Review: 2011 Toyota Prius IV
By Roger Boylan
Press the Prius’s ignition button and the info screen on the dashboard reads “Welcome to PRIUS,” as if flinging open the gates to a mythical kingdom–which in some ways it is. The Toyota Prius has acquired an almost mythical status, worshipped as a lifestyle statement by preening greenies and scorned for the same reason by the diehard SUV- and pickup-driving class. I fall into neither category. Although I have owned, and enjoyed, gas-guzzling SUVs and pickups, I was impressed by my previous exposure to the Prius (the Plug-In version), and I have no greater affection than any other citizen of the West for the Saudi oil sheikhs who hold us hostage to their whims.
I was prepared, therefore, to be resolutely objective in my assessment of this game-changing car—for that is what the Prius has been, since its worldwide debut in 2001 (a good year to poke a spoke in the wheels of the Saudi oil machine). By September 2010, it had sold over 2 million units, half of them in the U.S. Apart from becoming the emblematic car of green-tinted Hollywood celebs, the Prius has played a role of crucial importance as the first hybrid vehicle that anyone could take seriously as a real car (remember the first Honda Insight?). So a cobalt-gray 2011 Prius IV–there are five dynastic trim levels, Prius I through Prius V–spent a week based in the Autosavant Garage, Texas branch, doing real-car things like taking me and family members back and forth to Austin and San Antonio and up and down the winding roads of the Hill Country. I hypermiled; I dropped the hammer; I splashed through tropical downpours; I bumped and jolted over gravel tracks; I hauled a week’s worth of groceries; and I generally put the little car through the mill. It survived, and, more importantly, so did I.
Actually, it’s not such a little car anymore. The 2011 Prius is officially classified as a mid-size vehicle, and the passenger and cargo room inside back up that assessment. The driver’s and front passenger’s seats, leather-appointed in my test car, are very comfortable, with ample leg and head room, and there’s sufficient space in the back seats for a couple of six-footers to take their ease without undue penance—if not from New York to Los Angeles, at least from, say, Dallas to San Antonio. The rear seats split and fold down in a 60/40 configuration and yield lots of room for hauling, a 21.6-cu. ft. cargo area in back. Under the raised center console that descends like a flying buttress from the dashboard there’s a deep bin that easily accommodated stray items from my grocery shopping (a six-pack, tissue boxes, etc.). There are upper and lower glove compartments, and a two-level console box. You and your passengers have more than enough space for all those Gucci and Tommy Hilfiger packages you’ll be acquiring on your next mall safari.
You should also be well-protected from random clobberings and other violent mishaps. Like all modern cars, the Prius boasts a raft of the latest safety gear, starting with airbags galore: driver and front passenger, seat-mounted side, knee, and front and rear side-curtain. Standard across the line is Toyota’s Star Safety System, boasting vehicle stability and traction control, and ABS with electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gives the ’11 . The Prius also has an engine immobilizer, which prevents your car from being stolen, because the engine, in order to start, needs a microchip inside the key. That’s clever, in my book. So is the solar panel on the roof, which stores solar energy and releases it to ventilate the interior when you press the relevant button on the key fob. A cool feature, in both senses of the word.
The décor inside the Prius is slightly futuristic, as you might expect, and not unpleasant, but it evokes the famous one-word piece of career advice given to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate: “Plastics.” It’s Plasticworld in there, rendered all the more plasticky by the absence of traditional gauges; the broad slope of the gray plastic dashboard takes off in front of the driver and culminates in a long, centrally placed digital-display readout. Digital displays are beginning quite frankly to look less like the future than the past’s version of the future, ca. 1970. Anyway, I’ve never liked digital readouts. They have no aesthetic appeal, and require more attention than plain, big old round gauges because a) after being used in cars for 100 years, plain, big old round analog gauges are intuitive; and b) digital screens tend to look too busy, and they wash out in bright light.
Still, you get used to anything, and after a day or so I was ritualistically glancing front and center for my speed and various fascinating and not-so-fascinating bits of info re: fuel economy, hybrid use, battery charge, distance to empty, etc. Very useful for instant info displays is the so-called Touch Racer Display, a series of touch sensors on the steering wheel enabling the driver to control audio input or trip display without looking away from the road. Odd that this sage feature should coexist with a very distracting motion-schematic of the car that pops up on the display screen, wheels spinning and arrows shooting left and right to designate power flow.
