2008 Toyota Prius review:

2008 Toyota Prius

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The Bluetooth phone system is old, but still good by today's standards.

The stereo, in particular, lacks modern options. It has an in-dash six-disc changer that can play MP3 and WMA CDs, satellite radio, and an auxiliary jack. The touch-screen LCD offers a good interface for MP3 CDs, letting you browse through a folder list. The Prius also gets a somewhat decent audio system, with six JBL speakers in a typical configuration of tweeters in the A pillars and woofers in the doors. The sound quality of this system is about average, with little oomph to bass or highs and a somewhat muddy mid-range.

Under the hood
The Toyota Prius' reason for being is fuel economy, and it handles that job very well, especially considering its very usable interior space; the car is able to haul around a typical family. Its EPA mileage numbers are 48 mpg city and 45 mpg highway. During our time with the car, we ended up just shy of 45 mpg, but that was due to some atypical driving. To achieve mid-40s mileage, an impressive feat compared to other cars of this size, the Prius makes due with a 1.5-liter four cylinder engine using Toyota's intelligent variable-valve timing, with power fed to the wheels through a special gearset.

The engine is only a little thing in the Prius, buried under a power control module for the hybrid system.

The gas engine puts out a miserly 76 horsepower and 82 pound-feet of torque, but that gets complemented by the 67 horsepower electric motor that delivers torque of 295 pound-feet between 0 and 1,200rpm. The combined total horsepower of this system calculates out to 110.

And, as you would expect with that horsepower, the Prius is not fast. From a performance stand-point, the Prius is entirely uninteresting to drive. We wouldn't normally run a car like this over a twisty mountain road, but during our review period, poor time-planning had us late for an appointment. We were forced to drive the Prius hard over a winding road through a couple of mountain ranges in Northern California. We built up what speed we could on the straights, then bore down on the brakes before the corners. The handling is such that if the wheels are anything but straight when you apply heavy brakes, the car will do unpleasant things. The Prius also feels top heavy, even though it's not a particularly tall car, so we had to baby it through these turns.

The shifter takes some getting used to, as it sticks out from the dashboard.

Putting the power on in the turns didn't produce much effect, as there isn't much power to be had, especially when you've brought the speed down to 20 mph for a tight hairpin. The transmission doesn't help in these matters, either, as the infinite-ratio gearset doesn't have any virtual shift points to hold. The Prius was far from its natural element on this road.

The Prius really belongs on city streets and creeping along through freeway traffic jams. The engine is eager to turn off, letting the car move under electric power, and the power transitions happen almost seamlessly. The engine is so unobtrusive, in fact, that it's hard to tell when it comes on. During our electric driving test, we only knew the engine had come on because the power flow animation showed it. And it's that animation that can make the car enjoyable to drive. It's fascinating to see when the engine shuts down and how power flows to the wheels and the battery. You can use the animation to modulate your driving habits, increasing fuel efficiency.

With the Prius' high mileage also come very clean emissions. The Prius qualifies as an Advanced Technology Partial Zero Emission Vehicle--the best rating short of Zero Emission Vehicle.

In sum
The base 2008 Toyota Prius goes for a paltry $22,325, but options brought up the total price for our vehicle substantially. The number six premium package made up the bulk of our options, bringing in niceties such as navigation, Bluetooth, JBL stereo system, a back-up camera, high-intensity headlights, and leather trimmed seats, for $6,550. A few other non-tech options and a $660 destination charge brought the total for our car up to $29,899. If you prefer a more conventional ride, but still want hybrid goodness, both the Nissan Altima Hybrid and the Toyota Camry Hybrid can be had for a little more money.

The Prius earns a very high score for its outstanding performance. We can overlook the mediocre handling when a five seater gets a solid 45 mpg. But the score suffers from the Prius' old cabin tech. We are impressed at the full array of gadgets, but the features just aren't up with more recent cars. Fortunately, the Prius gets a major update next year. We also give the Prius a high mark for design, as the hatchback is practical and the exterior shows an iconic uniqueness.

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