After 1,500 miles of driving in some of the coldest January temperatures on record, I'd summarize the as a quiet, roomy car that happens to have a hybrid drivetrain — and an excellent heater. Quick heat is no fluke. The Prius stores some coolant in an insulated reservoir when it shuts down. Later, when restarted, the stillhot coolant circulates into the engine — primarily to reduce emissions, but an additional benefit is near-instant heat. This is one of several unusual features on this car.

I've been intrigued with hybrid cars since they first appeared. However, early hybrids just didn't have the room or space my wife and I wanted. The twodoor Honda Insight was impractical for dealing with a toddler's car seat. And the original Prius, besides being too small, was just ugly.

Of course, the 2004 version will not be mistaken for a Ferrari but it is a dramatic improvement. The real benefit of the new version is its larger four-door hatchback configuration, and that it has almost as much interior room as a Camry.

Officially, the Prius uses a parallel-series drivetrain. The car can be powered by the engine or electric motor alone or both together. The electric motor gets things moving and the engine smoothly kicks in between 15 and 20 mph. Initial acceleration is strong due to the 295 lb-ft of torque provided by the electric motor. The CVT-equipped engine has no shift points and power comes on so smoothly that I quickly found myself exceeding the speed limit — in the city and on the highway. The Prius is relatively light at 2,890 lb. As a result, the car handles well and seems lively in spite of modest power.

A major benefit of the gas-electric hybrid is that when coasting or braking, the motor acts as a generator and stores energy in the batteries. The energy recovery can be significant and one of the info screens provides a summary.

There's no doubt the Prius has an unconventional starting sequence. Insert the key fob into the dash; press a "Power" button, and on come the lights, and camera (actually an LCD screen), and then silence. If you're comfortable

starting a computer, you'll have no problem with the Prius. I find the separate "Park" button quirky but it's necessary should you want to keep the car "on" but not in motion.

More unusual is the shift lever. Its stubby knob would look more at home on a riding lawn mower. The positions are R-N-D and B, which is a drive position providing engine braking when you let off the gas. The effect is similar to manually downshifting an automatic, such as Tiptronic or Auto-stick. I found the beeping that starts when you have the car in reverse to be really annoying. Note to Toyota: I know when I'm going in reverse.

When I first saw the digital speed readout, I had flashbacks to an obnoxiously bright, digital dash display on a 1984 Subaru. Fortunately, Toyota has placed the readout near the base of the extremely long and sloped windshield and it is not objectionable. All controls operate smoothly and have a nice feel that I've observed in Toyotas for many years.

A center-mounted LCD touch panel governs audio and climate controls. The display is generally easy to see except when directly hit by sunlight. The audio equalizer allowed me to "unmuddy" the sound from the flat setting. The RDSequipped radio shows call letters, artist, and song titles for those FM stations sending them.

Animated graphics depict power flow among the engine, motor, and battery as well as instant and average mpg.

But I have begun to question the mileage numbers. While running late, a 40-mile city/hwy trip resulted in the best mileage to date: 43 mpg. This was after numerous near full-throttle accelerations and 75-mph highway speeds.

Unusual features include two glove boxes stacked vertically and an articulated front wiper system with unequal blades to cover more window surface. A nice exterior touch is the replaceable ring at the edge of each alloy wheel. I scraped a curb and thought for sure I scratched metal, only to find the matching plastic band slightly scuffed and the metal unscathed.

Complaints are few. Real-world average mpg has ranged from 38 to 43. Of course I did not expect to get the EPA 60/51 for city/highway but it would be nice if the numbers were better. I've had some difficulty stopping smoothly when braking quickly. It seems like the brakeby-wire technology overreacts to hard braking, resulting in unintended panic stops.

Rear visibility could be better. A trade-off for the low-drag aerodynamics is the extreme angle of the rear window. A silver lining is that the rear edge of the hatch structure blocks headlight glare of most cars and smaller SUVs where it splits the window glass.

Overall, my only long-term concern is the cost of replacing the battery pack. Toyota is quoted as saying it's "around $1,000" and I've heard numbers as high as $3,000. In spite of this and a few quirks, we love the car. We bought it for the room, the mileage, and its relatively low-pollution levels and have been surprised at the performance and refinement.

While Honda has its models and other manufacturers have announced hybrids, Toyota has set a standard with the 2004 Prius that will be tough to beat. I can't wait to check out the 2005 Toyota Highlander Hybrid.

— Mark Knebusch, Contributing Editor