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(Edmunds) Due to increased pressure from governments, automakers have been looking for ways to meet increasingly stringent demands for cleaner tailpipe emissions and higher fuel mileage. In the ’90s, electric cars like GM’s EV1 were thought to be the answer, but they are limited by poor range and the fact that they have to be “plugged in” in order to be recharged. Hydrogen-fueled fuel cell cars will some day be the ultimate evolution of the automobile, as their exhaust by-product is essentially water vapor. But the technology for fuel cell cars is still young, and mass-produced fuel cell cars are a number of years away.
For today and the near future, the best hope is hybrid-electric vehicles. Hybrid cars combine a gasoline engine with an electric motor. And since hybrids are still fueled by gasoline, they don’t have to be plugged in or recharged. In the case of the Toyota Prius, the result of hybrid technology is reduced emissions and improved fuel efficiency when compared to a normal gasoline-powered car. The only fear has been that a hybrid vehicle would never be useful as a real car that real people would want to buy. With the Prius, Toyota has largely quieted those fears.
While the Prius became available to the American consumer in 2001, Toyota has been selling them in Japan since December 1997. Compared to earlier Prius models, U.S. versions feature more horsepower, additional emissions equipment and a more powerful battery pack that is also smaller and lighter.
There are only three mainstream hybrid-electric vehicles for sale in the United States. There’s the Prius, the Honda Insight and the Honda Civic Hybrid. Up until this year, we felt the Prius was the best choice, as it was more versatile than the two-seat Insight. But the Civic Hybrid is all-new for 2003, and in many ways this “second-generation” hybrid vehicle is superior to the Prius. The Civic would be our choice for a hybrid vehicle, though the 2003 Toyota Prius is still worth considering.
The 2003 Toyota Prius is available only as a four-door sedan with one trim level. With this, you get plenty of standard equipment, such as automatic climate control, air conditioning, power windows and locks, power steering, antilock brakes and keyless entry. The only factory options are cruise control, a DVD-based navigation system, side-impact airbags and daytime-running lights. A CD player isn’t included, though you can get a six-disc CD changer as a dealer accessory. READ MORE