The Hummer might be the flashiest vehicle families can take to the mall, but there’s a new threat that the hulking sport utility can’t overcome.

It’s the latest generation of the Toyota Prius.

Because smart families will be laughing all the way to the bank at their foolish neighbors in massive, fuel guzzling SUVs and minivans, while enjoying gas mileage in the mid-40s mixed with all the comfort of a midsize sedan, plus the utility of a hatchback.

Now nearly the size of its sister, the popular Toyota Camry, the new Prius is highly competitive with anything on the road in the midsize category.

And that makes it a practical alternative for any family, couple or single looking for today’s traditional American sedan.

All for prices starting at $20,810… if you can afford to wait for one. (Note: This was the price Prius I tested back in April 2004.)

Having spent many weeks behind the wheel of rental mid-size cars, such as the Ford Taurus, Chevrolet Malibu and Pontiac Grand Am, I found the Prius far superior in driving experience, comfort and utility.

And none of those cars can touch the average 43 miles per gallon I got during my week cruising around Southern California’s city streets and freeways.

But this is not you mother’s mid-size. It’s high-tech from first glance, with slipstream aerodynamic styling on the outside and ultra techo gizmos on the inside.

The driving experience does take some adjustment. For example, there’s “by wire” driving. There was no key for my car, which was equipped with the optional Smart Entry and Start System.

Drivers get something that looks like a conventional alarm/lock/unlock paddle. Once you’re in the car, though, you don’t have a key to insert and turn. If you like, you can slip the paddle in a slot next to the steering wheel. But the car will start (using a start button) if the paddle is anywhere in the car. So leave it in your purse or pocket.

There’s no gear shift, just a knob that tells the computer if the driver wants to go forward, reverse or use engine braking (“B”) for better economy.

All that technology makes itself known in more ways than just starting and shifting. A big screen in the center of the dash provides displays on everything from what’s pushing the car (gas, electric or a combination of both), to charging efficiency, to gasoline usage and battery level.

Also accessed through the touch screen are audio and climate controls, plus the optional GPS navigation system. Buttons to control the stereo are also on the steering wheel.

All this technology does have a learning curve. I only drove the car for a few days and had yet to master the stereo and GPS system. If your VCR is still blinking at “12:00,” you might need formal training to master the Prius interior.

Otherwise, the interior is roomy and very utilitarian, without looking cheap or stark. Back seat room was adequate for my 6-1 frame and would work fine for kids on long trips. With the back seat folded down and the huge rear hatch, you’ll have enough room for almost anything you’d expect to put in an SUV or minivan.

On the road, Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive combines a thrifty and ultra low emissions 1.497-liter gasoline engine with an electric motor and sophisticated computer technology. Working together, they produce enough oomph to cruise all day at Southern California freeway speeds approaching 80 mph (when there’s no traffic or Highway Patrol presence).

Unlike Honda’s Civic hybrid, the electric motor operates the car at low speeds — 10-20 mph — before the gasoline engine makes a virtually silent startup. That means pedestrians won’t hear you coming, so beware.

Connecting the engine to the wheels is an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission which constantly adjusts the gear ratio for optimum performance. There’s a lot of subtle motion coming from not only the transmission, but the gasoline engine, electric motor and charging system clicking on and off. Most folks won’t even notice it.

Styling is very aerodynamic, which isn’t a problem, except for the low ground effects. More than once, I heard the plastic skirts scraping on driveways and road-drainage dips. Beware, as more than one Prius owner has left an exhaust system on the road, leading to expensive repairs.

But would I buy and recommend one of these? Certainly. No vehicle is perfect, and certainly there’s a lot to get used to driving an SUV… tipping over on curves, a huge turning radius that makes parking impossible and blind spots, to name a few.

The Prius is a practical family sedan that happens to get fantastic gas mileage. Oh, and by the way, you can buy two for the price of one Hummer H2, so if you’ve got a lot to haul, take both Priuses and leave the tanks to the military.

About the Car

  • Vehicle: 2004 Toyota Prius
  • Reviewed: April 2004
  • Time with car: One week
  • Miles: About 1,000.
  • Vehicle supplied by Toyota for review.
  • Web site link

Updates

  • If you buy one of these used, be sure to get an extended warranty as the batteries can be very expensive to replace. Otherwise, newer models have a bit more power.
  • Gas mileage is a controversial issue. I quote the mileage I actually got on my test trip.

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