In the foothills of Tucson’s Mount Lemmon, Toyota’s public relations staff delivered Utterli tragic news: a driving impression embargo would preclude live video microblogging coverage of the 2010 Prius. Crushed, I resolved to hike the mountain in the Prius anyway. Now that the embargo has passed, here are a few excerpts from my notes.

The Prius’s silhouette may be contentious, but two points can’t be argued: the aerodynamic shape serves its purpose well, and anything is a welcome alternative to typical Toyota anonymity. Unfortunately, that blandness has crept into the Prius’s front fascia. Toyota’s corporate slit-and-nub grille has been grafted onto the Prius, which offers little differentiation from the Corolla or Yaris from head-on angles.

Toyota pushed the roofline peak aft to increase headroom for backseat passengers. The new roofline’s funky bump gracefully cascades into a refined kammback. Standard energy-efficient LED taillamps integrate nicely with the functional rear spoiler in a handsome evolution of the Prius’s rear quarter.

Interior volume has increased, and is now within eight cubic feet of both the Camry and Fusion Hybrid. The Prius’s lack of ecologically-conscious upholstery and use of traditional petroleum-based seating foam may turn off some greenies, and the mostly staid interior design leaves only one thing to talk about: the Touch Tracer-actuated Multi-Information Display. Touch Tracer is Toyota’s name for touch-sensitive steering wheel controls replicated on the dashboard’s top tier. The redundancy is intended to keep drivers’ eyes on the road while scrolling through trip information screens. Like all Toyota and Lexus hybrids, the fancy dash lacks a tachometer. The monotone green display must be a tribute to Tron — the antiseptic graphs can’t compare to the Fusion’s focus on design. Judge for yourself:

Unfortunately, Toyota’s corporate navitainment head unit is nestled into the Prius’s dash. Drivers must choose between having radio presets at hand, displaying song and artist information, or displaying the navigation map. The world’s best systems share screen real estate — this interface is so poorly executed that the volume bar is not even skinned.

What makes the Prius livable are its on-road dynamics — and we’re not yet talking about fuel economy. To my shock and surprise, the pre-production Prius I drove was outfitted with an electronic power steering system with genuine weight. Every snaking segment leading to the summit of Mount Lemmon revealed an incredible truth: the Prius does not suffer from vapid wheel feel. Not once during the admittedly gradual 8000-foot climb did the Prius’s battery assist run out of grunt. The third-generation nickel-metal hydride system obviously works hard to recapture every possible electron during regenerative braking and coasting — and the proof is in the MPG.

Federal estimates say the Prius can travel 50 miles per gallon in mixed driving. As always, your mileage will vary. Dan Bryant’s sure did. The president of the Houston Hybrids and Hypermilers’ Club achieved 90.6 miles per gallon in the new Prius — one full mile per gallon more than the previous-generation car. To read his impressions, check out the blog.

During the pre-drive press briefing, Prius marketing director Doug Coleman said that the new Prius faces two major adversaries: the global economic downturn, and the aggressively priced Honda Insight. Coleman’s almost militant frankness could very well suggest a brewing price war. Any battle for hybrid supremacy will benefit green-minded buyers — and a truly affordable Prius could sway Camry buyers away from the beige and bland once and for all.

Here’s hoping.

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Adam Barrera

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