The Prius is easy to like when you pull up to the gas pump but the little car takes forever to get to the filling station so it will help if you like the hybrid in between fill-ups.
At first glance, the Toyota appears a lot like any other little car but there is one big difference: With the Prius, it helps to read the owner's manual before attempting to start the thing.
None of the computer-savvy members of the ConsumerAffairs.com staff were able to start the car without consulting the owner's manual or asking for help. The starting procedure is not complicated but it's certainly not intuitive.
The futuristic look of the Prius comes with some futuristic features. There is a rear-view camera to show the way in reverse, a laser "smart key" and a very space-age-looking dashboard.
So before we get to the important part -- gasoline mileage -- let's talk about the "smart key" and other electronic baubles on the Prius.
Toyota describes the "smart key" as part of its theft prevention and immobilizer system.
When you "press the power switch, the electronic code in the key is automatically checked to determine whether it corresponds to the registered ID code for the vehicle," according the Prius Owner's Manual. "If the ID code is verified, you can start the system."
With your foot on the brake, you simply press the power button. That's right, the power button. The Prius is now ready to drive. Just to make sure you know that, the "ready" light in the dashboard console comes on to tell you so.
You don't feel the electric motor turn on and the gasoline engine may not fire up right away. When the Prius tells you the car is ready you can believe your eyes and forget about your ears as you quietly start to slip out of your driveway or parking space.
The engineering magic of a full hybrid powertrain that can propel a vehicle using gasoline, electricity or both is in the control system and its software. A computer manages the blend of power from the electric motor and gasoline engine. The computer also controls the hybrid's regenerative braking system that captures the vehicle's kinetic energy and turns it into electricity.
Good to Go?
While the process is seamless, the moving-on-down-the-road part is where people begin to differ in their view of the Japanese hybrid.
The Prius is not a powerful car. There is the rub.
Depending on your perspective, the hybrid accelerates smoothly to highway speed and beyond, or the little car just takes forever to get up to speed and into traffic. Jim Hood ran out of patience trying to clock its 0-60 performance and Joe Enoch just about ran out of pavement as he hot-footed onto an off-ramp.
The Prius comes with a full slate of standard equipment that includes full-time traction control and ABS braking. Nevertheless, at Beltway speeds around Washington the Prius is a little short of confidence-inspiring and the thin tires do not provide a lot of grip.
But while the Prius is at or near the bottom end of the acceleration curve, I found plenty of power to comfortably move into high-speed traffic as I engaged both the electic motor and gasoline engine.
Buying a Prius can take longer these days than jumping into freeway traffic. The waiting lists are back, along with $3 a gallon gasoline.
Two months ago there were Prius models that sat on the showroom floor. This month most Toyota dealers are out of cars as demand again outstrips supply.
The wait is currently about four weeks.
After you stand in line for your opportunity to buy a Prius you will still be in a minority on the great American highway. Though hybrid sales more than doubled in 2005, they still make up only about 1 percent of overall vehicles sales nationwide.
Once you are in the car, the Prius certainly seems to have every electronic gadget available these days. It's a hoot to drive. As an economical and environmentally friendly people mover, I give the car top marks. But try to drive the Prius like a Porsche and you will be disappointed.
Oh yes, you have to contend with the reaction of other motorists when driving a Prius too. No kidding, a lot of people just don't seem to like the car.
The Prius attracted some mildly hostile attention from other motorists as we drove around Northern Virginia. The staff wrote this off as politics as usual in the greater Washington area. More than most areas, Washington, D.C., drivers see your choice of car as a political statement.
Nevertheless, driving the Prius makes it easy to understand why some people feel they are making a contribution to the environment and their fellow man. The little car moves lightly on the earth.
At the neighborhood grocery store, I parked near former Secretary of State Colin Powell as the general sat in his powerful C6 Corvette. I could not resist exuding a slight environmentally conscious smirk as I walked by the high-powered combo on the way to buy a handful of groceries. (Editors Note: We are available to test drive a Corvette C6 ZO6 anytime).
Politics aside, the Prius passed the all-important grocery run test with high marks. Everything fit nicely into the trunk space without overflowing into the passenger compartment.
As we mentioned earlier, the Prius dashboard is an electronic dream. Speed, miles driven and other important information are available as digital readouts where the dashboard meets the windshield.
The center console of the Prius houses a computer screen that provides constant mileage and energy consumption data as well climate and stereo controls.
The Big Question
So now we move on to the important question -- gasoline mileage in the Prius.
We will have to be upfront and offer a couple of disclosures here. Toyota delivered the Prius with 87 highway miles on the car and the gasoline mileage indicator built into the center console recorded 48.6 miles per gallon from the delivery trip.
The window sticker that came with the Prius says that the hybrid gets 60 miles per gallon in the city and 51 on the highway. The mileage claims have been the subject of heated debate and complaints among readers of ConsumerAffairs.com.
We were unable to divide our Prius driving equally between city and highway driving since, unfortunately, highways around here are about as crowded and slow-moving as city streets. So the ConsumerAffairs.com staff simply did the best we could: we pounded the Prius over 7 days in Washington and Northern Virginia traffic.
We spent a number of miles on the Beltway and I-66 and on such urban thoroughfares as the Fairfax Country Parkway and Route 28 around Dulles Airport. We drove the car hard and heavy, trying to see just what sort of mileage this little gas saver would or would not produce.
At the end of seven days we filled the tank. We had driven 298.71 miles. The Prius took 6.59 gallons. That works out to 45.2 miles per gallon. The onboard computer showed the Prius delivering 43 miles per gallon, suggesting the car had been filled to the brim before delivery to us.
Split the difference and you have 44 miles per gallon in a car driven by three lead-footed reviewers who broke every rule of fuel-efficient driving they could think of.
No, the Prius didn't get 60 miles per gallon but, being driven hard through some of the worst traffic in the country, we'd have to say it did pretty well.
The sticker price on the 2006 Prius Toyota provided for our test drive is $23,966.
The manufacturers suggested retail price for the base Prius is $21,725 and the car carries option package number 3 costing $1,475.
Option package 3 includes Rear Backup Camera, Smart Key System, AM/FM CD with 6 speakers, Auxiliary Audio Input Miniplug and MP3/WMA Playback Capability, Driver and Front Seat-Mounted Side Airbags, Front and Rear Side Curtain Airbags. The carpet, floor mats and cargo mat in the Prius cost an additional $186.
Toyota provided ConsumerAffairs.com with the Prius for a one-week test drive.
Test Drive: 2006 Toyota Prius...