A decade ago, when gas was reasonably cheap, and SUVs approaching the size of buses dominated the roadways, Toyota did something unusual.
Instead of following the prevailing wisdom and building bigger, they came out with a new class of small cars, the Toyota Prius hybrid, whose claim to fame was that it could get about 50 miles per gallon. The Prius was about the size of the popular Honda Civic, but had a bit less space in the back because there was this large battery pack under the rear seat and trunk. It was an innovative, dual motor system in which the car could drive at low speeds – under 30 miles per hour – on battery power and an electric motor and at higher speeds with a standard gasoline engine. At that time, however, consumers openly wondered if the batteries could explode, if drivers could be electrocuted, and if the dual system would last 50,000 miles or more.
And it was an open bet whether fuel economy would sell in a market where Detroit automakers scoffed at the technology and the five-mile-per-gallon Hummer and 12 MPG Cadillac Escalade were major status symbols.
A decade later, the Hummer is gone, Detroit is climbing out of bankruptcy, the Escalade comes in a hybrid version and the pioneering Prius closes out April with the sale of its one millionth American Prius. Toyota could have stopped with minor adjustments to the Prius, now a slightly larger, four-door model with a better lithium-ion battery.
But to mark the occasion, Toyota decided it was time for the Prius to develop siblings. So at the New York International Auto Show, the Prius is flanked by a larger, hybrid crossover model called the Prius V, and a tri-engine, plug-in electric Prius.
There is little new in the iconic standard Prius which has set the standard for fuel efficiency with a 50 MPG average. The Prius V is, literally, a stretch. It looks pretty much like the standard Prius – resembling a rolling trapezoid – only gown up. In size, it’s a Prius and a half, and intended to more comfortably meet standard family needs. In that arena, it has a lot more room and electronic gadgets while delivering an estimated EPA rating of 42 MPG in city driving and 38 MPH on the highway.
The second row seats are versatile in that they can fold flat to enlarge the cargo area, or recline 45 degrees for more comfortable napping. For entertainment, the V has Toyota’s new “Entune” multimedia system which provides distracting links to the internet in addition to a wide variety of music. The car offers XM satellite and HD radio in addition to a CD player and connections for iPods, MP3 players, smart phones, and USB drives. The system accesses the Internet for Bluetooth streaming and, using Bing, will locate and read your email and allow limited voice responses.
The crossover field is a crowded one. The Prius V will have to try and elbow room between Asian competitors like the Honda Crosstour and Nissan Murano – which now has a convertible model – or slide upscale to the Cadillac SRX.
The company is seeking a different niche with the new Prius Hybrid Plug-in electric vehicle. Toyota is circulating 160 of them around the country at this time, gathering user feedback in anticipation of a formal launch next year. The initial Prius was revolutionary in that Toyota envisioned and developed a car which could fully operate on two different power plants. The new plug-in goes a step further, allowing you to drive with three power systems.
The hybrid power systems are standard. What is different is that the new battery pack powers the electric motor for about an hour, or 13 miles, at speeds up to 60 miles per hour. After that, the charge is depleted and the car reverts to the standard hybrid combination with the interplay between the gas engine and electric motor. The difference is incremental. What the 13 electric power only miles do is extend the miles per gallon average of the car.
Wade Hoyt, Toyota’s east coast director, who commutes 42 miles each way into Manhattan from the northern Westchester County suburbs, said “my commute includes the hilly, twisting Depression-era Taconic and Saw Mill Parkways, Manhattan's Westside Highway and congested mid-town traffic. In a conventional 2011 Prius, I can average about 51 mpg into town (downhill on balance) and 48 mpg or so going home (uphill on balance).