2008 Toyota Prius review: 2008 Toyota Prius

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3.5 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

The Good The 2008 Toyota Prius has an iconic shape that will only be confused with other Priuses. Gas mileage and the emissions rating are extraordinarily good for a car of this size.

The Bad As the current model is at the end of its cycle, the cabin tech is dated, lacking any advanced features. The handling doesn't impress.

The Bottom Line Although still a fuel economy champion, the 2008 Toyota Prius is about to be replaced by a new generation that should be better in every way. The car is a great commuter, but wait for the 2010 model.

7.6 Overall
  • Cabin tech 6.0
  • Performance tech 9.0
  • Design 8.0

The 2008 Toyota Prius comes near the end of a model cycle for a car that popularized hybrids in the U.S., becoming an icon during a time when the public's passion for SUVs waned due to increasing environmental concerns and skyrocketing gas prices. Although it had hybrid competitors, such as the Honda Insight and the Ford Escape Hybrid , no other car epitomized hybrids in the public mind as much as the Toyota Prius.

What makes the Prius stand out? In our review of the 2008 model, we found a car that consistently got around 45 mpg while having room for five. The cabin tech, though severely dated now, is sumptuous by 2004 standards, and not what you would see on a non-luxury car of that era. All the features are there, such as navigation, Bluetooth phone support, and some limited digital music options. And, as an interesting experiment, Toyota put most of the controls on-screen, supplemented by steering wheel buttons.

Test the tech: Zero-emission driving
Editor's note: We mistakenly refer to the Prius B transmission mode as 'Battery mode'. In fact, the transmission's B setting puts the car into engine braking mode. In this mode, the engine will turn on at around 20 mph, explaining the early engine start in our test below. At speeds under 20 mph with neither brake nor accelerator pedal depressed, B mode generates increased electricity to fill the battery. We apologize for the mistake and request that this information be taken into account when considering the behavior of the car in this test.

When we reviewed a Mercury Mariner Hybrid previously, we ran a test to see how long we could drive it before the engine came on. Given the lighter weight and better fuel economy of the Toyota Prius, we set out on the same test. Before beginning, we took steps to make sure the battery was just about topped off, hitting the accelerator hard enough to kick in the gas engine, and then lifting enough so juice flowed back into the battery. Turning up the heat also seemed to keep the gas engine on. Although the power diagram showed a full battery, the Prius' power control module really only lets the battery charge up to about 70 percent, and always keeps a 30 percent reserve; this programming is intended to prolong the life of the cells.

The shift pattern on the left of the display shows the car is in Battery mode.

For our electric driving, we had flat roads with no traffic lights and few stop signs. We put the transmission into Battery mode, a program that tries to keep the car running under electric power, and applied light pressure to the accelerator so the engine wouldn't come on. The Prius moved forward quietly, creeping up in speed as we massaged the pedal. At around 15 mph we held steady, as the car seemed comfortable staying in electric mode at that speed. We drove the Prius down long, deserted roads, taking corners gradually and carefully accelerating after stop signs.

On one stretch, a car showed up in the rear view mirror, so we urged the Prius to greater speed, hoping to get at least to the 25 mph limit. But maybe we weren't delicate enough on the pedal--after 5 minutes and 15 seconds of driving, the engine came on. The battery on the Prius' power diagram showed about half a charge, so we tried to get going again, but the engine kicked over when we touched the pedal, so we figured the test was done.

The powerflow animation shows the battery level, and when it is being charged or discharged.

But putting the car into the standard Drive mode and starting forward, we noticed the Prius moving under electric power again. We gave it another chance, resetting the stopwatch and moving out again. The car continued on under electric power for an additional 3 minutes, making 8 minutes and 15 seconds total, before the engine insisted on starting up. Estimating an average speed of 15 mph, we went a little over 2 miles under electric power.

In the cabin
Even by today's standards, the Toyota Prius has a pretty radical dashboard configuration. There is no traditional instrument cluster or stack controls. A digital speedometer sits in a display running along the top of the dashboard, which also shows the current drive mode. In the navigation-equipped model, a touch-screen LCD sits at the top of the stack. Most cabin functions are controlled on the screen, including climate. You can also control the climate, audio, and phone with buttons on the steering wheel. There is a voice-command system, but we found it very limited. For most navigation commands we gave it, the system referred us to the touch screen.

We like the array of buttons on the steering wheel, which let you control everything from climate to audio.

The navigation system shows its age, with a destination entry menu we've seen many times over the last couple of years in other Toyota and Lexus cars. The resolution of the maps is passable, but not great compared to modern cars. And although the navigation system does an OK job with route guidance, it lacks any modern features such as traffic reporting or text-to-speech.

Similarly, Bluetooth phone support is unchanged from the car's initial cabin tech package. Fortunately, Toyota has always been a little more advanced in this area, so you can transfer phonebook entries from phone to car. The Prius doesn't automatically download the entries--you have to send them from your phone, a feature that not all phones support.

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