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After the success of its predecessor, the advent of the 2010 Toyota Prius created a lot of expectations. But instead of incorporating sought-after features such as a lithium ion battery pack or plug-in capability, Toyota opted for incremental changes, tweaking the power train to get more power and better fuel economy.
On the cabin tech side, we expected big advances, as competitors have stepped up the game with such options as external data sources, which provide useful location information, and better compatibility with electronic devices. In this area, the 2010 Prius takes a few steps forward, but not as many as we hoped.
The new Prius model can be had in four trim levels, which Toyota dubs II, III, IV, and V, apparently preferring simple Roman numerals to arcane combinations of S, E, and L. Our test model was the Prius IV, which included navigation, upgraded JBL audio system, Bluetooth phone system, a back-up camera, and, most interestingly, the solar-roof option.
A horizontal crease in its rear gives the Prius a spoiler and lends a unique look to the taillights.
From the outside, the 2010 Prius shows some subtle, but smart, body changes. When spotting the new Prius in the wild, you will want to look for the notched back, a horizontal rear crease that lets the hatchback lip stretch out a little, creating a spoiler effect. Less obvious will be the roofline change, which moves the peak back a few inches for better aero efficiency and to add a little headroom for rear passengers.
Looking inside, Toyota adopted the floating console that Volvo started using a few years ago, creating an airy feeling in the cabin and a little storage space. Strangely, Toyota chose to put the Prius' seat heater controls in that open space, so you'll have to reach down in cold weather. Otherwise, the dashboard is still bare of analog gauges, retaining the monochrome digital strip just below the windshield. The steering wheel has a slightly flattened bottom, something more commonly seen on sports cars.
As with the previous version, the 2010 Prius starts out under electric power, creeping forward silently at low speeds and with light acceleration. And light acceleration is all you get with even half throttle applied--the Prius doesn't feel like it wants to move at all, which is one way to save gas. It takes almost full pressure on the accelerator to feel some pull from the front wheel drive, but that also takes the Prius out of electric drive. We found a constant tension while driving the 2010 Prius between playing the maximum mileage game and actually trying to get to a destination.
Initial acceleration may be unsatisfying, but Toyota gave Prius drivers options with the 2010 model in the form of three buttons labeled EV, Eco, and Power. While driving city streets, we tried the EV button, a program designed to maximize the use of the electric drive. The first time, a message on the car's display said our speed, 27 mph, was too high. The second time we tried it, a similar message gave the excuse that the battery was too low. We wondered if the car would cite a headache as the next excuse.
The buttons control programs that remap the accelerator, changing its sensitivity.
As we expect, Eco mode makes that slow acceleration even worse. But Power mode is tolerable. These modes are merely throttle programs, so a light touch on the accelerator when in Power mode can still produce good mileage. Although we enjoy getting the Prius moving under electric power, in the real world, we found it necessary to stab the accelerator to get moving from a stoplight, engaging both gas engine and electric motor and working toward the peak hybrid system's 134 horsepower. Once up to speed, easing back on the accelerator lets the Prius cruise at speeds of 25 to 30 mph under electric power.
Before getting on the freeway, the navigation system shows us the traffic conditions, a new feature for the 2010 Prius. But this unit is still DVD-based, and searching through the points-of-interest database to find a destination takes some lengthy pauses to retrieve information. New, nice-looking graphics indicate the different means of destination entry through the touch-screen LCD, but most of these are locked out while under way.
However, the voice command system does an excellent job of recognizing our inputs, and offers feedback on the LCD showing which commands are available at each step. With route guidance active, the navigation system shows familiar graphics mapping out upcoming turns and which lanes to be in for freeway junctions. We also discover another new feature for the Prius' navigation: it does text-to-speech, reading out the names of streets.
While driving on city streets, we noticed the new Prius still had the wobbly feeling in turns from which its predecessor suffered. On the freeway, the Prius wanders in its lane as wind buffets it around. The steering feels solid, making it easy to control, but it doesn't have that stable road feeling offered by similar midsize cars.
At freeway speeds, we fight to keep the instantaneous fuel economy gauge above 50 mpg while maintaining reasonable freeway speeds of 65 to 70 mph. Toyota has migrated its various power and fuel economy displays to the monochrome instrument screen, from their former placement on the LCD. Although not as graphically rich, it's safer. We find ourselves settling on the Eco screen, which uses a horizontal bar to show how much throttle we are applying.
The Eco screen shows our average fuel economy, but doesn't show range to empty. We have to dig through a few other screens to find that information. You can't get average fuel economy and range to empty on the same screen--an annoyance. These screens are informative, and let you maximize mileage, but they are a far cry from the hybrid instrument display Ford uses in the Mercury Milan Hybrid.
