West Coast press unveiling of the new 2004 Prius

Bruce Meland reports:
Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. hosted the Northwest Regional Press Preview on Oct 15th in Portland Oregon at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

It was essentially the announcement of the launch of 2004 Prius Hybrid which went on sale in Toyota Showrooms across the US on Friday Oct. 17 2003.

About 2 dozen journalists from the NW region, including 3 from Electrifying Times, got a chance to hear about the latest technical advancements and drive the all new 2004 Prius.

It is bigger, roomier (with all the comforts of a mid-sized sedan), offers increased performance (0-60 mph in 10 seconds about 3 seconds faster than the previous edition), better fuel efficiency and lower emissions.

Ed LaRocque, National Manager-Advanced Technology Vehicles and Paul Williamsen, Curriculum Development Manager provided sales and technical orientation on the new Prius and its Hybrid Synergy Drive.

Electrifying Times staff got a chance to put the new Prius through a rigorous uphill acceleration test on a curvy road and were impressed.

For more information go to your local Toyota dealer for a test drive.

From : "Myles Twete" mylest@teleport.com

Wed, 22 Oct 2003

Dear Electrifying Times,

Bruce Meland asked me to put together a short piece on this West Coast 2004 Prius unveiling in Portland a week ago.

Here goes:

The 2004 Toyota Prius unveiling on the West Coast included an appearance at Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland on October 15th. Presenting were Michael Dobrin (President of Public Relations for Toyota), Ed LaRocque (Toyota National Manager of Advanced Technology), Paul Williamsen (Technical Expert from the University of Toyota) and Dave DePuy (Portland Toyota dealer). There was a fairly reasonable guest turnout on a fairly bleak Portland day, with 8 new Toyota 2004 Priuses available for guests to test drive. Local EV enthusiasts Bruce Meland, Marshall Houston and Myles Twete attended on behalf of E-Times.

The presentations kicked off with Ed LaRocque's presentation. Key emphasis with the 2004 Prius (and a recurring theme with each speaker) was on its use of 'hybrid synergy drive'. It was explained how the choice of this label to describe the Prius' patented hybrid energy management system reflects Toyota's confidence in its hybrid approach and its intent to use its synergy drive on other car models, including the RX330 V-6 Lexus and the Highlander. Nissan also was mentioned as a licensee of this technology. LaRocque explained that their synergy drive approach was intended to address the wide misconception by the public that electric hybrid cars are 'awkward looking', 'small and underpowered', have short driving range and require being plugged in.

LaRocque explained how the success with the Prius since its initial unveiling in 1997 through its 2000 introduction in the US depended largely on the 'Prius pioneers' --- those customers willing to be the first to try this new technology, sign up online and buy the first production models. Since that time, Prius sales have 'exceeded all expectations'.

The technical presentation was marshaled by Paul Williamsen. He explained how the 2004 Prius is an "entirely new platform". Being 5" longer than the 2003 model, the 2004 Prius now fits into the midsize vehicle category. Some other technical highlights presented include: Drag coefficient (Cd) of 0.26 (claimed that Honda Insight is 0.255), 7inch touch-screen display, shift and throttle "by wire", electric control braking, electric inverter air conditioning, push button start, optional smart entry/start and optional GPS nav system w/Bluetooth. Additionally, the 2004 Prius status display updates 5 times faster than the 2003 Prius. The optional nav system has capability to store 5-million points of interest, including restaurants, gas stations and other places. For certain cities, even building footprints are shown on the map. Voice recognition is also included with the nav system and is enabled with the push of a button. When enabled, simply stating "I'm hungry" leads to the nav map showing all stored food sites in the vicinity of the vehicle.

Communication on the 2004 Prius uses the common CAN bus and extensive use has been made of 32-bit micro-controllers. The new motor is a permanent magnet motor with 50% greater peak torque than the 2003 motor. The new generator also is permanent magnet and has 15% greater peak power than the 2003 generator. Additionally, the new generator has a top rotation speed of 10,000 RPM.

Changes to the batteries and the HV system with the 2004 model include a reduction from 38 battery modules (274v w/batt sys weight of 52kg) to 28 modules (201v w/batt sys weight of 45kg). Making this lower battery voltage possible with the new Prius is the use of a high efficiency DC-DC converter ('HV stepup unit') which boosts the motor controller voltage up to 500 volts, vs. a 237v controller voltage on the 2003 Prius. While there has been no recurring problems with earlier Prius batteries, the question of replacement cost was raised. It was estimated that the replacement cost for an entire battery pack is something around $3k.

