2009 Toyota Prius

2009 Toyota Prius image

Text: Angelo B. Puyat / Photos: Vince Pornelos | posted October 21, 2009 00:00

Status symbol of viable solution?

The first Terminator, more known to geeks as the T-800, was a cybernetic machine that appeared fully human but had the strength of ten men and was virtually impervious to gunfire. In the sequel, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, the world was blown away by the T-1000, a more advanced killing machine that could alter body shape with its liquid alloy composition. In the 3rd installment, viewers were introduced to the T-101, a highly intuitive assassin that had built in weapons under its skin and could control other machines through its circuitry.

Pardon the Ah-nuld history lesson here, but its easy to see that with each new Terminator, the film makers endowed these machines with more complicated and advanced traits, making them more effective in what they do best... terminating targets.

Over to the third generation Prius, dubbed by Toyota geeks as the ZVW30 platform, and a similar pattern seems to arise. Borne with the task of easing the world's dependency on fossil fuels and limiting the emission of harmful gases, the Prius becomes even more effective in what it was built to do... help save Mother Earth.

Now enough with the baloney on the Prius being a product that does more harm than good. Toyota is one of the pioneers in this hybrid game, and they know how to clean up after there mess. Being the numero uno auto manufacturer worldwide, Toyota wont just let components such as the Prius' battery degrade the environment. They have established protocol on how to safely handle worn out juice packs, and even have an incentive program to encourage dealers to send used batteries back to Toyota HQ. How's that for comprehensive product support?

At first glance, the Prius looks very similar to the outgoing NHW20 model, first offered to the public back in 2004. The familiar lift-back shape is retained, so is the high roofline and boxy dimensions. This new hybrid however sports a more cutting-edge look, with the vehicle's lines purposely streamlined not just for aesthetics, but also to help bring down its coefficient of drag. Wind friction is one of the major enemies of good fuel consumption, which is why Toyota spent countless man-hours in the Prius' development phase to achieve a smoother surfaced vehicle. The result: the new Prius cuts a svelte 0.25 Cd when slicing through air, quite an impressive feat for a car of this height. Other cues such as the boomerang shaped headlights and vertically stacked foglamps do the front fascia a lot of good, while the clear white LED tail lights are a throwback to the older model. The character lines of the vehicle are undeniably slick, giving one a stronger affinity for wanting to drive this car than just being transported in it. At last, the Prius looks like a daily drivable car rather than an expensive science project.

Improvements continue inside, and this is where the Prius truly impresses. The cabin is now a much more classier place to be in. It really feels like a space that can pamper, as compared to the older model's chemistry-lab vibe. Up front, one will quickly notice the floating center console which is a page off Volvo's book. And who wouldn't want to emulate the Swedes when it comes to interior design (Ever heard of Ikea?)? The central display that reads the Prius' vital functions is placed further above in the dash, allowing for drivers to keep their view closer to the road when checking on things. Termed as the touch tracer display (very Trekkie, eh?), this screen allows the driver to monitor the all important energy display, which tells you when you're cruising on gas, on electricity, or both. Steering wheel controls make operating various functions an ease, giving the driver no reason at all to keep his hands other than on the wheel itself. North American markets will have the GPS device option, but local units will make do with a decent stereo instead. One thing I greatly appreciate is the proper sized gear lever now installed by Toyota…it is a welcome change compared to the older car's joystick-ish shifter that felt like a cheap plaything from China. Fit and finish on the panels and handles are superb, bordering on Lexus refinement. Rear occupants will also be pleased as the Prius offers greater passenger room than the best-selling Camry sedan. Room for 5 good sized adults here.

Depress the starter button, and…well, nothing. Silence pervades the entire start-up operation, leading you to believe that nothing happened. Step on the accelerator though and it's a different story, as a healthy 153 lb-ft of twist is instantaneously available through the electric motor. This artificial feel is sustained until the car exceeds 40 km/h, wherein the good ol' combustion motor kicks in. The Prius uses an Atkinson cycle which prioritizes fuel efficiency over optimal power output as that of the conventional Otto cycle engine. The larger 1.8L mill contributes an ample 98 hp and 105 lb-ft of torque, which when coupled with the 80 hp from the electric motor, leads to good acceleration. The time it takes to hit 60 mph is slashed by a full second, and the Prius now does it in the mid 10s. That was sporty performance back in the 90s. The Hybrid Synergy Drive of Toyota is simply a technological tour de force, and seamlessly transitions from electric power to combustion power and then back, thanks to the use of planetary gears in the transmission. This effectively gives the Prius a CVT tranny, which performs absolutely flawless for normal driving.

With the combined power of the two motors, it's quite easy to get carried away and speed off, making you forget you're inside a green car. It will out-pace compacts with 1.6L engines, and can maintain a brisk highway speed in excess of 120 km/h. The Prius offers three modes of driving: EV is for the full electric powered drive or stealth mode, featuring no noise at all. ECO mode is for economizing power consumption, even the AC is readjusted for less appetite. POWER mode obviously sharpens throttle response for quicker forward thrust.

The Prius strikes me as a peppy little driver that is not entirely boring. Granted that you don't buy this thing to raise pulses, but its got some go in it. Its not the sharpest of handlers, but it will take to corners with enthusiasm. One thing you can't neglect though is the weight, which you strongly feel when decelerating and changing directions abruptly. Those battery cells and regenerative braking system really pack on the pounds.

Now for the million dollar question, how much mileage does this poster child for green motoring do? Manufacturer figures state 25 km/L, which is a very optimistic figure for everyday conditions. With careful throttle inputs and conservative road manners, the Prius can easily do about 18 km/L. But tap on the Power button and enjoy the gobs of torque, and the numbers go down drastically to about 10 km/L. Yes you read right, I managed to do 10 on the Prius. Thank you. With the EV mode though, it's possible to cruise to the nearby convenience store running on electric power alone. And this is really where the bulk of city trips occur, in nearby destinations.

Alas, everything comes at a price. Unfortunately for the Prius, it's not a case of having your cake and eating it too. At PhP 2.2M +, the Prius is treading on premium car territory, and may woe would-be buyers over to the Teutonic brands instead. For a little perspective, it retails in the U.S. for a friendlier $22,000 (a little over a million pesos). In greenback terms, the Prius will cost the average Juan about $42,000, twice the amount our American counterparts have to fork out. This is simply too much for the general car buying public to burden, which is why the Prius, as excellent a car as hybrids come, will continue to be limited to the moneyed folk. Unless government can grant tax levies and/or consumer incentives for using greener vehicles, the Prius will remain a status symbol rather than a tool for environmental change. Which is quite simply sad. If only we can make a Terminator to hunt down environmental damage...