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At 50 mpg, the 2010 Toyota Prius is a game changer

The car feels like the same humble, humming people pod, only lacquered with a bit more confidence and esprit.

March 27, 2009|DAN NEIL

A calculator can be the plaything of the damned. Allow me to demonstrate.

Of the 12 million barrels of oil we import daily, the 6 million barrels we get from OPEC members are the most geopolitically dubious. That oil from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries is refined into about 83 million gallons, or roughly one-fifth of our daily gas consumption of 390 million gallons, according to the Energy Information Administration.

The 2010 Toyota Prius is EPA-rated at 50 miles per gallon, combined city and highway driving -- a number that's really useful only for comparison's sake, as some drivers will get less and some will get more. Members of the press at an event I attended notched more than 70 mpg without too much trouble.

Now then, the U.S. Department of Energy budgetary request for fiscal 2010 is $65 billion, including nearly $40 billion from the National Economic Recovery Act. The 2010 Toyota Prius will probably come in around $23,000 when prices are announced later this spring. Since we've got the federal checkbook open, what if we took $46 billion and bought everybody Priuses? Would that help?

Why yes, yes it would.

By my calculations, $46 billion would buy about 2 million Priuses. Assuming we use them to replace cars that get 15 mpg and assuming an average driving year of 15,000 miles -- and assuming the junkers are retired out of the fleet -- these 2 million Priuses would save about 700 gallons of gas per car, or 1.4 billion gallons a year.

That's about 17 days worth of OPEC oil. Doesn't sound like much, does it? But what if we were to continue allocating $46 billion annually to the U.S. Department of Prius? In 10 years, we would be saving 14 billion gallons a year, or 170 days' worth of OPEC oil. That will give Hugo Chavez insomnia like a case of Red Bull.

Other advantages would include a significant reduction in vehicle-related greenhouse gas emissions. Such a scheme wouldn't really hurt our balance of trade, either, since Toyota would have to subcontract Prius assembly to U.S facilities to meet demand.

Crazy? Really? I would like to hear of another plan that in 10 years and at a cost of $400 billion (probably high, since we'd be buying in such bulk) could achieve such bankable savings in foreign oil, trade and carbon.

Public transportation? Please. We could hire Las Vegas showgirls as conductors and people still wouldn't take light rail. As for the objection that such a thought experiment constitutes wild, stark-staring collectivism, let's offer a free Prius to a few hundred thousand Texans and see if they decline out of free-market principle.

Ah, but I don't mean to bait that bear. I only mean to observe that the federal government often goes through an agonizing and inefficient accommodation of private enterprise when direct action would be cheaper and more effective. I also mean to note just how remarkable the Toyota Prius is. Very few cars can claim the power to change the world. Prius can.

Here's all you need to know about the machine itself: It's slightly bigger, a little more sculpted in styling and a whisper more aerodynamically efficient (Cd of 0.25). It glows with modernity at each corner, thanks to available LED headlamps and taillights.

With some new materials, moldings and seat frames, there's more room in the front cabin and a little more legroom in the back. It's quieter, with noise attenuation materials wadded into every crack and pore. To help further null out vibration when the internal-combustion engine kicks on and off, the engine mounts have been repositioned. Considering that the interior comprises a lot of fairly lightweight, nay, flimsy feeling panels, the little hybrid surrey is summarily hushed and quiet.

As for the powertrain, it's so much a product of evolution they probably won't teach the Prius in Kansas. Toyota is using a version of its corporate 1.8-liter four-cylinder (an Atkinson cycle engine) to replace the former 1.5-liter. The Toyota engineers claim the larger engine (98 hp) actually returns better fuel economy because of the increase in low-rpm torque, improving around-town mileage. The engine is also belt-less, with all accessories now electrically driven.

The complex helical-gearset that makes up the heart of the Prius gets even more complicated with the addition of a reduction gear for the traction motor. That means the electric motor can assist at higher speeds. The electric motors are smaller, lighter and more powerful, as are the batteries and power control unit.

The car has three driving modes. Eco mode employs a throttle-mapping strategy to smooth out engine response for highest efficiency. There's also an EV mode -- the sneak-in-the-driveway -- that allows the car to go up to 25 miles per hour for as long as a half mile in silent electric mode. Also, there's a Power mode, which brings on line all the snarling, ferocious electro-hamsters.

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