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Toyota Prius Delights Owner - 2001-01-13

In automotive terms, "hybrid" means a vehicle powered by a combination of internal combustion engine and electric motor. The purpose of a hybrid is to increase fuel economy and reduce air pollution. It's the first major step away from the gasoline engine on the way to the fuel cell as the car's power source. Unlike electric cars, hybrids need not be plugged into electrical outlets to re-charge their batteries. That fact greatly increases their cruising range and enhances their attractiveness to a public accustomed to the convenience of the familiar gasoline-powered car.

Toyota introduced its Prius hybrid to the Japanese market in late 1997. It arrived on American shores in January of 2000. Worldwide sales have now surpassed the 50,000 mark.

Prius is priced at just under $21,000 in the U.S. For that amount, you get a compact, four-door sedan with room for five and cutting-edge technology that you probably won't even notice as you go about your daily drive.

There's an old advertising slogan: Ask the man who owns one. Anthony Cortese owns a Prius. Mr. Cortese is deeply concerned about the environment. He's a former environmental protection commissioner for the U.S. state of Massachusetts, former dean of environmental programs at Tufts University and co-founder of a non-profit organization called Second Nature that promotes environmental awareness through education in colleges and universities.

When asked why he bought a Prius, Mr. Cortese says, "I was looking for a safe, comfortable family car that would get the best possible gasoline mileage and reduce the impact on the environment as much as possible."

The Prius is the Cortese family's only car and is used for all purposes errands, long trips and commuting. Its official estimated fuel economy is 52 miles per U.S. gallon, or 22 kilometers per liter). Mr. Cortese's real-world driving produces less. "The overall average is about 42 or 43 miles to the gallon," he says. "Less in the city if we go for very short trips and more on the highway."

Anthony Cortese is happy with the fuel economy and has been pleasantly surprised with the car's performance. "When you start from a stopped position, it's using the electric motor and the electric motor has high torque," he says. "So the car is actually very quick off the line. It's also able to go at highway speeds with no trouble at all. I've driven it as fast as 85 miles an hour (136 kilometers per hour) with no problem."

The Prius owner says an unexpected benefit has been the car's comfort and handling. The high seating position and well-designed passenger cabin contribute to excellent outward visibility, he explains. "So I feel like the car is much safer than I would find in a comparable subcompact or compact, because the visibility is greater," he says.

Mr. Cortese's only criticisms of the car are that the console between the driver's and passenger's seat is too low to rest one's arm on and the shift lever, which protrudes from the instrument panel, is rather awkward and blocks easy use of some minor controls.

A Prius costs more than a comparably-sized Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic, but for Anthony Cortese it's worth the price, considering the gasoline money saved, plus free maintenance from Toyota for the first 36,000 miles. "The trouble with the way we normally think is we think usually about the price of the car and not about the operational costs of the car," says Mr. Cortese. "And, in this particular case, when you look over a three- or four-year period and look at the whole life-cycle of the cost of the car, this is a less expensive automobile."

And, says Mr. Cortese, it's less expensive to society in its reduced pollution emissions. The Toyota Prius and its counterpart at Honda, the Insight, may not be everyone's ideal motor vehicles. But they represent a new chapter in automotive history and the leading edge of where the industry is headed in the 21st century.