2009 Toyota Prius

2009 Toyota Prius

The economy is rough out there, and saving money is on everyone's mind. We even saw a suggestion that Toyota should offer a cheaper Prius--without the expensive hybrid system.

Which made us wonder: Would it still be a "Prius" if Toyota sold the same car, minus the hybrid system?

Clearly the company is under a lot of pressure from the 2010 Honda Insight, which is nearly-as-thrifty and likely to be much cheaper than the new 2010 Toyota Prius.

The 2010 Prius will still be the undisputed mileage champ, but because miles-per-gallon is not a linear measure, the difference between 40 mpg and 50 mpg is only $100 a year in gasoline.

So suppose Toyota sold an $18,000 car that looked just like the Prius, but with a small, high-efficiency gasoline engine and a standard gearbox. It would dispense with all the new 2010 luxury options--from leather seats to the cool solar moonroof--as well as the central display screen, the electric motors, and that pricey battery pack.

The new car might be slower, and it wouldn't offer electric running, but let's say it could get 30 miles per gallon. Would saving $4,000 or more be worth sacrificing 20 miles per gallon?

After all, 30 mpg is lower fuel consumption than most other new cars. And the car would still have the shape that lets owners tell others, "I care about the environment". Would that still be a Prius?

Or should that person just buy a 2009 Toyota Yaris four-door and be done with it? Or is the right option a used Prius instead?

Pretty soon you get into complicated questions about the identity of a car, and what it means. (Or as the sociologists might say, what it "signifies" to others.)

We're not even sure what we think about this one. Tell us your thoughts.

[SOURCE: Edmunds Green Car Advisor]