Well, I finally got tired of fixing my '97 Camry, and when the warranty expired so did my patience with the thing. So, I went to my local Toyota dealer and test drove a Prius.
I was in for a surprise; this thing was as big inside as my Camry despite it's miniscule outside dimensions! My first impression was that of a larger car. The extremely smooth and quiet ride furthered that impression. The quality of workmanship and materials is terrific, and blows away what they saddled me with in my Camry.
Oh, yes, I bought one!
The car works by combining power from a small electric motor (powered by a 270-volt battery pack in a sealed container behind the back seat) and from a standard, efficient internal combustion engine. The car typically starts using only battery power, and the engine kicks in seamlessly as more power is needed. If you take it easy and aren't going up a hill you can get this car cruising to 25 or 30 mph on just the electric motor. (It's really quiet; we call it "stealth mode.")
The batteries never need plugging in to charge. The gas engine runs when you first start the car; when it's running it can power a generator that charges the battery pack. Heat energy from the brakes is also used to charge the batteries, using what Toyota calls "regenerative braking." The brakes have an unusual feel that I quickly got used to, and they are really terrific.
Now that I've lived with the car for a month, I'm still very happy. There are certainly things I would change, but most of them are nit-picks.
The car is a joy around the city and comfortable on the road, but cruise control would make long distance driving easier. (See update below.)
First, the positive points: The seats are comfortable, and the ride is very nice over all but the worst roads. The quietness of this car is easy to get used to (although when you punch it the internal combustion engine can make a racket). The fuel economy is terrific, although I get much better mileage on the highway than in the city despite the EPA measurements. Power is transferred to the wheels via an unusual CVT ("Continuously Variable Transmission") that is designed to keep the engine speed as constant as possible. Since there are no gears in the traditional sense, acceleration is incredibly smooth, with no gear change intrusions into the absolute smoothness of the thing; it just goes smoothly to your desired speed! The controls are easy to see; the center mounted speedometer at the base of the windshield is always in the periphery, so you don't have to move your eyes at all to see it. The trunk is big enough for most of our needs (we have a Rav 4 to move furniture with, after all). Oh, and the attention I've gotten has been all positive.
There are some negatives, though: No cruise control is available, although it will assumedly be available as a dealer-installed option soon. The same applies to a CD player/changer. The touch screen takes some getting used to, and mileage estimates and power flow charts tend to be somewhat off. The automatic transmission selector is a weird looking arm protruding from the dash, and when it's in drive it blocks the view of some stereo controls. Oh yes, and it isn't available with a stick!.
(Update: Cruise and CD are now available, and I have had the cruise control installed by my dealer. It works very nicely. Buyer beware, though: I learned the hard way that my dealer is frightened to death of working on this car, and only go them to do so by calling Toyota's national (U.S.) customer service and complaining. This problem will take care of itself as time goes by and people have owned the car longer, but it might be good to make sure your local dealer can take care of any problems you might have if you happen to break down soon after taking delivery. So far, we've had no problem at all; reliability should not be a problem here!)
I've gotten used to most of the above quirks. The excellent sounding stereo has a cassette player, and now has a portable CD player playing through it, and the touch screen is second nature now.
While the car feels like a much bigger car in terms of comfort, smoothness, and quietness, it doesn't handle like a large car. While it's quite acceptable in everyday driving, it still feels a bit like a small economy car in cornering. For most of us, that's fine, but it's a change even from my Camry.
The bottom line here is that the car is absolutely wonderful; the fact that it's rated as a SULEV ("Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle") is wonderful icing on the cake!
Amount Paid (US$):