The new gas motor is a 76HP, 1.5 16-valve DOHC liter Atkinson cycle engine. This new engine allows higher RPM (4500-5000) and it's claimed that a 3.6 mile range is possible without the engine turning on in the city. To optimize engine and emissions performance, the new Priusueses an electric water pump and insulated hot water storage thermos ('HC absorber'). The intent is to ensure the engine is warm before the hybrid demands power from it. The claim is that the water storage system can maintain the water temperature above 85 degrees for 3 days.

Efficiency improvements on the new model (improved regen and control make up 60% of improvements) yield a vehicle efficiency of 37% (compared to 31% w/2003 Prius). Acceleration performance claims include 0->60mph in 10.5seconds and a top speed of 105mph (vs 89mph w/2003 model). Mileage claims are 60(city)/51(hwy)/55(avg).

MSRP for the 2004 Prius is the same as the earlier Prius: $19,995. With the substantive improvements and modularity incorporated into the Prius, they're able to produce these on an ordinary production line and rate at Toyota City in Japan. Given with the higher performance and extra features over the earlier models, Toyota expects many of its earlier Prius customers to upgrade to the new one.

The presentation also included a preview of TV advertisement spots for the Prius. Of major importance to Toyota's ad-men appears to be to deflate the idea that hybrids are electric cars and need to be "plugged in". Consequently, in each TV spot shown the phrase "and you never have to plug it in" was repeated almost as a mantra. This is bad news for those in the EV community who would like a hybrid but would like a hybrid which can go 100% electric in the city on demand and from home electric energy and not from petro fuel. Further fanning that flame is the fact that Toyota will offer a "EV MODE" button on its EURO version of the 2004 Prius, but NOT in the US version! Apparently there are towns in Europe which do not allow gas engine vehicles to operate and Toyota wants to get around that. Good news for Europeans, bad news for US customers who have short EV commutes.

After the presentations ended, we had a chance to test drive the 2004 Prius. We had 4 people onboard the one I rode in, with a combined passenger weight around 800-pounds. Acceleration was very impressive as was the braking. Handling through turns also was impressive. With a wet roadway, we tried to put the car into a slide and the vehicle's display indicated that the automatic slip control system had intervened. Each driver in our car seemed to have the same general comments---the car was very strong, handling very respectable and the general feeling was of just driving a car---not a hybrid. The 2 times when it felt like a hybrid were (1) when the dash-mounted drive shifter was pushed into regen and the throttle backed off and (2) during hard acceleration, where the engine would accelerate faster than the car accelerated---pretty weird at first!

The fact that the new Prius has a pushbutton "START" and has an in-your-face dash mounted display makes it feel a lot like a mobile personal computer. It took a bit getting used to the whole arrangement to figure out what sequence was required after pressing the 'start' button to actually be able to 'go'. A couple times we saw an indicator show that we were still in 'Park', yet neither the emergency brake, nor the shifter were so engaged. So there we sat. In the end, we just used the personal computer philosophy---if all else fails, hit 'control-alt-delete'. If that fails, or in this case there is no equivalent, hit the power button. Eventually, we cleared the lockout and was able to get back on the road.

The energy display on the new Prius indeed gets updated fast. In my opinion it's too fast. Accelerating from a stop, the MPG displays 0.0, then rises to 9.9, then 20, etc., which is fine. What is disturbing and kind of useless is seeing the MPG go from say, 30mpg, to 99.9mpg instantly on letting off the pedal, then back to 5, 10, 20, etc. on reapplying the pedal. Better would be to have a real time graph plotting these instantaneous values along with a 20-second average curve. There is indeed an average plot available on another display screen. However, this displays a bar graph with each bar representing something like each 5 miles of driving. Nice for many, but personally, I'd prefer a programmable moving average window and plotting both the average and the instantaneous values.

All in all, the new Prius seemed very well received by all. It appeared to be very highly engineered with numerous improvements over earlier models incorporating lessons learned along the way. Given its economy and its copious passenger space as its now being a mid-size vehicle, the 2004 Prius seems a very good deal for those wanting an efficient small or mid-size car, let alone a hybrid. Tax breaks make it an even better deal. Given the engineering trend and commitment shown by Toyota to its 'Hybrid Synergy Drive' and its consequent reduction in onboard battery capacity, future hopes for a "plug-in hybrid" seem to be dashed, at least as far as Toyota is concerned. Even its Euro version would likely have only a short range capacity in EV-MODE.

Nevertheless, Toyota clearly understands that one way to make hybrids a success is to make them just seem like an ordinary car, only better.

-Myles Twete