2010 Toyota Prius V Review
By Chris Haak
As many folks are aware by now, Toyota launched its all-new third generation Prius hybrid a few months ago as an early 2010 model. I should confess that I’ve never been a big fan of the Prius, feeling underwhelmed by the car in my first weeklong test of a 2008 model. At the time, I disliked its slab-sided styling and abysmal performance, while liking its observed fuel economy. The new 2010 Prius takes the 2004-2009 model and gives you more of almost everything: more room, more interesting styling, more technology, more performance, and more miles per gallon. The top-of-the-line model also costs – wait for it – more money.
When making the arrangements for the Prius to spend a week with me, I was given the choice between a Prius II or Prius V. For me, there wasn’t much of a decision to make; the Prius II includes cloth seats, cruise control, six-speaker audio, and smart key system. The Prius V has a JBL audio system, Bluetooth phone and streaming audio, navigation, leather seats, upgraded 17 inch wheels and tires, and LED headlamps. Once I actually received my Barcelona Red test vehicle, I was pleased to see that it had all of those features, plus the Prius’ available Advanced Technology package. That added dynamic radar cruise control, lane keep assist, intelligent parking assist, backup camera, and XM Satellite Radio. The bottom line MSRP is $33,600 including destination – quite a bit higher than the $23,100 that a Prius II starts at with no options.
As mentioned above, the interior materials aren’t exactly luxurious. They’re more toward the “cheap” and “hard” end of the spectrum, and that’s a bit of a change from the old Prius. The layout and design of the interior is improved in the 2010 model compared to the previous generation, but where the old car had at least somesoft-touch surfaces aside from seats and armrests, the 2010 model has only hard plastic. At least it’s the higher-quality low-gloss variety, seems to fit well together, and has interesting textures on it. Toyota has gone in a slightly more conventional direction with its newest Prius as far as the location and operation of controls. The gearshift (which is completely electronic with no mechanical linkage to the transaxle) moves from the dash to a new sweeping console, which puts it close to where you’d expect to find it. The HVAC controls, which had previously been accessible only via the touchscreen display or redundant steering wheel controls, has changed to a more conventional discrete set of climate controls.
The Prius retains its centrally-located gauge cluster and very small steering wheel (since you don’t have to view the gauges through the steering wheel rim). The central gauges aren’t too difficult to get used to, since the speedometer is located close to the far left side, not far from where it would be found in a normal car. Underneath the dramatically-sweeping center stack is a moderately-sized storage area that can hold eyeglass cases, a small purse, or other miscellaneous junk. That storage area is not covered, however, so expect whatever’s in there to sail around the interior in any sudden movements the car might make. The car does have enclosed storage in the center console and dual glove boxes.
One new technology that Toyota introduced in the 2010 Prius is the so-called “Touch Tracer display.” This is intended as a way to keep the driver’s hands on the wheel and his or her head up and line of sight more toward the road ahead. The feature is activated when you apply pressure to any of the four buttons on the rubber-covered circles on each side of the steering wheel; it dims the digital fuel gauge to the left of the speedometer and the digital fuel economy meter to the right of the speedometer and projects a virtual representation of the steering wheel button on those locations instead, including labels. Then, when a button is pressed harder, an orange backlight appears behind its virtual self. The technology is an effective way to make driving a bit safer. Meanwhile, the steering wheel has a plethora of controls on it – audio controls, cruise control, lane keep assist, trip computer, climate control, Bluetooth phone controls, and voice recognition. In short, there’s little that a driver will need to access regularly that cannot be controlled on the steering wheel.
One glaring exception to the otherwise very good ergonomics is the location of the controls for the heated front seats. The button is at the far front of the open storage compartment beneath the center stack. Not only is it a very far reach, requiring a significant (and unsafe) lean forward to reach the buttons, but the buttons are also easily blocked if anything like an eyeglass case is stored in the cubby. A final demerit also applies because the seat heaters have no adjustment for temperature: they’re either on or off.
