COAL: 2004 Toyota Prius – An Engineer’s Car

2004 Toyota Prius in silver

Last week’s COAL entry on my 2003 Matrix ended with an inadvertent guessing game of sorts about the Matrix’s replacement, with at least two separate camps for the Toyota Prius and Scion xB. For those who guessed the Prius, congratulations – for those who guessed the xB, you weren’t far off (I considered that car but my wife didn’t like its phonebooth styling). Because of the interest in the comments, I am jumping ahead slightly in my car history to pick up this Prius’ story (you’ll notice some vehicles in the background of this week’s pictures that I haven’t reviewed yet but will in the coming weeks).

During this series, I may have alluded to my day job as an engineer/project manager doing work for a major federal agency interested in efficient vehicle research and development. I was extremely lucky to find an automotive-related job here in the Maryland/DC area as they are somewhat hard to come by. By 2004 I had been employed for a decade doing efficient vehicle work and thought it was about time for me to spend some of my own money on such a vehicle and “walk the talk” as the cliché goes.

For the most part, vehicles with advanced efficient drivetrains or engines using fuels other than gasoline and diesel had been fleet vehicles up until the introduction of the first-generation Toyota Prius and Honda Insight in 2001. I did take a look at both of those vehicles when they were introduced. The Insight was an amazing engineering feat for the time, with a highly-efficient hybrid drivetrain, lightweight construction, and 50+ mpg fuel economy, but was a bit too much of a science experiment for me. I spent some time with a first-generation Prius as a rental car and was favorably impressed at the time with the ability of this four-door sedan to get more than 40 mpg. Recall that even in the early 2000s a Camry was achieving mid-20s with a 4-cylinder engine, and small direct-injection turbocharged engines to give midsize sedans 30-40 mpg performance were a number of years in the future. The Prius (technically the second-generation car as the first-generation Prius was a Japan-only model) was also interesting as an engineering marvel, but was also not quite what I was looking for – styling was both conventional and a bit odd at the same time, and the efficient drivetrain didn’t provide what I would have considered adequate performance for the roads around here.

However, when Toyota introduced the next-generation Prius in late 2003 as a 2004 model, I found this model to be much more interesting. Styling was “futuristic” and identified the Prius as something different than your average compact car. The packaging of the hybrid drivetrain made for a very large cargo area under a sizeable hatchback opening, and also made for a very spacious interior with great visibility. Performance was also improved – while it was no Mustang, the power was much more useful for keeping up with traffic, and the powertrain calibrations for the hybrid system made the transitions between electric drive, electric brake regeneration, and gasoline engine drive much smoother than the previous model. Fuel economy was improved over the previous generation as well, increasing to the mid-40s from the low-40s in combined cycle driving. The Prius appealed to the engineer in me – using technology and science to make a practical everyday hatchback with amazing fuel economy numbers for the time.

2004 Toyota Prius front view

I wasn’t the only one to realize the attractiveness of the new Prius. At the time I decided to purchase one, there were none available on any dealer lots to test-drive and purchasers needed to place special orders to obtain one from the factory in Japan. As a result, I took a bit of a risk and pre-ordered one based on press photos and information without ever driving one or even seeing the car in person. Given the popularity of the car at the time, the wait was not unreasonable – as I recall I had to wait a couple of months for my order to reach Toyota’s Japanese factory, be scheduled and built, and shipped to my preferred local big-box Toyota retailer. Given the popularity of the car, discounts were essentially nonexistent and I was very fortunate to pay list price (and not a premium). As a result, I didn’t check off that many option boxes – no fancy stereo, no CD changer, no navigation system. Drop off the keys to the Matrix as a trade in, and I was off to the future in my new Prius.

As I was one of the first in my area to get one of these vehicles, the feedback I got on the road was generally favorable (the Prius hadn’t yet become a symbol of slow-lane travel). My co-workers, most of them automotive engineers with a broad nerd streak like me, were all fascinated by the car and I gave many a test drive. We even used my car as a background for some corporate promotional materials on advanced transportation.

As an engineering marvel the car was a home run, as far as I was concerned. Luckily for me it was also a hit for daily transportation. The performance was acceptable to good: acceleration was adequate (and probably better than the ’97 Camry I had been disappointed with), handling was safe if unexciting with narrow low rolling resistance tires, and fuel economy was very good given that my daily commute was probably ideal for hybrids (all surface streets, relatively low speeds, all stop-and-go traffic). The cargo area was quite large – at one point, we purchased an enormous and heavy flat screen tube TV that fit easily in the cargo area. We had to leave the box behind, though. (In hindsight, I probably should have gone with an LCD TV, but I was rocking it old school with the HD tube TV. That tube TV was a pain to get rid of – nobody wanted a 300-pound monster in their living room).

Inside the car was very comfortable, albeit a bit unconventional. I never really got entirely used to the center-mounted instrument cluster and always had to work at finding the speedometer at a glance. The toggle-style shift lever was easy to use once one got used to it, and I very much liked my first experience with a smart key for locking/unlocking/starting the car. I found it amusing that the ignition button was labeled not as “engine start” but as “power” like a computer. As delivered from the factory, the car came with an extremely annoying reversing beep that was designed not to alert people outside the car but people inside the car to the selection of reverse. Internet forums to the rescue here – I easily found a procedure for turning the beep off, which involved a complex set of steps for opening and closing doors, locking and unlocking the doors, and pushing the start button repeatedly. Glad I only had to do that once. The center display for the hybrid system operation was also very interesting for an engineer like me – watching the system manage power flows into and out of the battery, electric motor, and engine was a source of endless amusement (and occasional distraction).

2004 Toyota Prius interior

As can be seen in the photos, this was the first car I had with an add-on satellite radio system. Satellite radio was just becoming popular at the time. I had rented several cars with these radios and really enjoyed the ability to get nonstop music in the genres I liked (well before Internet streaming radio stations, of course). This first system used an FM transmitter which worked OK without a lot of interference, especially once I unscrewed the roof-mounted antenna (I didn’t listen to FM radio all that much). I decided to place the satellite radio antenna on the passenger side dash so I wouldn’t have to stick it to the roof of the car and run the bundle of wires through the top tier glove box (the car had an upward-opening top glove box and a downward-opening bottom glove box). This setup worked OK unless, oddly enough, the air conditioning was at its highest setting. I think the blower fan must have interfered with the antenna as the satellite radio would cut out until the fan speed was reduced. Odd, but about what I expected with a kludgy installation like this.

I bought my first digital camera around this time as well, and got rid of my film cameras for day-to-day photo shooting. For the regular COAL reader, this means more and better-quality shots of both my cars and the photobomb cars of my neighbors! (Based on these Prius photos, it looks like my neighbor across the street traded in his brown 1980’s vintage Camry for a contemporary base model Corolla around this time.)

2004 Toyota Prius rear view

As with a lot of cars around this time, I didn’t actually own the Prius all that long – around a year or so, if I recall. Unlike other cars around this time, I was able to sell it without losing a ton of money, as a co-worker really liked the car and didn’t want to wait for a new one to be delivered (they were still quite popular into 2005). I was able to sell the car to him for just a bit less than what I paid for it and he is still happily driving it more than a decade later, longevity that early Prius buyers didn’t necessarily expect.