2010 Toyota Prius: First DriveS

You already know the 2010 Toyota Prius gets 50 MPG combined fuel economy, making it the most fuel-efficient car for sale in the U.S. But, did you know it returns 26.6 MPG at 102 MPH?

Full Disclosure: Toyota wanted me to drive the new Prius so badly they flew me out and put me up in an eco-friendly hotel to make sure I wrote about it. Also, they plied me with wine. I'm not a huge fan of California wine.

2010 Toyota Prius: First DriveS

You might think it odd we bothered to find that out since the first two Prius generations were hardly vehicles meriting anything approaching spirited driving. But this third generation vehicle, fitted with a larger 1.8-liter engine producing a net 134 HP is actually pretty fun to drive, at least when equipped with the optional 17-inch wheels.

Those wheels bring with them a quicker steering rack, firmer dampers and less efficiency-oriented tires. The result is a car that drives less like a rolling tub of Jello and more like you think a mid-size hatchback that hits 60 MPH in 9.8 seconds equipped with a Continuously Variable Transmission should. In fact, it's good enough we spent the majority of a day driving it on twisty Northern California roads, overtaking many, supposedly faster vehicles, and generally enjoyed harming the environment. In a Prius.

Driving up to Sonoma from San Francisco in a second generation Prius - the one that's currently on sale - during a terrible thunderstorm, the experience couldn't have been more different. As someone who's spent years carefully honing his driving skills, my feeling of safety in a vehicle is in direct proportion to the amount of control I have over it. The second gen Prius delivers virtually nothing in the way of feel from either the steering or brakes, yaws like a ship in corners, is ridiculously slow and is generally the antithesis of what I look for. In pitch black driving rain and high winds I constantly felt out of control, which for a control freak is not a good feeling. I was more scared driving that old Prius than I would have been riding a motorcycle in the same conditions.

Of course, the new Prius comes stock with 15-inch wheels, low-rolling-resistance tires, slow steering and lots of body roll, but its still a marked improvement over previous generations. I'd put it on par with the smaller, cheaper and less fuel-efficient 2010 Honda Insight that I drove late last year.

Part of the Prius's driving success comes from its new three-setting drive mode selector. Drivers can choose Eco Mode, which slows down response from the throttle; Power Mode, which speeds up that response; and Normal Mode, which sits somewhere between the two. We quickly got fed up with the poor response in Eco Mode and spent the day in Power, enjoying the transmission's increased willingness to move the revs into the power band when the throttle was planted.

As you'd expect, it's not all positives for the driving experience. When equipped with 17-inch wheels, the body control and steering are on par with most European mid-size hatches, but the transmission's ability to quickly turn throttle input into acceleration is somewhat lacking. This is most apparent when transitioning from maintenance to wide-open throttle mid-corner, somewhat spoiling the driver's ability to fully exploit the Prius's chassis. Also calling and end to the fun is an over eager stability control system that can't be fully defeated. But the fact that we're complaining about artificial limitations placed on the outright ability of a car that's historically been utterly boring, if not completely lacking in driving dynamics of any sort, is probably the best compliment we can give it.

2010 Toyota Prius: First DriveS

The Prius is also a nicer place to spend time, with more room in the rear seat for big boys and girls, nicer materials and a lot of fancy tech features that are fun to use. Foremost of those is the Touch Tracer Display, which replicates inputs on the steering wheel mounted controls in the in-dash display. It sounds silly, but provides useful feedback for systems that can normally be distracting to use on the move. Unfortunately, there are also downsides to the revised interior. Foremost on our list of things we don't like are the heated seat switches, which have bizarrely been located down by the driver's feet. We predict a class action lawsuit filed by completely detestable human beings who couldn't figure out that they probably shouldn't attempt to operate these controls on the move within the year.

While the Prius uses a similarly functional economy gauge to the Honda Insight and Ford Fusion Hybrid, Toyota's falls behind both in usefulness and far behind Ford's in looks. Toyota knows that Prius buyers are big tech fans, offering a variety of options like the solar sunroof, Lane Keep Assist, Dynamic Radar Cruise Control and automatic parallel parking systems to try and give them something to spend money on, but we think a more useful and better looking economy meter, like Ford's, would go much further in meeting the desires of those buyers.

When we showed Toyota our wobbly shot of the Prius's gauges at 102 MPH, they expressed disappointment that we hadn't maxed the car out to its 112 MPH top speed and not at all worried about our instantaneous MPG figure. We tried pretty hard to get that figure as low as possible for that shot (running the battery down as low as possible, then flooring the gas pedal), but for the rest of the day, even while driving quickly on back roads, we averaged between 40 and 70 MPG. Most buyers driving like normal people can expect to regularly exceed the 51 MPG city/48 highway EPA figure, while devoted hypermilers will see figures in the mid-70 MPG range.

2010 Toyota Prius: First DriveS

While the new Prius remains far from the top of our Best Driving Cars list, it's also now far from the bottom, where it used to reside. Not only is it the most fuel-efficient vehicle for sale in America, but it combines that newfound efficiency with the dynamics, space and experience of a normal car. While we wouldn't buy one, we'd now be pretty happy if we got a Prius as a rental car or had to buy one for our more eco-minded significant others. We'd just make sure it was one with 17-inch wheels.