Driver's Seat: Toyota Prius Three: Gas saver with some neat features

A 2011 Toyota Prius Three averaged 49.5 miles per gallon duringa week of driving by the author. It offers ample room and comfort.
A 2011 Toyota Prius Three averaged 49.5 miles per gallon duringa week of driving by the author. It offers ample room and comfort.
Posted: November 02, 2011

2011 Toyota Prius Three: City commuters, why aren't we all driving this?

Price: Oh, yeah, because it's $24,520 without options. A slightly less-equipped Prius Two starts at $23,520.

Marketer's pitch: Gas is $3.50 a gallon, dude.

Conventional wisdom: Gas is $3.50 a gallon, dude.

Reality: Gas is $3.50 a gallon, dude. And this isn't a bad car.

Efficient package: I'd read some hybrid-backlash articles this year, reporting that some people contend their mileage may vary so much that they wonder why they bought a hybrid at all. So I thought I'd try out the Driver's Seat.

Murphy's Car: Try out the 2011 model, that is. Toyota is still selling it, thanks to a series of misfortunes, including an earthquake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown, two typhoons, and now flooding in Thailand. The 2012's original sale date of January is expected to be further delayed, a Toyota spokesman said.

Prius Family: Toyota has a Prius Plug-in Hybrid and a Prius V small crossover on the way but will keep chugging out the lovable old Prius, as well. (Dear Toyota, I think I've finally stopped seeing those horrifically creepy TV ads where each body part is a person. What were you thinking? Were the Quiznos ad people unemployed and working cheap?)

Low speed = better mileage: My first order of business on a Friday afternoon was getting stuck in traffic. Here the Prius shined. It got nearly 60 m.p.g. in that 40-mile trip. (The electric motor alone powers the car at slower speeds.) In a week of mostly above 40-m.p.h. driving, I averaged 49.5 m.p.g.

It does matter how you drive: The lovely but lead-footed Mrs. Passenger Seat drove 15 miles or so and knocked the mileage down a full 2 m.p.g.

More than mileage: The Prius looks small on the outside, but there's a midsize car in here busting to get out. The backseat is wide and comfy, and five people can ride in relative comfort. Sturgis Kids 3.0 and 4.0 did not complain back there.

Stow your stuff: The one drawback is the hatch. The battery pack rests underneath, so the storage compartment is shorter than one might expect. And that aerodynamic rear pinches you from above, as well.

A nifty storage space between the foot wells keeps Mrs. Passenger Seat's purse secure. A sliding armrest holds plenty of CDs. And a two-piece glove box means double the cubby.

Cool cockpit: You'll love or hate the Starship Enterprise command-center feel of the driver's seat. The shift lever is more of a joystick and can be hard to comprehend on first glance. Push the joystick forward for reverse or backward for drive. A button activates park. A "B" mode allows extra engine braking for big hills.

A digital speedometer and information center in the middle are easy to follow.

Comfy: The cloth seats are a delight.

Poor visibility: Toyota really needs to work out a solution to the wind-cheating, two-piece rear window. The crossbar in the middle blocks the rearview mirror. And the wiper-less lower portion keeps all the dirt from the road as a souvenir of your journeys.

Holy option packages, Batman! For $3,730, you get the Solar Technology Package, with a sunroof and the cool navigation and stereo system.  But the reward is a touchscreen system with enough buttons and knobs to keep the simple tasks (changing modes, adjusting volume) as simple as ever.

Good handling: I expected steering unresponsiveness akin to the Corolla, but I found the Prius had more fun on the side roads. It's no Mazda, but it does all right.

Night shift: Overhead lighting is well-done. But because the dashboard is exclusively up near the windshield, very little ambient light illuminates the foot wells and doors. So drop something down there and it's either blindly feel around or turn on the dome.

Where it's built: Japan.

How it's built: Predicted reliability for the 2011 model is better than most, says J.D. Power and Associates. Initial quality was rated even half a notch above that, almost top of the heap.

In the end: The admission fee is a little steep, but the reward is a competent car that improves gas mileage when you're stuck in traffic.

Even Mrs. Passenger Seat, not impressed by going green, reported: "I tried to find reasons not to like it, but I couldn't."


Contact staff writer Scott Sturgis at ssturgis@phillynews.com or 215-854-2558.

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