint job and a passel of after-the-fact extras, including a $329 iPod connector, and a $759 remote-start gizmo. In short, my Prius neatly belied its save-the-earth mission with a heaping helping of Lexus-esque amenities.
That said, all was not picture-perfect in Prius-land. Quite a few Toyotas of late (a Venza I sampled recently comes to mind) — are utilizing interior plastics that in places recall those of an early ’90s Chevy Cavalier. Maybe worse. The matte-finish plastic that defines the Prius’ madly modern dashboard, with its peninsular center console, feels achingly down-market, the lidded center armrest is a wobbly mess, and the dash top is made of plastic that flexes with a push from a single finger — and I don’t mean it flexes in the pleasant, soft-touch kind of way; I mean it feels thin and hollow and cheap. Now, I’m sure that some of the cabin’s perceived frangibility comes from Toyota’s rigorous weight-saving regimen. Indeed, the Prius tips the scales at only a smidgen more than 3000 pounds — at least 200 pounds less than the most bare-bones four-cylinder Camry. But weight-saving efforts look woefully like cost-saving efforts in a few places. Call me selfish, but though I’m happy to have a car that saves me money, I’d rather not have one that reminds me how much money it’s saving its maker.
So it doesn’t feel quite as indestructible as Toyotas did even five years ago, but in its core mission —using as little gasoline as possible — the Prius succeeds with aplomb. Truth told, the car’s tangible shortcomings seem less glaring when you start doing the math: For me, this degree of frugality saves at least three gallons of fuel per day. And if (or rather, when) a gallon of gasoline revisits the $4 mark… And yet, as much as I appreciated the Prius’ fuel-sippin’ ways, I longed for a bit more tactile reassurance that in 30 years my green machine will still be humming along like the ’79 Corolla I passed the other morning, and that I’ll be giving the welcome-to-the-family thumbs-up to the driver of the 2039 Toyota Whatsit the way the Corolla’s driver gave the thumbs-up to me.