Thursday, August 30, 2012

Toyota's pioneering Prius: An appreciation

Sacramento, California – Today, American motorists can choose from a blizzard of alternative-powered cars, so many choices that any buyer would be foolish to neglect doing some serious homework before hitting dealer lots.

Back in 2000, that wasn’t true.  That’s when Toyota came to America with its Prius, a gas-electric hybrid that, at the time, seemed so radical and technologically advanced that it intimidated many prospective buyers.  Toyota priced the car a ridiculously low few bucks below $20,000.

Truth be told, the car’s technology for that time probably had a real value of twice that.

Today, you see the Prius everywhere.  Here in California, it’s hard to drive three blocks without seeing at least one.  And you know you’ve hit the big time when you have to choose from a long laundry list of Prius offerings.  Toyota now makes a Prius for virtually every taste, and you need a scorecard to keep up with the models.

In recent weeks, I’ve spent time behind the wheel of a 2012 Prius v, a 2012 Prius c and a 2012 Prius Four.  All of them did the nameplate proud – fuel-efficient, easy to drive, easy to handle and nicely laid out.

I like to think of the Prius as a pioneer in U.S. automotive history.  The fact that you can buy a particular Prius to fit your lifestyle pretty much confirms that the model has become a mainstream player.

I liked the cargo-carrying capability of the Prius v offering, basically an extended hatchback for folks who carry around a lot of cargo and still enjoy the fuel-saving benefits of the car.  The Prius Four came off to me as a luxury-level Prius, with a pleasingly long list of standard perks and a starting price of $28,235.

The Prius flavor getting the most attention seems to be the Prius c (pictured), the comparatively small version of the model with a small price to match -- $23,230 on my top-level tester; the base model of the hatchback’s four trim levels starts at a mere $18,950.

Interestingly, the Prius c has taken hits from fellow car reviewers for being too “Prius Lite.”  The most aggressive critics call it cheap.

That’s a mystery to me, because Toyota has long taken shots for not producing a discount Prius that appeals to smaller incomes and takes some of the string out of the premium you pay for the hybrid technology.  OK, the car has a bit of a tinny sound to it when you shut the doors, but what do you want for a combined 50 miles per gallon in city/highway driving?

Oh, and the Prius c will accommodate five passengers and likewise has a lengthy list of customer-pleasing standard features.

On the roll, I found the Prius c entirely comfortable to drive in both city traffic and during busy freeway commutes.  Would I buy it as a first car for a young, relatively inexperienced driver?  In a heartbeat.

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to sample the Prius plug-in, but that model also fills a niche for which Toyota was previously criticized for not filling.

Having had a deep drink of contemporary Prius hardware this year, I can tell you that the pioneer is as admirable as ever.  And if this sounds like an appreciation, well, you’re right on the money.

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