Another instrument display feature in the new Prius is a graphic that mimics the steering wheel buttons when you press them; the idea being that you don't have to look down at the wheel when you press a button, keeping your eyes closer to a front view. In concept it's pretty cool, but in practice we find it unnecessary. After a few minutes of driving, we remember the button positioning, and don't bother to look at the instrument display feedback.
These graphics activate when you touch a steering wheel button, offering visual feedback.
The freeway is a good spot to listen to the stereo characteristics. We were disappointed on getting into the 2010 Prius to find no iPod port, but Toyota built in stereo Bluetooth support for MP3 players. And, as luck would have it, the new OS for the iPhone includes stereo Bluetooth. We paired an iPhone to the car's Bluetooth phone system when we first got in, and were happy to see the car ingested the phone's contact list as well.
But using the iPhone as a music player meant we had to pair it again, this time to the stereo. You can't use the iPhone for music and phone at the same time with the 2010 Prius. We thought this lack of integration would be a real problem, but switching from Bluetooth music player to Bluetooth phone proves fairly easy, merely requiring a touch on the car's onscreen connect button. Still, if you were to get a call while using the phone as a music player, it wouldn't switch to the car's hands-free system. Also, the Bluetooth audio source screen in the car doesn't show what music is playing and offers no music browsing capability. You only get a play and a pause button. Toyota really should have put in true iPod support.
With the navigation option in our car, the disc changer goes from six slots to four, and is hidden behind the LCD. This arrangement is the same as is in the previous Prius model, and we would have expected some improvement here. That disc changer can, of course, read MP3 CDs. There is also satellite radio and a simple auxiliary input.
Our car includes the upgraded, eight-speaker JBL audio system, which sounds surprisingly good, especially considering what we are used to hearing in Toyota cars. Although lacking a subwoofer, this system puts out bass strong enough to feel, yet still retains well-modulated highs and mids. Instrument definition is good, making the different layers in a recording distinct. This is an above-average audio system.
Proceeding along our route, the navigation system pipes up, warning of slow traffic ahead. It doesn't offer a detour, but looking at the map, we see the freeway marked in yellow, indicating speeds of 20 to 40 mph. This navigation system is supposed to find a route around any red sections, which would mean traffic moving under 20 mph.
The art of braking
As in the previous model, using the brakes is an art in the 2010 Prius. Hit them too hard, and you use the actual pads and calipers. The trick is to anticipate stops and slowdowns and lightly apply the brakes well in advance, which uses the car's regenerative braking system only, thereby feeding the battery and saving wear and tear on the pads.
We employ this braking technique as we get off the freeway and approach our destination. Leaving the car in a parking lot on a hot day, we get to experience one of the more unique features of the Prius: the optional solar roof, which on our car powers a fan in the cabin, so when we get back to the car it's a little cooler than it would be otherwise. We also had a rearview camera on our car, but Toyota implemented a back-up beeping, similar to what you find on big trucks. This gets kind of annoying, although it's probably a pedestrian safety feature, as the Prius will usually be running under quiet electric power when it reverses.
This monochrome power animation shows when the engine and motor are driving the wheels.
Other tech options available at the V trim level include adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, and an automatic parking system. We had the opportunity to try these features in a different Prius earlier. The cruise control and lane departure work well, similar to what we've seen in much more expensive cars. The parking system is hit or miss: it does an excellent job of guiding you into well-marked parking spaces, but requires too much adjustment for others.
Driving in the city and on the freeway, we see our average fuel economy range between 48 and 52 mpg, in keeping with the EPA's rating for the 2010 Prius of 51 mpg city and 48 mpg highway. Where the previous model had a 1.5-liter engine, Toyota bumped the displacement up to 1.8 in the 2010 Prius, and also made some refinements in the electric drive system. Toyota claims the larger engine actually gets better fuel economy in some circumstances than the smaller one.
We can't say that we really enjoy driving the 2010 Toyota Prius, but as an economical means of transportation, it's hard to beat. Fuel economy is its major virtue, and we give it a high performance rating for showing an average of around 50 mpg. For cabin tech, Toyota has made a few improvements, but the lack of good MP3 player support is an oversight. Live traffic reports and the JBL audio system are worthwhile improvements. It gets a high score for design, partly because of its body style, which makes it stand out in the crowd while giving it an extremely low drag coefficient. Design also benefits from the nice graphic treatment for the navigation system.
|Model||2010 Toyota Prius|
|Power train||1.8-liter inline 4-cylinder with hybrid system|
|EPA fuel economy||51 mpg city/48 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||50 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional DVD-based with live traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||Four-disc CD changer, MP3 CD support|
|MP3 player support||Bluetooth streaming, auxiliary input|
|Other digital audio||Satellite radio|
|Audio system||Standard JBL, eight speakers|
|Driver aids||Rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$30,709|