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2010 Toyota Prius

Well, this was bound to happen. A solar-powered car. And, no surprise, it’s a Toyota Prius.

Of course, the collection of cells taking up half of the roof of the redesigned hybrid generate less than 60 watts of electricity, and all of it goes toward the operation of a small ventilation fan that is only able to keep the cabin temperature the same as the outside air when the car is parked. So, while you won’t be driving anywhere on the yellow stuff, if it’s a 100 degree day, the interior of the Prius should be 100 degrees when you get into it, not 101 degrees. For that you’ll pay just $3,600.

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To be fair, the panel comes bundled with a $1,800 navigation system and a sunroof, which is also quite effective at equalizing air temperature. Split the difference and you're looking at either a $900 sweat reducer, or a promotional boon. Probably more of the latter. When rumors of its existence leaked out before the 2010 Prius was revealed at this year's Detroit Auto Show, the solar system created more buzz than the Prius' electric motor.

The effort was hardly necessary because the new Prius is a very good car. No "hybrid" or "eco-friendly" qualifier required like before, now it's just plain good.

First impressions are the key. The original Prius was a bug of a thing, with all the beauty of a turnip moth caterpillar. The second, a featureless cocoon aimed at protecting it's occupants from wind resistance and the slings and arrows being aimed at carbon-spewing SUV drivers in a world of $4 a gallon gasoline. No, the new one hasn't become a beautiful butterfly, but it does looks as if one is trying to break out from under its shell.

Although it retains the iconic profile that helped make the Prius the most successful hybrid to date, sharply creased wings now run down the sides, and insectoid eyes bulge from the headlight housings. The rear end is far from graceful, but the functionality of its oversized spoiler, wind-slicing sharp edges, and enormous clusters of high-efficiency LED tail light elements is truly bewitching to fanatics of aerodynamics and the conservation of electricity. If you shipped the outgoing Prius to a group of over-caffeinated design school sophomores, this is exactly what they'd send back.

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The interior gets the same kind of evolutionary refresh, with curves and creases replacing the previous collection of straight lines. The instrument panel remains in the center of the dashboard, but now it floats in a wavy grey plastic sea, while the controls on the center console are fanned out around the high-mounted transmission selector within easy reach of the driver.

Regardless if you are a hypermiler or a hot shoe on a hybrid kick, it's under the protruding nose of the hood where the most significant mechanical upgrades are found. The old 1.5 liter 4-cylinder engine has been replaced by a larger, more powerful 1.8 liter unit, and the electric motor also gets a boost. Combined output of the hybrid system now peaks at 134 horsepower, up from 110 hp. It still won't be taking on any Chevy Camaros at the drag strip, but that car can’t get 50 mpg combined, also a new high for the Prius.

Perhaps more important than the ability to merge, rather than just meld into traffic, is what the Prius does when it gets there. Ride quality and steering feel are both dramatically improved. The car drills down the highway with little vagueness in or any wandering about. It's a shame there's still so much wind and road noise, mostly coming through the thin doors that sound like cookie sheets being dropped on a kitchen floor when you slam them shut.

Take an exit off into the mountains and you'll find that the suspension can handle curves very well, too, even with the standard 15-inch wheel and tire combination. As if the automotive world wasn’t topsy-turvy enough these days, the Honda Insight's engineers could learn a lot from the guys in Toyota City. The Prius no longer rolls and bounces like the football it still sort of resembles, and the only downside is a touch of harshness over bumps due to low-rolling resistance tires that are on the stiff side and, ultimately, short on grip. It is far too easy to spin the front tires when quickly pulling away from stop signs, even on dry pavement.

Interior space has been increased, mostly in the cargo area, and a redrawn roof line also adds some headroom for back seat passengers. There's plenty of room for their legs, too, courtesy of deeply-sculpted front seat backs. Materials and fit and finish are a step up from the old, and well-executed throughout, though you still won’t mistake the Prius for a luxury car, or even the relatively plush Ford Fusion Hybrid.

Right now, the Prius is available in four configurations which, Star Wars-style, begin with the $22,000 Prius II, and work up to the dramatic climax of the Prius V. A stripped $21,000 prequel called Prius I will be coming later in the year. No word yet on a director's cut edition.

Standard on the Prius II are goodies like a proximity key, 6-speaker satellite radio, seven airbags, steering wheel controls for audio and climate control, and a comprehensive information screen with all sorts of charts and graphs to track your fuel-sipping progress. The $23,000 Prius III adds an upgraded stereo and bluetooth phone connection, while the $25,800 Prius IV, like the one I tested, gets leather upholstery with heated front seats, an interior air ionizer, and water-repellant windows in the front doors. Now, no matter how bad the weather is, you can be sure everyone knows that it's you saving the planet by driving a car that still burns about seven barrels of oil a year.

The solar roof option is only available on Prius IIIs and IVs, and it also comes with a remote air conditioning system that is activated by a button on the key fob and runs off of the hybrid battery, as long as there's enough of a charge left. Not exactly a vote of confidence for the solar-powered ventilation system.

What the Prius V offers for $27,270 is either a harbinger of a bright future for rain forest-saving transportation, or proof that the Mayans were right, and end of the world will soon be upon us. Along with LED headlamps, it has fat 17-inch wheels, a firmer suspension, and revised steering that responds more quickly to inputs. Those are high performance modifications, the sorts of things done to sports cars. Since Toyota doesn't make any of those right now, the Prius V might be as close as you'll get to one in its showrooms.

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But don't trade your pocket protector for a pair of driving gloves just yet. Prius V buyers can also order a $4,500 geek-friendly package that includes navigation, dynamic cruise control, a system that steers you back into your lane if you aimlessly start drifting out of it, and a self-parking feature similar to the one found on the ultra-luxury Lexus LS600h hybrid.

Whew, order restored.

The solar-powered fan isn't an option on Prius V, but, now that I think of it, a similar system was available on the 1992 Mazda 929 for $600. Adjusted for inflation, that's about $900 today. The more things change, huh?

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2010 Toyota Prius

Base Price: $22,000

As Tested: $30,401

Type: Front-engine, front-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door hatchback

Powerplant: 1.8L inline-4 cylinder w/permanent magnet AC synchronous electric motor

Power (NET): 134 hp

Transmission: Electronically controlled continuously variable automatic

MPG: 51 city/48 hwy

What do you think of the Prius?

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