2008 Toyota Prius Review

TOYOTA PRIUS

The world’s most sensible hybrid.

What’s new for the 2004 Toyota Prius: Redesigned; new model.

What’s new for the 2005 Toyota Prius: No changes.

What’s new for the 2006 Toyota Prius: Newly standard are variable-force front airbags, which deploy with a force proportional to the severity of an impact. A backup camera is a new option, and all models get new headlights and taillights and darker seat fabric. An MP3 CD player and MP3 input jack are now part of the upgraded stereo.

What’s new for the 2007 Toyota Prius: The formerly optional side and side-curtain airbags are now standard. New is a Prius Touring Edition with a firmer suspension, 16-inch alloy wheels, a big spoiler, fog lights, and HID headlights.

What’s new for the 2008 Toyota Prius: No real changes aside from new option packages, though the EPA’s new 2008 measuring standards have lowered the Prius’s estimated fuel economy from 55 MPG to a more realistic 46.

As is common with runaway successes, no one saw this one coming. After all, this modern-day savior-of-the-Earth was conceived at a time when gas cost a buck a gallon and Suburbans roamed free throughout the landscape. But then sometime around 2004, oil prices went to hell and a rabid environmentalism fad came out of nowhere, while it just so happened Toyota was launching a stylish, innovative, and amazingly practical ride at the same time. And the rest, they say, is history.

Though the Prius’s fame and fortune owe as much to its one-of-a-kind styling as anything else, the reputation is justified. With the Honda Insight now dead, the 45 MPG Prius ranks as the most fuel-efficient car — make that automobile — on sale in America. This achievement was made possible by taking a small (but not too small) 1.5-liter 4-cylinder engine from the Toyota Echo, partnering it up with electric motors and a battery pack, and integrating the two with Toyota’s now-famous Hybrid Synergy Drive, a now decade-old technology that many automakers still have yet to match.

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Even once you get past the novelty, the Prius is a surprisingly livable car. Sure, it ain’t exactly fast, and its acceleration, steering, and brakes all feel one step weirder than normal. But it can do 0-to-60 in 10 seconds (which qualifies as functional), and it’s about as comfortable and quiet as most Toyotas. The Prius scores additional points by being roomier inside than the like-sized Corolla, and its hatchback body makes it an even better cargo hauler than the Camry.

As icing on the cake, any concerns about price have been completely irrelevant, at least so far. Though a typical Prius retails for around $23K (or about $3K higher than an equivalent “normal” car), the lower fuel bills promise payback in less than a decade. Additionally, all buyers up until now have also enjoyed the fortune of big tax rebates that shave years off that time, plus absolutely outstanding resale value. And we can’t forget free use of the carpool lane (in certain states), can we?

Here in 2008, resale values have come down to Earth, government subsidies have leveled off, and California has issued its last carpool pass. But for anyone looking for smart, economical transportation and doesn’t mind a slightly odd driving experience, the Prius might still make sense.