"I purchased my Prius from a Toyota dealership back when you had to be on a waiting list and couldn't get one for under MSRP - some dealers were charging above MSRP - because of the demand.
First of all, the special features:
I'm no audiophile, but I prefer listening to music on the premium JBL sound system (9 speakers in 7 locations, 6-disc in-dash changer, cassette deck) to my home stereo.
The integrated GPS system is excellent, automatically rerouting me when I miss a turn and giving instructions clearly enough and soon enough that I can easily follow them. The GPS map DVD is a bit out of date and doesn't know about newer neighborhoods.
Bluetooth integration is built in, enabling the car to act as a speakerphone for your bluetooth-enabled cell phone. The controls and setup for this, however, are not easy to manage. If my phone allowed, I could send phonebook entries directly to the Prius for use with the touchscreen, however I have yet to figure out how to add phonebook entries manually.
All the car's features are controlled through an integrated touchscreen, voice commands, and buttons located on the steering wheel. There are several ways to get to the most often used functions, enabling drivers to keep their attention on the road instead of all the "bells and whistles". The car's voice is pleasant and rarely annoys me as other rental cars and GPS units have. The steering wheel controls are well laid out, and voice commands are fairly intuitive and easy to remember, although in the presence of background noise it's hard for the car to recognize the words. Features are built-in to ensure that the touchscreen is not used while the car is in motion, but the "protection" on these items is inconsistent, allowing some things to be done at freeway speeds while denying access to others that are less distracting. It would be nice to have the ability to turn this feature off, especially when a passenger can operate the touchscreen while the driver remains focused.
The car keeps track of gas mileage for you automatically, as well as maintenance intervals for oil changes, air filters, etc. When it's time for an oil change, the car lets you know every time you start it.
The gearshift lever in this car takes the form of a small "stick" on the dashboard that snaps back into place as soon as it's released. The car is placed in "PARK" by use of a button separate from the lever where drive, reverse, engine braking, and neutral modes are selected. This can be confusing to valets and anyone borrowing the car, but Toyota thoughtfully included a pad of "valet cards" that can be handed to those unfamiliar with how the Prius operates.
The smart key system enables the driver to unlock, lock, and drive the car without ever removing the keys from a pocket. This option is one of my favorite things about the car and comes in handy when loading and unloading the vehicle as well as driving - just walk up to the trunk and open it, then sit down and press the power button to drive.
Driver controls such as the pedals are not mechanically linked to the car, but send electrical signals to the engine's computer, known as "fly-by-wire" technology. Despite this, the pedals still seem to provide good physical feedback, and the car does what you expect it to do in all cases.
The vehicle stability control and anti-skid features of the vehicle are extremely well designed. In the few instances where I've skidded, the car is correcting my path before I've even realized what's happening; responsive, predictable control is provided to the driver during a "panic situation". I have noticed that hitting a pothole, speedbump, or even a slick spot in the road causes the traction control to react way too strongly. This seems to happen often when it's raining and I'm cutting across a corner while pulling into traffic - not a good time to have the car slow down in the middle of starting out. I've learned to add a little extra room to account for the occasional "false start". Considering that I've taken this car down mountain passes in heavy snow with regular tires, and the control was superb, I'm willing to live with an oversensitive traction control system despite the frustrations it causes during normal driving. I am comfortable attempting terrain in my car which would scare me in any other.
The interior of the car is roomy and comfortable even on long distance drives, although not as quiet as I would like. There is a distinct lack of headroom in the rear passenger compartment. Although the rear seats fold down and allow for a great deal of cargo space, the slope of the hatchback and rear window could be improved to maximize the use of this space - apparently the car was built for aerodynamic performance at the expense of cargo room. Storage inside the passenger compartment is good; two glove compartments, a large open center console, a small storage area in the dash, and a drawer at the bottom of the center console are all available, as well as 2 front and 2 rear cupholders. An extra compartment underneath the trunk floor but above the spare tire is provided as well, along with two smaller side compartments under the trunk floor. A roller-type shade is provided to cover the trunk area from view and sunlight. Both this and the optional cargo net store away in the lower trunk compartments.
I am surprised that the car was not equipped with power seats, given all the other automated functions. I also found the factory tint on the windows to be very light, appearing almost as if no tint is applied at all; however I live in Florida and the usual tint job here is generally as dark as limousines use.
The Toyota Hybrid System is the most prominent and hyped feature of the Prius line, and is worth the hype. When the car starts, there is no starter motor and its associated sound. Instead, the electric motor brings the crankshaft up to speed and fuel is delivered to the cylinders like push-starting a manual transmission car. The engine is off at low speeds and stops unless the battery is low, and comes on when needed. The high-torque electric motor and the high-speed gas engine can both drive the wheels at the same time working together, giving the car a "peppy" feel that one wouldn't expect from so small an engine. The gear system also works without any shifting, so acceleration is smooth and even. At some times the car can feel a bit sluggish upon acceleration. Merging into a busy, fast-moving freeway with this car is not, however, a harrowing experience.
Gas mileage is not anywhere near the EPA estimates - 60 in city driving, 51 highway (that's not a typo - hybrids do better at the lower speeds of city driving). With my driving habits, I get about 43-46MPG in about half/half driving, and 40MPG on long roadtrips at freeway speeds. I have talked to other owners whose gas mileage is in the 50s, but with more conservative driving habits. If you want to improve your driving habits to get better mileage, the touchscreen can show a real-time display of miles per gallon, as well as a graph of five-minute averages over the last half hour of driving. This information can be used at a glance to adjust driving for better mileage.
Braking provides very good stopping distance, and the "brakes" used most often are actually bleeding energy off the wheels in order to recharge the battery. During a "panic stop" or under 8MPH standard disc brakes are engaged and regenerative braking is not used. It's possible while gradually stopping to feel the point at which disc brakes are engaged, but this doesn't interfere with driving and occurs seamlessly and naturally as needed.
I often am asked how I charge the hybrid battery, or what I have to do differently when driving. The battery is charged in the same way the battery in any other car is charged - you drive it, and excess electrical energy is used to charge the battery as the alternator in a normal car would do. Since the smaller 12v battery only has to power a relay to bring the larger battery online instead of cranking a starter motor, the 12v battery is small like a marine or motorcycle battery and suffers no ill effects from extremely cold conditions.
Another question that I hear a lot relates to repair and maintenance. Many systems in this car work just like conventional vehicles and can be serviced by any repair shop - radiator, brakes, and oil delivery systems, for example. The "special" systems for a hybrid vehicle - transmission, battery, electric motors, etc. - are covered by a 7-year warranty which should eliminate any concerns over additional repair expenses for most people.
So far I've been party to two recalls, both of which were taken care of at the dealership during normal maintenance and did not affect my experience of the car before repair. I did have a warped dash panel due to an improperly installed glove box lid, which was replaced under warranty at no cost. The only other repair work which was done on the car outside of the normal scheduled maintenance was a burnt-out brake light bulb.
Overall, the Toyota Prius is a hybrid that doesn't involve any sacrifices. Once you get used to your engine "dying" at every stoplight, you can drive this car just like any other and forget that under the hood everything is not so normal. Whenever I go to the dealership for maintenance, I walk around the lot and encourage anyone looking at the Prius to buy it. I prefer driving it to any other car. When I rent a car on business trips I always ask the person at the counter if they have a Prius."
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