But with Chevrolet, Saturn, Ford, Mercury and Honda now in the game, Prius needs more than just high gas prices to keep folks interested.
Prius remains president of the 50 m.p.g. club despite a more potent 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine/battery combo that achieves 134 horsepower, up from 110 h.p. in the previous 1.5-liter 4-cylinder gas/battery duo.
It also delivers a 600-mile range, so you can smile when passing signs that show gas prices are inching within reach of a lottery jackpot.
But those 600 miles can be tough on the butt. Prius is only 0.6 of an inch longer and 1 inch wider than the 2009, but the radials would be at home on Fred Flintstone's buggy. For optimum mileage, the tires are not very flexible. In exchange for comfort, Prius offers safety in the form of standard stability and traction control.
Taking a page from the luxury book, Prius also offers an Advanced Technology Package ($4,500) with Lane Assist, which "reads" lane and shoulder markers and beeps if you've wandered too far. It did as advertised when crossing white lane markers, but sometimes stayed silent crossing yellow. Go figure.
The package also adds radar cruise control that beeps and reduces engine power/applies brakes if you get too close to a vehicle ahead when cruise control is engaged. With cruise off, it beeps when a vehicle ahead suddenly slows. We experienced that when a car froze after missing a turn. The beeps gave us enough time to brake and then pass to avoid impact. Nice touch.
More magic comes from Park Assist, borrowed from the luxury Lexus LS sedan to take over parallel parking.
Find an empty space between cars, hit the control button and the car backs up and steers itself into the spot; you just apply the brakes. In theory.
You have to crawl when hunting a parking space or the system won't engage. You also are directed to touch arrows on the navi screen to line up your car with the parking spot. But, after several failed tries, we learned that touching the screen disengaged the system.
And failure to touch "OK" after shifting into reverse disengaged the system, as did touching the steering wheel, which also disengages the system.
Success took about a dozen attempts, and no cars approaching from behind. Avoiding impact with other vehicles is a pleasure, but can't say it's worth $4,500 to parallel park. The system coming in the 2010 Lincoln MKS this fall is more user friendly.
Another Prius novelty is the solar panel roof ($3,600), which automatically starts the fan to circulate cabin air when parked in temperatures of at least 65. In hotter weather, a tap of the key fob turns on the air conditioner for 5 minutes before you slip inside.
Prius also offers a version of Lexus TeleAid, which summons help if an air bag deploys.
The 2010 Prius operates in three modes: EV, in which the car starts and stays in electric-only up to 25 m.p.h. for up to a mile; ECO, which is like running in slow motion, with power to the air conditioning also reduced; and POWER, in which the gas engine reacts quicker to pedal input, and the battery joins in sooner for a turbo-like boost to pass or merge.
Like all hybrids, gauges and schematics show when in battery, gas or both modes or when the gas engine shuts off at idle. But the gauges are small and under a shroud on top of the center dash.
Under the center console, there's room to hide a purse. But the heated-seat controls also are hiding there.
We recently tested the 2010 Honda Insight (Rides, May 17), and, for the record, seats are stiffer, rear-seat room tighter, cargo space smaller and mileage (40/43) lower than in Prius. Though both feature similar glass hatchbacks and sloping styling.
Prius is offered in I, II, III, IV and V versions. In all, about $2,000 worth of standard equipment was optional (stability control) or not offered (EV, ECO, POWER modes, knee air bags, larger engine) last year.
Base prices range from $21,000 for the base I to $25,800 for the V tested. Options brought the sticker to more than $30,000, a lot to spend to save on gas, especially because federal tax credits on Toyota hybrids expired in 2007. The battery pack does have 10-year/150,000-mile coverage.
Read Jim Mateja Sunday in Rides. Contact him at email@example.com.
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