Petrol Pincher

By Hannah Wallace June 30, 2004

Do you have some strings you can pull? Favors you can call back? If so, you might be able to buy everyone's Car of the Year, including mine: The 2004 Toyota Prius.

The difficulty in buying one comes not from a need for deep pockets; the base price is $19,995. It comes from overwhelming buyer demand. Before the vehicle even came on the market, 10,000 were pre-ordered and paid for. The wait is a year.

What's so different about the Toyota Prius?

It's a second-generation, sleek-looking mid-size car that is without rival when it comes to fuel economy. It's called a "hybrid" because under its hood is both a four-cylinder gasoline engine and an electric motor. The two work in combination, as needed, to deliver 60 miles per gallon of gas in the city and 51 mpg on the highway. That's not a misprint. This car delivers its best fuel economy in bumper-to-bumper, start-and-stop traffic.

When a Toyota Prius stops at a stoplight, the gasoline engine shuts off. Silence reigns. Even drivers of cars next to a Prius might notice this and signal that your engine died. Have no fear. Touch lightly on the accelerator as the light changes and the electric motor leaps you forward. And, like a car getting a push start, when the Prius reaches three to five miles per hour, the gasoline engine fires up and adds power.

Cruising at 35 miles an hour, the car might just rely on the electric motor altogether. But interstate speeds require the gasoline motor (and the Prius is great on the interstate, with plenty of passing power and cruise control). Using the gas engine thus lowers the highway mileage figure.

When brakes are applied or the car decelerates, energy is captured and transferred to batteries needed by the electric motor, recharging them. There's nothing to plug in. It's all automatic.

How does this wonder drive? Like any other mid-size car that seats five adults. It's every bit as comfortable and practical as its gas-guzzling competitors.

The Prius is unique in so many ways that it's difficult to know where to start. Our tested Prius (final price $23,714) had an optional remote keyless entry fob that serves as a transmitter. Put it in your pocket and the Prius recognizes when you approach the car. You don't have to unlock the doors. Just tug on the handle; the Prius does a quick computation, confirms it's you, and unlocks the door.

Set the power button on the dash. The instruments light up. There is no sound. No vibration. But you're ready to roll. See, the gas engine isn't utilized until needed. So your start is like one in a golf cart. Just switch on power, press the accelerator and go.

A lever on the dash controls a continuously variable automatic transmission that offers only two choices: reverse or drive. Select either, press the accelerator and the electric motor moves you out, quickly firing up the gas engine. To shut off the car, you stop, put your foot on the brake, press a parking button on the dash, then press the power button (really an on-off switch). You're off.

The dash displays speed digitally inside a cave under the windshield. To the right is a navigation display. Day and night lighting is controlled by a twist knob on the driver's left. The car even has auto on and off headlights. High intensity headlights are among the luxury options that can be added.

The roomy passenger compartment has numerous storage areas and a deep center console. The tall roof means no heads get bumped on entry.

The transmission is remarkable. It seems to hold rpm steady for a very long time as you accelerate. And that's exactly how it works. It matches your foot's desires to engine performance. It can be kept at low rpm for maximum economy or you can stomp the accelerator and quickly pass a slower-moving vehicle. Zero-to-60 comes in 10 seconds flat-better than some minivans and completely acceptable to merge with traffic. This is light years from some slow, older electric car. The Prius boasts the world's first electric air conditioner-no fan belt to drag down fuel efficiency as it does when run by a gasoline engine.

In fact, this is a midsize sedan that probably 90 percent of vehicle buyers could be happy with. It's a car they should buy, instead of gas-slurping sport utilities that blow tax dollars out tailpipes.

And that's a way I've come to look at vehicles. To me, they can often be reduced to tailpipes that spew, or drip, money from their ends. Some, like the Toyota Echo or Honda Civic, dribble coins as they roll along. Others, like a Suburban or Cadillac Escalade, blow dollar bills like a typhoon. On an interstate, they're like a Wells Fargo truck with the back door open and banditos tossing bags of bills into the air.

Regulations require that an annual estimated fuel cost be placed on each new vehicle window sticker. For the Prius, the estimated annual fuel cost is $382. That's easily $700 or more cheaper than most sedans every year. I have the window sticker in front of me for your basic pickup truck. Gas-powered. V8. The sticker says that in a year, the driver of this truck can expect to spend $1,660 on gas. Compare that to the Prius, and in five years you could save $6,390.

If you're tired of the double-barrel shotgun blast of wasted money and increased pollution from the majority of today's offerings, then you owe it to yourself to get on whatever waiting list there might be for a Toyota Prius.

I have no qualms about making this statement: The Toyota Prius is the best value among all vehicles today.

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