The Toyota Prius remains the most fuel-efficient and space-efficient hybrid on the market. A few flaws remain, but the changes made for 2010 generally make for a better Prius.
The last Toyota Prius flipped the automotive world on its head, changing the purchasing priorities of American car buyers seemingly overnight. Attracted to its sky-high fuel economy, practical body style and green image, consumers came to the Prius for many new car searches (regardless of their actual motoring needs). What was once an automotive oddity relegated to hemp-wearing greenies, the Prius grew to become the country's 13th-best-selling vehicle in 2008. Now there is the all-new 2010 Toyota Prius. It's poised to keep the hybrid revolution going, but with key changes to make it more appealing to an even wider audience.
A quick look at the 2010 Prius will reveal a familiar shape, but it's a little sleeker and a tad (dare we say) sportier than its predecessor. Visually, it looks smaller, but it's an optical illusion that creates a more streamlined appearance. Indeed, the 2010 Prius is less than an inch longer and wider than last year's model. The interior is a different story, as headroom has been reduced by a fraction of an inch. This wouldn't seem to be a big deal, but in our testing we found that taller rear seat occupants had their hair grazing the roof, and that wasn't the case before.
Under the hood resides a revised version of Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive. There's a larger and more powerful gasoline engine now, but instead of providing quicker off-the-line acceleration, it allows more effortless highway cruising. A smaller electric motor contributes less torque to the overall powertrain dance, but it improves efficiency. There are other mechanical changes, too, but the end result is a jump in fuel economy, from last year's EPA-estimated 48 mpg city/45 mpg highway to this year's 51/48 mpg.
Toyota has also addressed other previous Prius faults. A more rigid chassis and a revised electric-assist steering system help to improve steering feel and driver confidence -- the old Prius' steering had a disconnected, video-gamelike feel. While the Prius still isn't exactly fun to drive, its straight-line stability is a lot better now, and in general it feels more like a normal car.
The latest Prius might even seem like a small, ultra-efficient luxury sedan depending on how you equip it. Luxury-themed items like heated leather seats, a solar-powered sunroof (cools the interior when parked), a navigation system, radar-based adaptive cruise control (matches your speed to the car ahead), a pre-collision system (retracts seatbelts and applies the brakes if a crash is unavoidable) and a lane-departure warning system for inattentive drivers are all available. Also, the automated self-parking system you've seen in Lexus commercials makes its way onto the Prius' options sheet.
The Prius has been a huge success, and with such success comes added competition. The all-new Honda Insight looks similar to the Prius, has similar fuel efficiency and costs less, but it's smaller and less sophisticated. The Ford Fusion Hybrid's more traditional body style and more involving driving dynamics should appeal to those who want their hybrid to be a little more like a normal car. The Camry Hybrid is another possibility, as is the limited-availability Altima Hybrid. Regardless, when it comes to an ultra-practical, ultra-efficient automotive choice that, depending on equipment, can be anything from an economy car to a luxury car, the 2010 Toyota Prius cannot be beat.