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From the archives: New Toyota Prius gets green light

The Prius is Toyota's new hybrid gasoline-electric car,

The Prius is Toyota's new hybrid gasoline-electric car, which goes 45 miles per gallon in the city, 52 mpg on the highway. Photo Credit: AP, 2000

This article was originally published in Newsday on Aug. 29, 2000

Thanks to Toyota, and with all due respect to Kermit the Frog, it's gotten easier being "green."

Easier, but still not cheap.

U.S. sales have begun this month of a car that allows environmentally conscious Americans to do more than just write checks to the Sierra Club and exact a little revenge on those responsible for rising gasoline prices by using less of it. It's the U.S. version of the Toyota Prius-the first mass- produced hybrid gasoline-electric car when it went on sale in Japan three years ago.

By EPA estimates, it'll go as far as 52 miles on a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline and, because of the design of its powertrain and other innovations, the Prius is one of few vehicles to comply with California's very stringent but now-voluntary "Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle" standard-known as "SULEV." (If you're wondering what could possibly be better than "super ultra low," it's "zero" emissions from a pure electric car.)

What makes the compact Prius really notable is that it delivers its good mileage and cleaner exhaust without exacting an unreasonable price from its owner-not in cash to purchase the $ 20,450 car, not in ride comfort, not in passenger room, not in trunk space, not (much) in handling, not (much) in power. It's a real car, not a glorified golf cart and it doesn't have to be recharged after just 60 miles of driving like "pure" electrics.

Although the 169.6-inch-long Prius is almost six inches shorter than a compact Toyota Corolla, key interior dimensions, including trunk space, are almost identical. And the five-passenger Prius has two inches more rear seat legroom. The automatic transmission-equipped Prius is hands down a more practical car than the even more diminutive and even more gas stingy (61 mpg city, 70 highway) Honda Insight, a two-seat hybrid that went on sale here late last year. Further, the Insight is available with stick shift only.

Here, simply, is how the Prius works: A relatively small, 1.5-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine is the main motivator. When its 58 horsepower isn't enough, such as when the car is accelerating, a 40 hp. electric motor assists. Once the car has reached the driver's desired cruising speed, the electric motor ceases to assist.

When the vehicle stops, such as at a traffic light, the gasoline engine shuts itself off so that fuel is not wasted and the air is not dirtied in idling. When the light turns green and the driver presses the accelerator, the electric motor gives the car a nudge, the gasoline engine restarts almost immediately and off the Prius goes, just like any other car,-reaching 60 mph in an acceptable 12.5 seconds.

The engine's automatic on/off feature explains why the Prius has a higher mileage rating from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for city driving-52 mpg-than for highway driving, where it's 40 mpg. (My tester achieved 38.5 mpg in 241 miles of local and highway driving but real world fuel economy often is lower than EPA estimates.)

The nickel-metal hydride batteries that power the electric motor are charged by a generator that's driven by the gasoline engine. When the car is coasting, the electric motor also becomes a generator.

The technology of the future? Maybe. But hybrid gasoline/electric or diesel/electric powertrains might just be a milestone on the way to fuel cells, a virtually pollution-free power source in which electricity is chemically produced from hydrogen and oxygen.

The interaction of the Prius' engine and electric motor is computer controlled and almost seamless. One feels the electric motor coming on and going off at the slightest lifting or pressing of the accelerator. Even when I tried to hold the accelerator rock steady I sometimes felt a stumbling in the test car's powertrain at highway speeds akin to a gasoline engine with one cylinder misfiring.

The vehicle shudders slightly when the gasoline engine shuts down and when it restarts. When the engine is off, so is the air conditioning compressor so if traffic is gridlocked on a hot day the cockpit quickly gets warm. Pressing the "Max. AC" switch solves that problem by preventing the engine and compressor from shutting down as often.

There is no sound of a starter cranking when one turns the ignition key because the gasoline engine does not start until the car begins to move; a "ready" light indicates that it and the electric motor are ready to go.

The dog-legged gear selector protruding from the dash looks odd and feels a bit awkward but it does the job. The automatic transmission has " continuously variable," drive ratios rather the usual four or five fixed forward ratios of most transmissions; that helps keep the engine at its most fuel efficient speed.

The Prius powertrain is reasonably quiet; as a fuel saving measure and to permit the use of lighter engine parts, it's not allowed to rev nearly as fast as most car engines. A low whine is the only sound from the electric motor.

The Prius is more easily justified, though, for its greeness than for the money it'll save owners by using less gas. While $ 21,000 is not out of line nowadays for a well equipped small car, a comparably equipped Corolla costs about $ 3,500 less. A 2001 Corolla is EPA rated at 30 mpg in the city and 39 on the highway. Depending upon how much driving you do, it could take years to recoup the difference in purchase price.

The Prius would be even more difficult to justify economically if Toyota priced it high enough to make a profit on it. It loses an undisclosed amount on each Prius.

Some buyers, however, might be eligible for a $ 2,000 deduction in federal taxable income.

The Prius is no sportscar in its handling any more than it is in acceleration. Its high center of gravity makes it vulnerable to crosswinds at highway speeds and its soft suspension and relatively narrow, 175/65R14, tires dictate a conservative approach to any change in direction. At 2,700 pounds the Prius is at least 200 pounds more than a Corolla.

Crash test results for the Prius are not yet available. The Corolla gets four of a possible five stars in most categories from the feds; it's rated "acceptable" by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The Prius is not available with side-impact air bags; the Corolla is.

Gauges are in the center of the dash, not in front of the driver. Below them is a touch sensitive screen that contains some stereo controls and can show fuel economy in real time or show a diagram where power is coming from and where it's going at any given moment. There is no coolant gauge, only a warning light. The cupholders in the center console are so shallow as to be useless for keeping a tall cup from tipping and I have a dry cleaning bill to prove it.

In all, while the Prius makes it easier to be green, it's far from a free ride. The really bad news, though, from the standpoint of America's air quality and its dependence on imported oil, is that Toyota will be able to send no more than about 12,000 a year to this country.

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