Another futuristic touch is the bizarre but appealing little joystick-shifter that snaps back to center after you select your gear from R, N, D, or B (for braking speed). Park is selected by pressing a button marked P on the console, where you will also find most of your climate and entertainment functions, including an upgraded audio system with (at the Prius IV and V trim levels) satellite radio, voice-activated touch-screen DVD navigation system, 4-CD changer, backup camera, iPod/USB audio interface, and Bluetooth music streaming. Except for the seat-heater switches, which for some bizarre reason are artfully concealed beneath the swoop of the console-buttress, the controls are well laid-out and logical to use. The HVAC system, especially the -AC part, comes in for particular praise as a paragon of efficiency and simplicity. And once again—I speak as a resident of the semi-tropics—heartfelt kudos to the designers of that remote-activated a/c system.
The Prius is, as we know, a hybrid; that is, a vehicle propelled by gasoline and/or electric power. It has a 1.8-liter 4-cylinder gas engine and a pair of electric motor/generators, a powertrain joined by a continuously variable transmission (CVT) and jointly producing 134 horsepower and 105 lb-ft of torque. These aren’t numbers to set the pulse racing, and, let’s face it, this isn’t really a driver’s car. You’ll never see a Prius Cup at Indianapolis or Monte Carlo. But it’s an agreeable car to drive, with no unpleasant surprises and even a couple of pleasant ones: the reasonably communicative–or at least not overboosted–electrically-assisted steering, for instance, and the alacrity of throttle response at highway speeds. Even on the launch pad the Prius gives a respectable account of itself.
There are four driving modes–EV, Eco, Normal, and Power. Eco mode is fuel-efficient, as its name suggests, but slow. Normal mode is the default position. Power mode is the least economical but the quickest away from a stoplight; it pulls eagerly. I timed the 0-60 run in Power mode, in dry conditions with no wind, at just under 10 sec, right in the manufacturer’s ball park of 9.8 sec. No Corvette, certainly, but there are slower cars, and I’ve driven them. At least in Power mode, the Prius never feels sluggish, although the 4-cylinder engine makes itself heard under hard acceleration. The EV, or electric vehicle, option, turns off the gasoline engine completely, but only at speeds of 25 mph or less, until the 6.5 amp/ hour nickel-metal hydride pack uses up its charge. But when EV mode is working, it’s fun to prowl silently, like a cat, around parking lots, as long as you toot your horn to warn pedestrians of your approach.
All this is well and good, but the raison d’être of this thing, from stem to stern is, of course, fuel economy. Everything works together to that end. To maximize efficiency of movement through the air and on the road via aerodynamic design, the Prius has a drag coefficient of 0.25 and a traditional Kammback shape with smooth contours and a raised, tapered tail, making not only for good aerodynamics but also a pretty nice-looking machine, or at least not the nerd-on-wheels it once was. Also, low-rolling-resistance tires that can get quite noisy on rough surfaces are used to reduce road friction, contributing a little extra to keeping consumption down. And of course there’s the dual hybrid system, doing its bit. Despite all these bells and whistles, however, I was disappointed with my fuel economy at first. I was getting 35 mpg or so, hardly up to Prius’s standards.
But after a little judicious Web research, I realized that my brand-new test vehicle had hardly been broken in yet. This archaic-sounding concept is actually fairly important for hybrids, which can post dramatically better mileage scores after the first 1000 miles. Fortunately, that tipping point occurred during my tenure with the car, after which things improved considerably. During my hypermiling exercises, as I crawled along less-traveled byways purely for experimentation’s sake, I was flirting with 80 mpg, according to the driver info center. In normal driving, the EPA’s—and Toyota’s–figures of 51 mpg city and 48 highway, for an overall average of 50, are just about in line with my observed mileage, to within three or four digits: the car’s info center claimed I’d averaged 47.6 mpg over the week. Suffice it to say that after six days of sustained city and highway driving I still had a quarter tank of regular left, good for a range of around 150 miles.
And that’s all you really need to know about the Prius. The fact that it’s also a pleasant and comfortable car is icing on the cake. Be warned, however: The alluring deals are gone, what with gas prices hovering around $4 a gallon. This is a time when manufacturers are squeezing every cent out of their hybrids. You’ll probably be paying full price for your Prius: $23K or thereabouts for the base model, all the way up to around $32K for a well-equipped Prius V. Is it worth the price? That’s a subjective decision, of course. There are other hybrids with equal or greater appeal, purely in terms of performance and/or styling: the Ford Fusion, for instance, or Toyota’s own Camry Hybrid. But the Prius is sui generis; it’s the Model T of hybrid cars. To own one is to own a bit of automotive history. That consideration could be priceless.