One of my biggest complaints about the second generation Prius (sold from 2004 through 2009 model years) was its lack of sufficient engine power. It was so weak with its 1.5 liter, 110 horsepower combined between gasoline and electric that it had trouble accelerating onto freeways safely in any kind of traffic. The lack of power also left the driver with a frustrating, non-enjoyable driving experience. Equally bad, the integration between the two powertrains and braking systems didn’t always manifest itself in a linear power delivery, or even linear braking for that matter.
The 2010 Prius adds 22% more horsepower, up to a less slothlike 134, thanks to a larger 1.8 liter four cylinder and a more powerful electric motor. Taken individually, the electric motor went from 67 to 80 horsepower and the gasoline engine went from 76 to 98 horsepower. The larger engine gives the Prius better highway mileage than its predecessor because it is able to turn at a lower average RPM on the highway. The more powerful electric motor helps city economy, and the result is a combined EPA rating of 50 miles per gallon (51 mpg city/48 mpg highway). I observed about 46 miles per gallon during my time with the car, over the course of a week and about 400 miles of mixed city/highway driving. Most importantly, the driving experience isn’t as agonizing as it was in the older Prius. The car is by no means fast, but its acceleration performance is now between “below average” and “average” rather than solidly below average.
With the 2010 Prius’ new version of Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy drive including a new transaxle, inverter, motor, and regenerative braking system, integration when accelerating and braking appears to be much better than in earlier hybrids. I noticed similar improved integration when reviewing the 2010 Lexus RX 450h a few weeks ago. The Prius offers three driving mode selections: EV mode (does not use the gasoline engine at all for low-speed travel of up to a mile), Eco (dulls throttle inputs in an attempt to maximize fuel economy), and Power (enhances throttle sensitivity and acceleration performance. EV mode has little practical application in the real world but makes for an interesting conversation starter between you and your passengers. Eco mode makes the Prius feel similarly slow to the 2004-2009 model and is the mode that seems to do the worst job of smoothing transitions between electric and gasoline power. Power mode is by far the most enjoyable for driving; it keeps the gasoline engine running more and sharpens throttle inputs to the point that it almostdoesn’t feel like you’re driving a hybrid. Of course, you aren’t going to get quite the same impressive fuel economy numbers in “Performance,” but for many, the tradeoff may be worth it because the accelerator is much more responsive.
Passenger and cargo volume technically qualify the Prius as a midsize car, but it’s on the very small end of midsize. Rear seat headroom is better than it was in the old Prius because the roof’s high point was moved several inches rearward. Nonetheless, my head was against the ceiling. (I’m 6’4″.) The hatchback configuration maximizes the cargo room available, and I had no trouble fitting things like a stroller or duffel bag into the area behind the rear seats. Those seats fold flat and make a fairly spacious cargo area, but one that is obviously at the expense of passenger capacity.
One surprising omission from the 2010 Prius is a more compelling economical driving aid. Honda’s cheaper and less sophisticated Insight has a very effective mileage-maximizing coach available on the trip computer display on the instrument panel, and the Ford Fusion Hybrid has an even more sophisticated rendition that allows the driver to earn leaves as his or her driving becomes more economical. The Prius has a very simple “Eco” light that tells you when you’re doing well as far as your driving habits, but little in the way of a coach that improves your driving technique, and therefore your observed mileage. At least the Prius does have a very good consumption log, including graphs. Regardless of how you drive the Prius, it’s easy to top 40 miles per gallon, and difficult to get into the 30s. But if you really want to impress your tree-hugging friends with your mileage numbers, chances are you’ll need a little eco driving coaching, or else you’ll annoy your fellow drivers with ill-advised hypermiling techniques.
The Prius inches closer to the mainstream in terms of capabilities and features with each successive generation, making the idea of owning a fuel-sipping standout much more palatable to the mainstream buyer. The third generation model is no exception, and Toyota has managed to improve the car significantly with little downside. The driving experience is still not for everyone (and particularly not for enthusiasts) and the interior is a little tight, but trading in my 304-horsepower daily driver on a Prius just became a slightly less painful thought. Further proving the car’s more mainstream cred, I didn’t have one fellow motorist giving me the finger or running me off the road, and I also didn’t feel self-conscious drivng the Prius amidst “regular” cars this time.
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