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, 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 apreviously, 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.
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.
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 and the 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.