Toyota Prius 2004
Report by
Remy Chevalier
August 23, 2004

 


                                      (Photo: Toyota Prius GT)

First I'd like to start off by saying I "Love" the car, and most of all, I "L-O-V-E" the fact that Toyota is trying so hard to produce an earth-friendly car for a rising earth-conscious consumer market...

But this said, I also hope this report will be received in the spirit of constructive criticism it was written in; there's much, much room for improvement, and aren't we "all" in the same business of wanting to produce the best possible alternative fuel automobile in the world?

The first thing that struck me as really strange was that when I took the first Prius out for a spin back in the 90's, I slipped in it like a glove... So why did the 2004 feel so cramped? I'm 6'3... not a basketball player... Just 6'3. And even with the front seats pushed all the way back, it felt like I needed at least 2 more inches in the legs to feel at home and cozy.

Why would Toyota suddenly limit it's height demographic, the way many US automakers do? Something you could always count on was that in Japanese cars, one size fits all, tall included. So what happened? Did too many US-based auto-design cooks spoil the Prius brew? I sure hope not.

Right now, if you are over six feet, you will have to get the front seats custom fitted on longer tracks to allow your legs breathing space, especially under the passenger seat, which proved to be extraordinarily uncomfortable. I just could not find a single snug sweet spot. We wanted to unscrew the seat to give me extra leg room, but we didn't want to demolish Toyota's press vehicle, so left well enough alone.

One nice thing we noticed is that you can sit in the open trunk to slip on a pair of shoes without banging your head against the hatch... quite a nice touch.

We found the middle aisle glove compartment a little awkward. At first I thought it was a removable add-on option, but it comes standard. Again, one of the nice things I remembered about the first Prius was that you could easily slide from driver to passenger seat, something any teenager in lust will appreciate.

Instead, the 2004 has a huge middle aisle glove compartment, that really doesn't serve much purpose, other than to act as an arm rest and cup holder, features that could easily be included as pull down options rather than as a permanent fixture.

The other annoying thing is the compartment opens upward, making it a little dangerous trying to crab something while in motion. There are hinges now that will enable such compartments to open either from the left or from the right, without having to lift your hand way up in the air to keep the lip open!

Now hear this: "Why is there no simple off/on switch for the screen?" It required three touches of the screen to set it to either stay on indefinitely, or turn off after a few seconds. We never did get it perfectly right... There should be a big fat off and on switch on top of the screen console, period. Punch on, punch off, end of story... I bet everybody struggles at first, if not for ever after, with trying to keep the screen to stay put, especially when you're trying to scan radio stations for something good to listen to. Keep it simple, that's my motto.

Remember when you could stick your elbow out the window and cruise along, with the breeze blowing through your hair? Well these days are over now. Crash safety concerns are forcing some auto designers to raise window profiles to protect the upper body.

They already got rid of the small triangular windows on front doors that broke the wind as it blew inside at high speed. Now the way to let the wind blow through so it don't muss up your hair, ladies and gents alike, is to crack open the rear window to let the air flow... something made simple with electric windows, but only for the driver. Front seat passengers still have to lean backwards to action their side rear window.

Interestingly enough, one of the design quirks of the 2004 Prius are these mini-windows, right in front of the rear view mirrors, there apparently only for cosmetic reasons. They don't open, they're just there to let light through, I guess.

There's been much hype about how good the stereo sound is in the new Prius, but we found it much too muffled. Fiddling with the treble and bass for quite a long time (there's no real equalizer) we still couldn't get it to shut off the bass. A nice plump sound if you're listening to hip-hop or drum&bass, but not if you're trying to listen to quiet passages of classical or acoustic music. It's distracting. The system lacks sharpness and crispness. It has no high end. I've heard better in a Ford Focus. Again, the first Prius stereo system was terrific. So what happened?

This wasn't just the Toyota Press Prius... In the space of three months Marshall and I drove many different ones, rentals, friends who own one, etc... the poor stereo system sound quality is systemic to all of them.

The Press Prius had a six-CD changer... but the changer took so much room inside the dash board, they had to place the pre-amp under the passenger seat, which is where co-drivers usually stash maps and all sort of other stuff. The pre-amp should be placed in the trunk.

But the most annoying thing about the CD player, when you eject a CD, if you forget to turn down the volume first, the radio comes blasting on. That shouldn't be. It really breaks the mood!

We also had a great idea; ever notice how the noise the car makes, depending on how fast you are driving, interferes with your ability to comfortably hear the radio or a CD? So why not, now that electronics play such a great part in auto CD players, built-in a passenger cabin sensor that would adjust the volume control according to the noise level inside the cabin, to always stay at the same balanced decibel level.

In other words, you wouldn't have to turn down and turn up the volume of the stereo every time your accelerate or slow down the vehicle.

After we'd been on the open highway in the bright sunlight for a few miles I noticed a heat source I couldn't readily pin down... the heat wasn't on, all the vents were closed, the windows were wide open. Still I could feel this surge of hot air hitting my face... it wasn't the windshield. Then I touched the plastic surface under the windshield, the plastic used on top of the dash board, it was boiling hot. It's such a large area and it was absorbing all the sunlight and reflecting it straight back at us.

