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Toyota Prius picks up style for 2004

August 15, 2003|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

Who would have guessed that helping to save the planet in a gas-pump-passing gasoline/electric hybrid car could be this appealing?

Apparently, Toyota.

The company is unleashing a bigger, faster and more feature-laden 2004 Prius this fall that should make the best-seller list on looks alone.

While the '03 Prius delivered impressive fuel savings in a plain-brown wrapper, the seductively styled '04 edition promises to further lower gasoline consumption with technology not seen in any other vehicle, anywhere.

Not content with a mere makeover for its lean, green machine, Toyota has engineered an all-new platform and propulsion system and added one of the slickest and most futuristic bodies around. The Prius is now set farther apart from its more conservatively styled stablemates and will turn heads like no other Toyota.

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The car has also been upgraded to mid-size status from its previous compact-class perch. There's more room for up to five passengers plus a larger cargo hold accessed via a rear hatch. In addition, cargo space can be significantly enlarged by folding flat the rear seats. Despite its bolder dimensions, aerodynamic drag is actually lower than that of the previous model while weight is increased by about 90 pounds.

The new Prius introduces Toyota's next-generation powerplant combo. Called Hybrid Synergy Drive, the 1.5-liter 78-horsepower four-cylinder gasoline and 67-horsepower electric motors are not only more powerful than their '03 counterparts, but can operate on their own or in tandem. Previously, both Prius engines were always at work assisting each other. Obviously, running on electric current only (when conditions allow) lowers both tailpipe emissions and gasoline consumption. In fact, Toyota estimates that the Prius' current 52 mpg city and 45 mpg highway rating should improve by a full 15 percent.

Another important byproduct of the torquier Hybrid Synergy Drive is better performance. Again, Toyota figures that the new Prius will reach 60 mph from rest in about 10.5 seconds, a two-second improvement over the outgoing model and about the same rate of acceleration as a four-cylinder Camry sedan.

The electrically controlled continuously variable transmission is connected to a dash-mounted joystick shifter that requires just a light tap of a finger to operate. The gas pedal is electrically controlled in a similar fashion.

As with the first Prius, this version comes equipped with a full range of features, including air conditioning, cruise control, anti-lock brakes and power windows, door locks and mirrors. But Toyota is bringing a couple of not-seen-before innovations to the Prius party, such as an electrically operated air conditioner that does not work by means of a power-robbing and fuel-consuming fan belt. Also available is what Toyota calls a Smart Entry and Smart Start feature. A sensor in the Prius reads a signal in the key in the driver's pocket or purse and unlocks the doors as he or she approaches the car. Once behind the wheel, a starter button on the dash brings the Prius to life.

With improvements in power, packaging and economy of operation, the Prius represents a quantum leap forward in marketing a mainstream alternative to the traditional energy-sapping family sedan. That the car is so good-looking represents some extra frosting on an already mouth-watering piece of cake.

No word as yet on the final price, but if Toyota can stay close to the original's $20,000 sticker, keeping these eco-beauties in stock will be a real challenge.

© Wheelbase Communications, 2003

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