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No Love For The Latest Prius, New Version 'Feels Dated'

Posted: 01/11/12 02:55 PM ET

I really want to love the Prius.

On paper, it satisfies many of the things I ideally want out of a car. It's safe. It's fuel efficient. It's a little bit quirky.

So when Toyota unveiled another model in the new Prius family of cars Tuesday at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, I rushed over to see if this one would make me happy. I asked for a peek inside -- the doors were kept locked for many reporters -- hoping I would finally fall in love.

I didn't.

Every time I drive a Prius, I feel let down. The interior, made out of ultra-lightweight materials to help it squeeze out more miles per gallon, feels cheap.

The numbers on the gauges are huge. It's safe, but almost geriatrically safe. The car emits loud beeps inside when in reverse. My husband's great aunt Winnie had a similar beeping system set up on her Cadillac when she turned 80 and wanted the world to know she was coming.

When I first drove a Prius, back in 2002, the car felt high-tech and kind of awesome. You could configure the display to show you every time you were recharging the battery -- pretty much every time you hit the brakes. At the time, Toyota was leading the industry in interior design, so it felt modern.

Some of those features still exist. But now, after competitors have spent millions improving their car interiors, the Prius feels dated. It is almost like getting into the DeLorean from the 1980s movie "Back To The Future," something that was cool once, but isn't now.

There are many better alternatives: Toyota's own Camry hybrid, for example, feels nicer inside. And the Ford Fusion hybrid is even nicer, with a pretty leaf pattern that lights up on the dashboard when you drive as fuel efficiently as possible.

There are about 30 different vehicles on the market with some sort of hybrid option. Other hybrids offer a balance of creature comforts rather than purely focusing on fuel efficiency as the Prius does. The end result makes the Prius feel a little off, the way organic shampoo smells a little too herbal or boxes of healthy cereal look unappetizing.

Still, people just keep buying them. Seventy percent of all hybrid sales are Prius models.

The name Prius has become almost synonymous with hybrid. When many consumers say they want a Prius, they mean they want a car that alternates between gas power and battery power.

"Initially, it was the environmentalists -- the tree huggers -- who embraced the Prius," said Don Esmond, senior vice president of Toyota Motor Sales. "Now, it's mainstream."

Esmond and I are standing next to a light-blue Prius C that the company unveiled just a few hours earlier. The C is the third in the Prius family, a pint-sized cheaper version that should go for about $19,000.

Although the car the automaker presented at the Detroit auto show is not quite ready for prime time, it is very close to what will go on sale later this quarter. The seats are made of a lightweight foam and covered in a vinyl-like material, which feels like plastic. The car looks nice outside, not quite as bubble-shaped as previous Prius models, but it doesn't scream high tech.

Esmond rebuffed the idea that the Prius interior is worse than its competitors'.

"I'd like to know how many they've sold," he said. Toyota has sold more than 200,000 Priuses in the past 10 years, dwarfing its competition.

The company is capitalizing on its loyal Prius following by rolling out a line of Prius-branded vehicles, dropping the Toyota name from the cars.

Prius buyers had complained that the car was too small, so last year the company began selling a bigger one, the Prius V. They've also complained that the car is too expensive, so the Prius C (which stands for city) is meant to address that concern.

The next step will be a Prius plug-in hybrid. Plugging in the car to recharge the battery will give it an extra boost, letting it go farther on one tank of gas. The company estimates the plug-in will get about 89 mpg.

And that is one of the draws of the Prius. It gets phenomenal mileage. The Prius hatchback gets 50 mpg. To get better fuel economy, you have to opt for an electric car -- one that will only go 70 miles or so before needing a recharge -- or go for the Chevy Volt, which is about $10,000 more than the entry-level Prius.

I get why people keep buying them. Nothing screams, "I care about the environment" more than driving a Prius.

Mark Reuss, General Motors' president of North American sales, service and marketing, says there's not much the industry can do to steal the Prius halo away from the brand.

"There's no slick marketing campaign to do that," he said. "You just pound it with the products that you bring out."

And hope that customers start shopping some of the competition.