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Second-Hand: Toyota Prius

If Springfield Mayor Diamond Joe Quimby ever needs an instant image makeover, nothing beats being photographed climbing out of a Toyota Prius.

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If Springfield Mayor “Diamond” Joe Quimby ever needs an instant image makeover, nothing beats being photographed climbing out of a Toyota Prius.

Seems like everyone and their dog can recognize the Prius — or Pious as Britain’s Car magazine dubbed it — thanks to its red-carpet presence at Hollywood galas and municipal ribbon-cuttings.

It continues to astound with its aversion to gas pumps, innocuous demeanour and “stealth” driving mode.

“Still have fun freaking people out (usually bikers or joggers) by cruising by silently,” blogged one owner.

But while an affluent and fashion-conscious public has been lining up to buy new ones at $30,000 apiece, we were wondering if the Prius makes a wise used-car purchase.

Tire-kickers have questioned the durability of the complex parallel drivetrains. Does the battery pack in fact pack it in as soon as the Prius’s transferable eight-year/160,000 km warranty expires?

Let’s look closer at the first-generation Prius, sold here from 2001 to 2003, and the ownership experiences of the early adopters — those fearless consumers who embrace new technology with all the zeal of tree huggers chaining themselves to a Douglas fir.


CONFIGURATION

The made-in-Japan Prius is powered by a 70 hp, DOHC 1.5-litre four-cylinder gasoline engine coupled to a 44 hp electric motor. The two work in tandem or separately, depending on the power requirements of the driver.

Five on-board computers process the driver’s inputs — such as tromping on the accelerator — and decide which engine could provide the most efficient output for the intended action.

Crawling in heavy traffic is usually assigned to the electric motor alone. Accelerating from a full stop prompts an electric start, until the gas engine ignites and gives the car a more traditional kick in the pants.

Full-speed acceleration, desperately needed on an expressway on-ramp, will see both motors contributing torque to the front wheels.

It’s all done seamlessly with no driver involvement beyond working the pedals as usual. All Priuses use a continuously variable automatic transmission.

During coasting or braking, the gas engine shuts off and the electric motor reverts to a generator to scrub off speed and recharge the nickel-metal-hydride battery pack. The technology saves on brake wear and the car never plugs into an outlet.

Beyond the hybrid powertrain — which is remarkably compact — the Prius is fairly conventional. With capacity for five chummy adults, the first-generation model is quite roomy thanks to its tall greenhouse and upright seating.

The interior is reminiscent of the Toyota Echo’s (which actually was designed later) with the instruments mounted in the centre of the dash. A six-inch display panel illustrates what the drivetrain is doing in real time using colourful graphics.

“The hybrid engine readout is so cool to watch that when I first had the car I almost rear-ended someone!” exclaimed one owner on the Web.

The car’s compact battery pack resides behind the rear (fixed) seat, with enough room for a reasonably sized trunk.

Subsequent model years saw the options list grow to include a navigation system and side airbags, but otherwise the Prius remained current (sorry) until the end of 2003, when the improved and restyled second-generation car arrived from Japan.


ON THE ROAD

As transparently as Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system works, it’s not entirely seamless. The regenerative braking renders the brake pedal touchy and very ABS-dependent in snow.

Speaking of snow, fuel consumption rises in cold weather, owners reported, since the tiny gas motor has to make up for lower battery efficiency. It also works overtime to warm the cabin on frigid mornings, since it produces less waste heat.

Still, owners were pleasantly surprised by the Prius’s acceleration: “It doesn’t give you whiplash when you punch it, but it has plenty enough power for 99 per cent of driving conditions,” blogged one owner.

For the record, 0-to-96 km/h came up in 12.3 seconds (Geo Metro territory), although testers noted that it felt quicker. Braking from 112 km/h took a decent 56 metres.

Owners liked the car’s tight turning radius, and commented on the luxuriously quiet disposition of the Prius, even when the gas engine was going full tilt.

The skinny tires (which aid fuel efficiency) were faulted for the car’s tendency to wander on the highway.

The Prius actually burns more fuel on the highway than in the city, where conditions favour the electric motor. Owners averaged 5.3 litres/100 km.


WHAT OWNERS REPORTED

Over and above the car’s environmental benefits, owners adore the Prius for its ease of use, comfort, serenity, good visibility and manoeuvrability.

But the $3,567.20 question — the cost of a new battery pack — remains: does the Prius hold up over time?

We put the question to Surinder Kang, general manager of Empress Taxi in Victoria, B.C. His company has 39 Priuses on the road, the oldest having travelled 300,000 km so far.

“Gas savings, coupled with a new vehicle with less repairs and less down time, are the driving factors for choosing Priuses over other vehicles,” he responded in an email.

Not one Empress taxi has required a new battery, thanks to the hybrid system’s obsession with maintaining ideal charge conditions for optimal battery performance.

An owner with 325,000 km on his original battery reported replacing the oxygen sensor, water pump and catalytic converter to date. His ’01 Prius recently stopped running due to a failed inverter, the main electric controller. That magic box costs $5,500 (U.S.) to replace.

Generally, a used Prius will likely endure for a long time, based on experiences collected in other countries. More common mechanical hiccups include short-lived tires, frequent alignments and faulty rack-and-pinion steering.

Remember, you don’t buy a Prius to save money — an Echo will do that at a much lower price point. Instead, it helps you tread softly on this good earth.

Reader Jack Wear wrote to say the car will coach you to drive differently, to read traffic in advance: “At 56,000 km, no longer a novice, I continue to improve my `pulse’ and `glide’ driving techniques.”

The Prius is not a car. It’s a lifestyle.


We would like to know about your ownership experience with these models: Ford Taurus, Suzuki XL-7 and Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Email: toljagic@ca.inter.net.

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