Seventy-five-point-three miles to the gallon! That was enough to win the 2010 Toyota Prius fuel economy competition that stacked 28 auto journalists against one another in Yountville, Calif. on Feb. 24, 2009. (The results were embargoed until today.) While it was a cheap thrill to score so high—that’s less remarkable than the average mileage for the group of journalists on the media preview drive: 69.9 mpg.

Of course, this level of fuel economy should not be expected for typical owners of the 2010 Prius. But the fact that it happened, and without applying any black magic or severe “hypermiling” techniques, is amazing. The drivers took between 70 and 85 minutes, traveling on average between 27 and 29 miles per hour on the 33.8 mile course through Yountville and Napa—not including one outlier that took more than two hours. I drove with the slow traffic and let most cars pass me, but my pace was certainly within legal limits—and could represent the efforts of a reasonable but motivated fuel-conscious driver.

The only way that I kinda cheated was that I fully charged the battery in the 2010 Prius by stepping on the accelerator and the brake at the same time, before I started the course. This trick—which Akihiko Otsuka, the chief engineer of the 2010 Prius, who was on hand, taught me—essentially used the gas engine as a generator to recharge the hybrid battery (which was a bit sneaky and a completely stupid thing to do under normal circumstances).

The average score for the journalists was seven mpg higher than the mileage earned by Chief Otsuka, the man who led a team of 2,000 engineers to create the third-generation 2010 Toyota Prius. So, clearly, all of our scores were a bit rigged by our desire to “beat the chief” as the competition was named. And yet, the auto journalists—folks who usually make their living by putting cars through high-speed paces—were able, with little effort, to get mileage off the charts. The official EPA numbers for the 2010 Prius are 51 in the city and 48 on the highway.

A Different Kind of Race

2010 Toyota Prius
Second Generation Toyota Prius

Top: Third-generation 2010 Toyota Prius.
Bottom: Second-generation 2008 Toyota Prius.

The reason that I was able to achieve 75.3 mpg—something I’ve never been able to do in the 2006 Prius that I have owned and driven for the past two-and-a-half years—gets to the core of the improvements in the new model.

Forget for a moment about the new Prius’s sharper more sporty design. Forget about the portfolio of new features, including telescoping steering wheel, adjustable seats, self-parallel parking, lane departure correction, moonroof with solar-powered interior cooling, and heated leather seats. And even put aside noticeable improvements in power, space and drivability in the new model.

The most critical and valuable improvement in the new Prius is the layout for the driver, most notably the dashboard display. The second-generation model, produced from 2004 to 2009, was all about the touchscreen monitor situated squarely between the driver and passenger seats—not at all in the line of vision for the driver. That monitor was required for everything from climate controls, stereo, navigation system, and for monitoring the energy use and mileage. The outgoing model’s graphics and animation indicating the flow of energy between batteries, motors, engine and wheels are, frankly, cheesy.

Great Mileage Within Reach

2010 Toyota Prius Dash
2008 Toyota Prius Energy Monitor

Top: 2010 Toyota Prius dashboard.
Bottom: Previous generation Prius energy monitor.

Otsuka and his team of engineers and designers made a brilliant move to abandon that approach by breaking out the primary driving functions into the three regions: the climate control right above the shifter, the audio a little bit higher up, and all the energy and mileage stuff tucked in just below the windscreen close to your line of vision toward the road.

The position of the old monitor, and the flatness of the dash from side to side, not only forced you to look at the middle of the dash, you had to reach for it. Instead, the 2010 Toyota Prius juts on in a bay of instruments that are much closer to your right hand. The design creates a convenient storage area near the floor between driver and passenger. Audio and air are also controlled on the steering wheel.

The Only Screen You Need

Toyota engineers also made the absolute critical decision to add a “hybrid system indicator” with a horizontal bar to indicate your level of “eco-driving.” Drive smooth and steady, and coast as much as possible, and the bar hugs left—exactly what you want. Slam on the gas and stomp on the brakes—sometimes necessary but mostly avoidable—and the bar shifts far right. Play the mileage game well and an “eco” indicator goes on. (Sorry, we were unable photograph the screen while moving.)

Right next to this display is the instantaneous mileage display, a set of vertical bars. On my 75-mpg trip, I applied even pressure to the accelerator to keep the instant mpg toward the top bar. When I saw it rapidly fall, I took my foot off the pedal, coasted for a few seconds and watched it return to a full set of bars. Then, I gently reapplied by foot to keep my speed.

After finishing the loop, I complimented Otsuka on keeping the graphics very simple—no mood-ring shifting from blue to green like in the new Honda Insight and no digital leaves growing or robotic voices chiding me, like on Ford’s system. In response to my comment about the simplicity of the graphics, he doubled over laughing and pointed to me, as if to say, “Absolutely.”

Other reviewers might make more of the EV, eco, and power buttons—but that’s pretty straightforward. Use the “eco mode” button as much as possible. Duh. And get into “EV” as often as possible. If there is not enough juice in the battery, you will be warned about it, and you’ll need to wait until the regenerative braking does its thing. You can stay in EV mode up to 25 mph, but the very second you drift to 26 mph, you will be warned that you fell out of EV mode. That was a bit annoying. But I was able to stay in EV mode for several near-mile stretches through school zones and quiet country roads on the route—which was one of the keys to the 75.3 mpg score.

That’s about it, folks. The 2010 Toyota Prius provides all the comfort, space and power you need to get you and your passengers to where they need to go—and offers all the tools needed to break past the EPA estimate of 50 mpg. What else do you need in a hybrid?