Other plastics in the car did not do this... we touched them all. Only the plastic under the windshield. Toyota needs to rethink the type of plastic used there. Maybe it has to do with having to use a plastic that will easily crack or bend open as air bags inflate, but that doesn't mean you should be able to fry eggs over easy on it either!

The other thing bright sunlight does, is make it very hard to see and read the screen and also the green liquid crystal display tucked at the bottom of the windshield. That's when you start to miss good old fashion analog speed dials, something the Ford Escape Hybrid brought back into its final design!

The Toyota Press Prius was not new, yet it still had quite an out-gassing smell to it. When will automobile builders start paying the same type of attention to toxicity in plastics and other synthetic materials used in passenger cabins as the furniture industry does today? Sure, it's not nearly as bad as the brain cell killing vinyl VW used in its Beetles circa the 70's, which gave me monster migraines anytime I had to ride in one. But there's still a lot of progress that can be made in that department.

The push-in the electronic key, then push-in the start button, with your foot down on the brake pedal, takes a little used to. You wouldn't want to use a 2004 Prius as a getaway car in a bank robbery. You'd panic and never get the car in gear!

I expect again this is done for safety reasons, to prevent the car from launching forward in electric mode. But it takes a little getting used to all the body moves into the right sequence, especially if all you want to do is turn on the radio while you wait in the car, or open and close windows without the engine being turned on. You should be able to do both the instant the electronic key is inserted, without having to also push the start button.

On the highway, it's got great Go, great acceleration to over take trucks and slower vehicles. That was a real surprise.

The electronic cruise control was easy to master. I only regret that it couldn't be set for speeds lower than 40 miles per hour, so you can't use it as a feature in bumper to bumper traffic.

I also tried to sneak up on people in silent mode, but you can't disengage the computer that tells it to kick start the gasoline engine when the car hits 15/20 mph. So if you try to cruise at 15 mph using nothing but the electric motor, you can't prevent the engine from switching on and off every time it reaches that threshold. It spoils all the fun!

The Prius should provide drivers the option to run in total silent mode, bridled at 20 mph. That would be a real selling point for people arriving home late at night who don't want to wake up their family! Or for people who would want to use their vehicle inside indoor factory spaces for example, where only zero-emission vehicles are allowed.

One of the great selling points of the 2004 Prius is in fact its ease of operation in seriously congested traffic situations. It's because of this that the car is quickly becoming a vehicle of choice for traveling salesmen and delivery professionals. So why not cater to their needs even more with a plug-in hybrid option?

There's been much discussion on the Internet about the size of the NiMH power pack in the 2004 actually being smaller than it was in the first edition. To save weight? Maybe. The criticism has been that Toyota wants to reduce the importance of the battery inside the vehicle, instead making way for the 42 volts standard, which would in effect make all vehicles into mini-hybrids rather than a viable stepping stone towards full fledge 100% EVs. One can only speculate as to the politics of all this, something we've written about in great length on these pages and elsewhere over the years.

We were thinking, is there a place online where you can check which states, if any, allow hybrids in car pool lanes?

A weird thing we noticed at highway speed under the pouring rain; the windshield wiper motors are so powerful, they actually rock the car back and forth!

The 2004 Prius has a real old-Cadi suspension feel to it. We drove through a monster rain storm on our way to Maine, in real high winds. The car did not handle wind gusts very well. It's very narrow, and sits quite high. It slices through the air, but takes side gusts of wind full on, making it difficult to keep the car rock steady above 60 mph. In high wind situations, the Prius has the aerodynamics of an old VW bus.

We later realized some of that may have been caused by low air-pressure in the back tires. We stopped to equalize the tire pressure, and noticed the back tires only had 27 PSI in them. So we looked at the PSI pressure chart inside the door (see label photo below) and read 60 PSI ?!? This couldn't be? This had to be a mistake...  The tires themselves on the rubber said maximum pressure 40 PSI. So we opted for 34 PSI all around, and that stabilized the car a little.

Later I pointed out to the folks at Toyota that their PSI label was goofy. They had me check it again... The big letters were for the "spare" !!! OK, I felt like a dufus... but let's face it, wouldn't you have printed the tire pressure in big fat letters, and the spare pressure in small letters rather than the other way around? I suspect we're not going to be the only ones to make this stupid mistake, and someone is going to try and pump 60 PSI in these 40 PSI tires before they realize speed reading kills!

And why are spares still inflatable in this day and age anyhow? ALL spares should be solid rubber, so you never find yourself with a flat spare when you need it most, like the ones now made by Amerityre!


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All and all, these are all but minor quirks, but I hope Toyota takes heed of them all and improves on the next Prius edition.

My wet dream of course would be a two-door convertible plug-in Hybrid Prius GT! Now that would be a dream come true... The commuter look and feel goes a long way, but it only goes so far. What you really want to see is the Prius become the ideal cruisin' machine, so the folks wasting the most gas can finally start doing it more economically and in style!

That's when tourists the world over will land in Chicago to rent a convertible Prius to cruise down Route 66 all the way to the Pacific Highway! A battle will be won that day.