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Toyota's spark of genius

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This is a car Detroit assures us cannot be built. No way. No how. A spacious, safe and well-appointed mid-size four-door with practical performance while returning more than 60 miles per gallon? For $20,000? Are you, like, high?

Well, there it sits in my driveway, looking like a set piece from a Kubrick film but in other respects a straightforward piece of engineering. And it shames the domestic automakers and the Bush administration.

As recently as this summer, during the Big Three's annual assassination of higher mileage standards proposed in Congress, industry shills argued that the proposed increase for cars -- 40 mpg by the year 2015 -- would be impossible to meet. The technology would be far too expensive; the weight reductions needed would create flimsy death traps; consumers simply would not accept the anemic performance such high mileage requirements would impose.

Moreover, the automakers argued, requiring such increases would tie up capital, intellectual and otherwise, that Detroit needs to develop fuel-cell technology. The Bush administration and the Big Three are touting the Freedom CAR initiative -- a program to bring hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles to market, which received $1.2 billion in the Energy Department's budget for 2003 -- as a visionary alternative to the dreary incrementalism of federal mileage standards.

Have faith, America, and take another toke off your asthma inhaler. On some as-yet-unspecified date, on the golden horizon of the hydrogen economy, Detroit will deliver the ideal car, clean and powerful, trailing only clouds of noblesse oblige.

Forgive me if I'm skeptical. The most optimistic estimates put the mass marketing of fuel cells more than a decade away. It makes zero sense to give Detroit a pass on improving emissions and fuel economy now for some promised land of milk and money in the future.

Freedom CAR replaced the Clinton administration's fig leaf of hypocrisy, the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, which doled out $1.5 billion to a consortium of automakers, universities and suppliers for nearly a decade and likewise was used to stall efforts to increase mileage standards. The Bush administration pulled the plug on the partnership last year, citing its failure to reach its goal: developing an affordable family sedan that gets 80 mpg.

Well, the Prius (pronounced PREE-us) gets 60 mpg -- the highest fuel mileage of any mass-production car sold in the United States -- and Toyota did it without subsidies from the federal government and much less posturing than the Big Three's promising to save the world when they get around to it.

I can live with the scandal embodied in a national energy policy that is actually reducing tax benefits for clean-fuel cars (Prius buyers can claim a $2,000 tax deduction on cars placed in service before Dec. 31) while offering tens of thousands of dollars in tax credits to "small business" buyers of H2 Hummers.

What boggles my mind is the wasted business opportunity. Consumers want high-mileage cars. In Los Angeles, the entertainment industry's pretty young things are lining up for the Prius. The first generation of the Prius sold a modest 5,600 units in the United States in 2000. Toyota already has taken more than 10,000 orders for the second-generation Prius ahead of its launch this month and is adding capacity to meet demand of 36,000 units in the States and 76,000 units worldwide. If the Prius doesn't outsell Pontiac's new GTO in the 2005 model year, I'll eat a box of General Motors product guru Bob Lutz's Partagas Robustos.

Anybody who has ever turned a wrench will marvel at this car. Even before you look under the hybrid's hood, consider the body structure: a four-door hatchback on a 106.3-inch wheelbase, with interior room only slightly less than that of the Toyota Camry and a huge trunk (16.1 cubic feet) made all the more usable by the hatch and folding rear seats. Its coolly futuristic, maglev-like styling accounts for its slippery aerodynamics, 0.26 coefficient of drag, among the lowest on the market. And the car weighs only 2,890 pounds, 300 pounds less than a four-cylinder Camry automatic.

The Prius is spacious and comfortable in both front and back seats. I'm 6-foot-1 and I had no trouble getting comfortable in the car. Outward visibility is excellent; the car's hatch features lower glass panels to improve rearward sightlines. Toyota's use of lightweight materials for upholstery, door panels and other surfaces gives the car the feel of expensive, lightweight camping equipment. When you close the door you notice it doesn't have the thudding authority of upscale Toyota products, and the seat cushions and armrests are thin, but overall the car has nice tactility and warmth.

What makes it a "hybrid" is its powertrain -- the Hybrid Synergy Drive System -- that tandems a small and high-tech 1.5-liter gasoline engine (76 horsepower) with an electric motor with peak output of 50 kilowatts (67 horsepower) and a whopping 295 pound-feet of torque.

The system's computers and controllers blend the output of both power sources for optimum efficiency so that, for instance, in stop-and-go traffic the car often runs on electric power stored in its 202-volt nickel-metal-hydride battery. At cruising speeds, the engine output does double duty, driving the front wheels while also turning a generator, whose voltage then powers the electric assist motor. Under heavy acceleration, power from the battery comes online too. The total output of 143 horsepower is enough to accelerate the Prius from zero to 60 mph in about 10 seconds.

