Yountville, Calif. — Anybody who needs convincing there is money in the fruit of the vine need look no further than Northern California’s Napa Valley. The closer one gets to some of the most noted wineries in the Golden State, the fancier the cars on the road.
A quick run up Highway 29 from Napa to St. Helena revealed at least one Ferrari and Maserati, Mercedes by the score, a gaggle of Porsches and BMWs, Lexuses and Infinitis too numerous to mention, Vettes and Mustangs old and new, plus a seriously trick Studebaker pickup — all in an hour.
Yet, it was equally obvious that Californians are embracing their inner green. Stepping outside San Francisco airport, one couldn’t help spot the copious Toyota Prius taxis and rentals (Ford Escape Hybrid cabs were also in ready supply). And the main highways and secondary routes heading north through Sonoma and Napa were liberally salted with the second-generation versions of Toyota’s halo hybrid vehicle. Far be it for me to suggest Toyota Canada had stacked the deck in preparation of the ride and drive of its new, third-generation model, but it had definitely picked friendly territory.
It’s not that the upcoming 2010 Prius needs much in the way of help. More than its first two predecessors, generation three is almost completely “normal” to drive, quite an achievement for such a high-tech car.
The changes are numerous yet subtle, at least to those who are members of Prius Nation (more than 14,000 strong in Canada). The familiar, triangle-shaped, four-door hatchback design is tweaked for improved aerodynamics, the body’s ultra-low coefficient of drag improving fuel efficiency and reducing road noise. The front pillar is extended forward and the roof profile altered by moving the top 99 millimetres rearward, which improves air flow as well as increases headroom for rear-seat passengers.
Dimensionally, the new model has the same wheelbase as the second generation, although overall length is slightly increased by 15.2 mm, in part by moving the front cowl forward. The car is certainly sharper looking and less organic than generation two, thanks to changes to the front and rear corners and stronger side character lines. Viewed from the back, the rear end is a little chunky and busy, but overall there is a sportier persona to the hybrid.
However, looks are secondary to what’s under the hood. And what the Prius delivers for 2010 is more performance, thanks to extensive improvements to the Hybrid Synergy Drive (90 per cent new).
There’s a 22 per cent increase in power while also improving fuel consumption by 7 per cent compared with the second generation.
The key is the larger and more powerful (98 horsepower) 1.8-litre, Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder. Toyota says the larger engine actually helps improve highway mileage. By making more torque, it runs at a lower average rpm on the highway. Use of an electric water pump and a new exhaust gas recirculation system also contribute to fuel efficiency. And the 1.8L engine is the first Toyota power plant that requires no belts under the hood.
What hasn’t changed is the fact the front-wheel-drive Prius is a full hybrid, with the capacity to run on engine alone, battery alone or a combination of both, and with the ability to charge the batteries while the car is running. Total net output from the hybrid system is 134 hp.
There are now three alternative driving modes in addition to the standard mode — EV-Drive, which allows driving on battery power alone at low speeds for about 1.6 kilometres in certain conditions; Power, which increases sensitivity to throttle input, and Eco, to help achieve better fuel economy.
There are a couple of peccadillos to the new Prius, though. The main one is that the car’s low-rolling- resistance tires exacerbate an already firm ride, which wasn’t helped by San Francisco’s beat-up downtown streets. Also, depending on the road surface, tire noise can range from easily masked (by turning on the audio system) to a din that makes conversation nearly impossible. I wasn’t overly thrilled by the main instrumentation’s centralized location in the hard-plastic dashboard, either, finding it just on the periphery of my line of sight out the windshield. A quick glance over and downward brought everything to focus, but I would prefer if at least the speedometer was placed directly in front of the driver.
Neither beef is likely to affect the fact that Toyota has convincingly moved the Prius from rolling curiosity to geek chic to viable mainstream transportation.
—Canwest News Service