As the traffic light turned green, I didn’t have even the slightest concern that the 2010 Toyota Prius’ gas pedal would get stuck when I pushed it to the floor.

I’m not sure how many dozens or even hundreds of Toyotas I’ve driven in the 22 years this column has been appearing. Or how many tens of thousands of miles I’ve covered behind the wheel of one Toyota or another, including those I’ve owned.

But I’m certain that in all that time and over all those miles, not one Toyota ever misbehaved when it was asked to slow down.

So, for the record, I’m not convinced that the recalls and repairs and investigations over “unintended acceleration” in Toyota vehicles is much more than a witch hunt.

Maybe I’m too cynical or skeptical, but I believe human — not mechanical — error is really the problem here. My daughter wouldn’t be driving a 15-year-old Toyota Camry if I believed otherwise.

So I put the odds of encountering unintended acceleration during my week with the new Prius right up there with running into a brother from another planet in the frozen foods aisle of the grocery store.

My real concern with the Prius was INTENDED acceleration.

Would the quirky looking, gasoline-and-electric powered vehicle move out when I mashed the throttle?

Hybrid-powered vehicles, after all, aren’t synonymous with spirited acceleration. Engineered to extract maximum thrust from minimal fuel, hybrids typically have been as tough to motivate as a teenager engrossed in a “Call of Duty” encounter with 20 online friends and foes.

Not so with the 2010 Prius, which launches the third generation of what has become a truly iconic vehicle. Toyota says it has sold over 800,000 in the U.S. since it debuted in August 2000 as a 2001 model. Worldwide sales have exceeded 1.2 million, according to Toyota.

Every one of those vehicles has played a role in establishing Prius as a symbol of eco-minded social responsibility. Driving a Prius is a statement for many owners: If practicality dictates that I have to drive a vehicle, it’s going to be one that has the least negative impact on the environment.

And there really was something altruistic about driving a first-generation Prius with its eccentric styling, null brake feel and the little surges and shudders that accompanied the gasoline engine and electric motor as they jockeyed to deliver maximum mileage and performance.

Performance? That’s what really bothered me about the early Prius, which took about 14 or 15 seconds to get from zero to 60 mph. I think Fred Flintstone could top that using his feet.

Additionally, the only time it felt safe to pass an 18-wheeler on the interstate in an early Prius was when the 18-wheeler was on the shoulder with a flat tire.

The second-generation Prius — although even funkier looking than its predecessor — came closer in performance to a conventional family sedan. And by delivering more thrust with no additional fuel consumption, it became a poster child for responsible motoring.

It wasn’t uncommon for a celebrity to make a statement by showing up at some gala event in a Prius instead of a stretch limo.

That helped make the second-generation Prius so popular when I reviewed it that unless your name was Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio or Jennifer Lopez you had to wait several months to buy one.

That was three or four years ago. The waiting list has shrunk, but the Prius has grown. The new version has more room, more power and more luxury than its predecessor. Amazingly, it even gets better mileage.

All of those qualities help turn the new Prius into a vehicle that should have truly broad, mainstream appeal. Although it is propelled by Toyota’s unique “Hybrid Synergy System,” carries a giant battery pack that gets charged by its braking system, and has an air conditioner that operates more like the one in your home than your other vehicle, the new Prius is nevertheless first and foremost a terrific midsize sedan

albeit one that gets ridiculously high gas mileage. Its 51 city/48 highway EPA rating not only blows away every other midsize on the road, but is also a realistic estimate of the kind of mileage you can get.

I averaged right around 50 during a weeklong test in which I drove the Prius the way I would any midsize: I mashed the throttle — without fear of it sticking or squandering fuel — every time I pulled away from a traffic light, merged onto the highway or passed on the interstate.

While far from a hot rod, the Prius didn’t disappoint in those situations. Toyota says it can hit 60 mph in 9.8 seconds, and I wouldn’t dispute that.

Despite its responsiveness, a driver paying close attention can tell the Prius is not a conventional midsize sedan. There is an occasional burp when the gasoline engine kicks in or takes a break. The brakes lack the feel of those on the best family sedans. And anyone who has spent any time driving a conventionally powered car or truck might find the absence of even the slightest engine noise or vibration at idle more than a little weird.

But there’s nothing weird or unusual about the Prius’ remarkably roomy interior. There is statistically a bit less legroom than in its predecessor, yet the rear seat is far more accommodating. So are the front buckets, which are now as supportive and comfy as the average family sedan.

The same goes for the Prius’ ride and handling. It slots somewhere near mid-pack in those areas, which is pretty good considering the overall quality of today’s midsize sedans and the relatively small disparity between best- and worst-in-class.

The 2010 Prius’ pricing puts it near the top of its class, but that can be justified by its class-busting mileage and the availability of standard features and options usually found only in luxury models.

You don’t need a luxury car bankroll to buy the new Prius, but owning one may make you feel like a celebrity.

I was most impressed, however, with the way the new model has gone mainstream without sacrificing its distinctive styling and incredible fuel economy.

There are quicker, better handling and smoother riding midsize family sedans. But none deliver as much fuel pump-passing excitement as Toyota’s new Prius.

 

Scott Wasser is executive editor of MaineToday Media. He writes a weekly auto column for the Sunday Telegram and other newspapers. He can be reached at

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