The Prius employs a continuously variable transmission -- no stepped gearing -- so that a foot-on-the-floor maneuver produces only a supple and drama-free gathering of speed and a whirring tenor engine note. I drove the car for a week in freeway traffic and it was quite willing until about 75 mph, above which I had to go to the whip to accelerate.

Dynamically, the car is about what you'd expect from an economy car on 15-inch tires. Competent and agile enough to get out of its own way -- independent strut suspension is used up front, while a torsion beam holds up the rear -- the Prius has a light and reactive feel in its power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering and secure assurance in the front-disc/rear-drum brakes with ABS assist. But this is an earnest commuting appliance, albeit one with more than 370 engineering patents to its credit.

You never plug in the Prius. During braking, the electric motor becomes a generator that recharges the battery, thereby recovering kinetic energy that would otherwise be lost as heat in the brakes. If the battery levels get low, the gas engine is summoned to top off the electrons. You can keep up with all this activity on two dash-mounted LCD displays: one, a flowchart, the other, a bar graph indicating recovered kilowatts and other arcana of fuel efficiency.

Most consumers, I suspect, will watch the graphs for a day or so and then flip over to the audio or climate displays, with the peace of mind that comes with knowing they are part of the solution, not the problem.

In fact, it is not the Prius' stark differences -- its fetishizing of thermodynamics -- that make the car marketable, but its sameness, the transparency of the hybrid system. The car uses an electronic key -- a small plastic module that slips into a receptacle on the dash -- that activates the start button on the dash. Put your foot on the brake and press the button; it takes about a second for the car's computers to boot up the instrument display, located near the leading edge of the windshield. The gearshift is a joystick-like unit on the dash, behind and to the right of the steering wheel. Put it in drive or reverse. The park position is engaged by a push button above the gearshift.

There is very little to remind you that the Prius is different from any other economy family car, and quite a lot to suggest it is, in fact, a commuter with upscale aspirations. Standard equipment includes anti-skid brakes and traction control; keyless entry; power windows and locks; heated side mirrors; steering-wheel-mounted audio and climate controls; alloy wheels; CD player; and the multi-function LCD display.

The options list includes high-end blandishments like a navigation system; six-disc CD changer; stability control; and curtain and side-impact air bags. The Prius would be a nifty family ride even without the virtue-intensive powertrain.

But how's this for an incentive: The dead governor walking, Gray Davis, has asked the federal government to grant the Prius -- which is a super-ultra-low-emissions vehicle according to the California Air Resources Board -- an exemption allowing solo drivers to use the car pool lanes on California freeways. A decision from the Department of Transportation is pending.

Given that the world trembles on the edge of fossil-fueled disaster -- from the Mideast to the melting ice caps -- it's hard not to see the Prius as anything less than a manifesto (the term revolutionaries once used for a "vision statement"). Lamentably, even as Toyota leads the way in hybrid powertrains, it is increasing its production of gas-thirsty sport utility vehicles for the American market.

But Toyota is pouring marvelous amounts of its treasure into efficiency research, and its achievements in mass-production hybrid technology haven't precluded work in other directions. The company has a project with UC Davis and UC Irvine to develop fuel-cell technology and infrastructure. By year's end it will have leased six of its experimental fuel-cell vehicles to the universities and given millions to fund research just in California.

It is also true that GM, for one, has a robust advanced technology division, which will deliver "mild" hybrid vehicles to market early next year. GM also will soon roll out its displacement-on-demand system, which promises to significantly improve fuel consumption and emissions on the thirstiest and most popular of vehicles -- that is, pickups and SUVs. It also is making strides in diesel and injection technology.

But fully a third of GM's research budget goes toward the far-fetched future of fuel cells. As a matter of policy, the company regards hybrid powertrains as merely an interim solution. The company may yet be rewarded in the marketplace. As a matter of energy policy, Congress should not allow attainable gains to be held hostage to tomorrow.

Meantime, people are queuing up to buy the Prius today.

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Times automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at dan.neil@latimes.com.

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'04 Toyota Prius

Wheelbase: 106.3 inches

Length: 175 inches

Curb weight: 2,890 pounds

Powertrain: gasoline engine and electric motor

Horsepower: gas engine, 76 hp; electric motor, 67 hp

Torque: gas, 82 pound-feet at 4,200 rpm; electric, 295 pound-feet at 1,200 rpm

Acceleration: zero to 60 mph in about 10 seconds

EPA rating: 60 miles per gallon city, 51 mpg highway

Price, base: $19,995

Price, as tested: $20,510, including $515 delivery charge

Final thoughts: Fossil fuel minimalist

Source: Toyota Motor Sales USA

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