The 2011 Toyota Prius hybrid has the highest gas mileage of any car sold in the U.S. this year: 51 mpg city, 48 mpg highway, for a combined EPA fuel efficiency rating of 50 mpg.
It's a practical five-door hatchback with enough interior room to qualify as a mid-size car. Outside times when gas prices spike--when Prius sales go through the roof--you can get into one for roughly $25,000.
That makes it possibly the best automotive value on the market in our eyes.
The third generation of Toyota's pioneering and iconic Prius hybrid line was completely redesigned for 2010, and there are few changes for 2011. The latest version has more interior room, a more refined driving experience, and a greater range of models and features.
The 2011 Prius is still distinctive, with its aerodynamic wedge shape and a tail so high that the rear liftgate has a second, vertical window to improve rearward visibility. There's room for five adults inside, and the swoopy "flying buttress" center console adds a distinctive touch to the interior. Unfortunately, it impinges a little on practicality--the storage space underneath is hard to reach--and there's a lot of hard plastic in that dashboard and console.
The new Prius has a 1.8-liter engine that's specially tuned to work with Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system. That includes a pair of motor-generators that capture energy to charge the battery pack during regenerative braking, add torque to assist the gas engine, and at low speeds and under light loads, propel the car solely on electric power. The combination of engine and motors puts out a combined 134 horsepower.
Piloting a Prius will never be like driving a sports sedan, but the 2011 model has a stiffer shell, tighter handling, and less engine noise than its predecessors. The electric power steering is lifeless, and the disconnect between acceleration and engine speed can be disconcerting to drivers who are new to hybrids. The 0-to-60-mph time of roughly 10 seconds is better than earlier model years, but Prius buyers aren't looking to win stop-light drag races anyway.
Disc brakes on all four wheels combine with improvements to the smoothness of regenerative-braking integration to make braking feel almost like that of a normal car. Of course, Prius brake pads last three or four times as long as those on conventional cars, because regen is always used to slow the car first.
Rear-seat passengers fare slightly better than those in front, who may find that the flying-buttress console impinges on elbow room. There's plenty of knee-room in back, due to slim front seat-backs, and the 2011 Prius hybrid will carry five passengers as long as the three in the rear aren't too huge.
Like most Toyota models, the Prius ranks at the top of the safety ratings. It has seven airbags as standard, along with traction control, anti-lock brakes, and all the rest of the mandated safety equpment. Optional safety features include a lane-departure warning system, adaptive cruise control that uses a radar sensor to keep the car a safe distance behind the vehicle ahead, and a "Safety Connect" system to alert emergency responders if the vehicle crashes. Toyota's Intelligent Parking Assist is a neat feature to show off, though Ford's similar system is both simpler and better.
Four Prius models range from the mid-twenties up into the mid-thirties. The grim, feature-free Prius One is only sold to fleets; retail buyers can choose from Prius Two through Prius Five trim levels. Even the base Prius Two includes cruise control, power windows, and a stereo with AM/FM/XM and CD player. Moving up the range of both trim levels and options, buyers can choose a Touch Tracer system that uses multidirectional controls on the steering wheel to navigate through options on the display screens for functions like volume control and changing channels.
Higher-priced options include a navigation system, LED headlamps, a backup camera, and Bluetooth integration (which we think ought to be standard by now). The flashiest Prius accessory is the solar moonroof, which uses an array of photovoltaic cells to power a fan that vents the cabin on hot days, reducing the load on the air conditioner.
For more details, see the full review of the 2011 Toyota Prius series on our sister site, TheCarConnection.