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2011 Toyota Prius

July 7th, 2011

A Means of Transportation

     When the first generation Prius came along I kind of wrinkled my nose at it and said, well, that is all well and good, a clever science experiment, but it will never take on. Then the second generation Prius came along and my sentiments really hadn’t changed all that much, that’s all well and good, impressive science experiment, but it will never take on. But I ended up eating my words on that one. Toyota has sold over 2 million of the smug little things worldwide and is on to a third generation Prius, the one we are driving today. And I still don’t get it.
      Outside of the engineering team that designed the Prius Synergy Drive powertrain, there aren’t too many people who fully understand what goes on under the hood, but here goes. A conventional 1.8-liter four-cylinder outputs 98 hp to the crank, while a Permanent Magnet AC synchronous motor fed off of the battery pack outputs another 80 hp. These power packs are linked together via the synergy drive continuously variable transmission which feeds the front wheels a combined peak of 134 hp. It seems like a little bit of funny math going on behind the scenes, but it makes sense when you figure that the two powertrains will never peak at the same time.
      Typically at this point in the review we start a rant on what kind of a 0-60 time all that power would yield, but that is rather pointless in this case. This car is designed purely for drivers wanting to wring every last mile out of each drop of petroleum, and in that aspect it is a technological tour de force. Editor Gernand and I set about a little challenge for ourselves during our drive time. Our goal was to see how poor of fuel mileage we could score whilst (here’s the catch) leaving the car in the maximum efficiency ECO setting. Toyota’s clever fuel mapping strategy would be against us, but armed with the knowledge that so much of one’s fuel efficiency is dependent upon your driving style we were confident we could make the Jelly Bean guzzle the dino-juice. And oh how wrong we were. Gernand and I both ratcheted our driving style up from spirited to lead foot, but the Prius didn’t seem to care. In ECO mode the throttle response moves beyond lethargic to comatose sloth; while the regenerative braking grabbed overdrive. At the end of 500+ miles, we recorded a miserly 45 mpg. Impressive.

      But where our rant will take us is Noise, Vibration and Harshness. Toyota needs to take a refresher on this course because although this powertrain is in its 3rd generation, it grunts and groans and thrashes about like a dying ostrich. Put your foot down and you’ve kicked a hive of drunk overweight honeybees. All you hear is the sound of them knocking into one another as the engine desperately tries to turn stored chemical energy into forward momentum. There is even a slight pulsation that works its way through the cabin during this maneuver which annoyed my wife. Apparently members of the green movement practice the art of driving with an egg shell under their right foot, or they don’t have spouses.
      The really appalling part, however, is the drive. The Prius didn’t handle as atrociously as we expected, but any kind of driver feedback has been completely overlooked or washed out. The steering was linear enough that taking a freeway onramp at speed wasn’t dangerous, but forget knowing what is going on via the steering wheel. The regenerative braking system is, as we mentioned before, aggressive, and is actually one of the more linear and easier to predict systems out there. But again, the pedal is still an inert stump. All physical interaction with the car is lifeless beginning with pushing the start button and ending with putting the car in park. The shifter moves smoothly through its tiny gate, but does so without any mechanical reassurance that the car is in gear and returns to its home position with an unceremonious thump.

      Which brings us to the interior. Center mounted instrument clusters have largely remained a clever but not often well received marketing trick. Certain cliques may appreciate the anomalous setup, but not one of us on staff were among that number. Aside from being illogically positioned this leaves the panel behind the steering wheel absolutely devoid of any style whatsoever. The center stack is home to three separate information screens, each of which has been lifted from a different decade in digital display technology. The worst of which is actually the most prevalent displaying vehicle vitals like speed, fuel level, gear selection, and power / efficiency monitoring with all the graphical prowess of an Atari. But beyond that the rest of the interior is as comfortable as any other compact hatchback. The seats were supportive for the type of relaxed driving that is intended for this car. We had plenty of headroom in the rear, and the kid’s car seat fit just fine rear facing. The hatchback body style of course affords plenty of cargo space so no complaints there. I’ve seen a full grown Saint Bernard fit in the back with the seats folded.
      It isn’t that Toyota has built a bad car. It’s just that in their quest to make the most efficient car possible, they’ve bleached out every last trace of heart and soul. The Synergy Drive powertrain is brilliant. There is just no passion in the driving experience. There is only the means to get from one place to another on as few drops of petroleum as possible. And for some that’s enough. The EPA gives the Prius a 51 city / 48 hwy rating and based on our experience these numbers are achievable if you are willing to wait around for them. Our blizzard pearl Prius Four stickered for $30,918, but that is a lot of coin for what is essentially an appliance.

The Good:
51 mpg city EPA rating, 48 mpg hwy EPA rating, room for Saint Bernards.
The Bad:
Lifeless driving experience compounded with questionable ergonomics and NVH issues.
The Verdict:
The green movement’s poster child fails to stir any fraction of our enthusiast soul.

Photos by Jason Muxlow

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