2010 Toyota Prius: Refinement of a good thing

By Lary Coppola

There are no big surprises in the all-new 2010 Toyota Prius — just significant improvements. It’s sleeker and more powerful, and adds an additional three miles-per-gallon, for an EPA-rating of 51/48 City/Highway.

The 1.8-liter gasoline engine is new, delivering more horses more efficiently, while the hybrid drivetrain is 65 pounds lighter. Top speed is now 112 miles per hour — up from 103.

The 2010 Toyota Prius comes in four trim levels, starting with Prius I. Toyota is focusing on the Prius brand, so no model names are offered besides Prius I II, III, IV and V. Prius II — expected to be the most popular — comes extremely well equipped. Prius III adds premium JBL sound and Bluetooth, while Prius IV adds leather seats and upgraded trim, heated front seats, plasma instrument cluster, HomeLink, a Smart Key system, and water repellent window glass. The top-line Prius V adds LED headlamps and foglamps, along with 17-inch alloy wheels.

Walkaround: There are not a lot of wholesale styling changes to the 2010 Prius — it’s still instantly recognizable. What’s not immediately visible is a sleeker car with a reduced drag coefficient, positioning it among the world’s most slippery vehicles.

As a result of A-pillars moving forward to radically rake the windshield, the Prius is about half an inch longer, and 3/4-inch wider, while the roof is the same height. However, its apex is moved rearward 3.9 feet, creating a smoother aerodynamic wedge.

The smaller upper grille opening more efficiently moves air over the hood, while a new lip over the rear deck almost eliminates that chopped tail look while improving airflow. The wheelwells are aggressively more pronounced for additional airflow improvement, and the bumpers are sharper and squarer at the corners than before.

The blue-tinted headlights are restyled into wraparound trapezoids, with optional LED lenses that use 17-percent less battery power. The standard LED taillights also reduce power draw by 88 percent.

Interior: The Prius interior has been upgraded, and includes optional leather. The inviting cockpit features a stylish center console running at a gentle angle from dashboard to between the seats, where the CVT shift lever is located.

The four-spoke steering wheel houses multiple controls, which read out on a 5-inch wide multi-function screen that displays graphs and images, including an Energy Monitor that presents the battery charge in real time; and a Hybrid System Indicator revealing the efficiency of your driving ability.

Addressing complaints about previous Prius models, the all-new front seats are comfortable with increased bolstering and adjustability, while the width of the seatbacks has been reduced, resulting in increased rear legroom. Toyota claims the interior trim is made from ecologically-friendly, plant-derived resin plastic with excellent recycling characteristics.

The rear seats are split 60/40, with a folding armrest housing two cupholders. They drop flat, revealing 39.6 cubic feet of cargo space, easily accessible through the large liftgate. There’s another two cubic feet under the floor of the cargo area, while the compact spare tire is one level down. A cargo area tonneau cover is standard.

Although forward visibility over the long dashboard and steeply sloped windshield is good, you can’t see the car’s front corners, while rear visibility is compromised by the aerodynamically sloped roofline.

Standard equipment includes a Touch Tracer Display that projects information, so you can keep your eyes on the road. The information is driver-controlled, with input coming from the steering wheel, and includes cruise control, trip computer, audio, and climate controls, with telephone and other controls available.

Prius options include such techno-tricks as a solar-powered ventilation system and moonroof; remote pre-air conditioning to cool the car down to ambient temperature before you get in; radar cruise control and lane alignment warning; Intelligent Parking Assist (borrowed from Toyota-owned Lexus) that will parallel park your Prius with no steering or throttle help from the driver; and radar-controlled pre-collision emergency braking to reduce crash impact when an accident is imminent.

Other options include a Navigation Package with voice-activated DVD navigation, Bluetooth, XM traffic, and a backup camera.

Safety equipment standard on all models includes dual-stage front airbags, side airbags in front, airbag curtains, and driver’s knee airbag; active headrests; tire pressure monitor with warning light; anti-lock brakes with Brake Assist and Brake Force Distribution; and a sophisticated stability control system working with traction control.

Under The Hood: The 2010 Prius is powered by Toyota’s heralded Hybrid Synergy Drive system, which combines a new 98-horse 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine (up from 1.5 and 76 horses) with the two electric motor-generators, for a total of 134 total horses. It delivers more torque, allowing it to maintain freeway speeds at lower rpm, which also boosts fuel mileage. Operating voltage on the motor-generators has been increased from 500V to 650V, and gear drive has replaced chains in the motor, more than doubling the motor’s rpm from 6,400 to 13,500. The accessory drive belts have also been eliminated,
with such things as the AC compressor and water pump now driven electrically.

Behind The Wheel: Acceleration is adequate, doing the 0 to 60 drill in 9.8 seconds, while the continuously variable transmission (CVT), is smooth. Handling is nimble at slow speeds, but becomes heavy and slow the more aggressively you drive. However cornering is much improved with a new chassis and suspension. The brakes are sensitive due to all the electronic capabilities for safety, and the ride can be a little harsh over some bumps, while interior noise is surprisingly high — despite increased sound insulation.

There are three driving modes: EV, ECO and Power. EV is all electric, for very short distances at speeds under 25 mph; ECO provides the best fuel mileage, without noticeably compromising performance; and Power, the default mode, is needed for rapid acceleration.

Accelerating hard kicks the Prius into Power mode, which can be abrupt — like a transmission kick-down. However, like all hybrids it uses a CVT, which doesn’t have gears.

Whines: The button for the heated seats is oddly located on the floor under the console, and curiously, in a vehicle seemingly aimed at the techno-conscious, a USB port isn’t standard.

Bottom Line: The all-new 2010 Toyota Prius has evolved, with substantial improvements in the hybrid powertrain and styling. Overall, it’s a much improved version of the pioneer of the green car movement, and offers more amenities for more discriminating buyers.