First Drive: 2010 Toyota Prius

Yountville, California — On a half-day test drive of the third-generation Toyota Prius, we got a chance to experience the iconic hybrid’s newfound power and prowess. As well as the rest of it.

Aside from the normal operating mode, the Prius now has three selectable driving modes: Power, Eco, and EV.

The larger 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle four cylinder engine, up from 1.5, combined with a “power mode” engine setting really does a world of difference in giving the Prius the ability to accelerate. It is much more competent in passing, merging onto highways, and getting through fast-moving intersections, over the previous model. Once you start to rely on this elevated performance, it’s actually a bit disconcerting to think of all the current Priuses out there that don’t have it.

“Eco mode” is best used for highway conditions. Here, all of the throttle points are slowed down and the power is delivered in the most gradual and economic way possible. It’s no doubt ideal for fuel economy, but it also makes the car feel like it’s stuck in mud. But who cares when you’re posting 50 miles per gallon.

“EV” mode, is of course, low-speed battery-only propulsion. Perfect for 25 mile per hour zones.

The new Prius’ steering is electrical with a quick, weighty feel. Turn-ins are fast and responsive, but there was quite a bit of body roll. We thought there would have been an improvement in this area over the current Prius, given there’s a new platform and upgraded 17 -inch wheels (over the current 16s).

The interior is very well done. Seating is vastly more comfortable and now offers height adjustments via a Volkswagen-like rachet lever, as well as longer for and aft adjustments. Rear comfort is luxury-car soft with plenty of leg, knee, and hip room. Cool features include a driver knee bag, a hidden trunk compartment that has room to stow the cargo blind, and fold flat rear seats.

Technology is abundant with an available solar panel-powered cabin cooling system designed to reduce interior temperature while parked. There’s also Dynamic cruise control via a front emblem disguised radar unit; Lane-Keep-Assist, Toyotas take on Land Departure Warning; and Safety Connect, Toyota’s On-Star fighter.

The steering wheel radio/info thumb controls, when touched, now show up almost heads-up style in front of the gauge cluster with a yellow light tracing finger placement in relation to button selection. A very innovative way to keep the driver’s eyes closer to the road.

All in all, an even more complete and better-engineered car than before. Remarkably so.