Toyota Prius

The forward-thinking 2006 Prius with Hybrid Synergy Drive® combines a gas engine and an emissions-free electric motor to achieve amazing fuel economy and an Advanced Technology Partial Zero Emission Vehicle (AT-PZEV) rating

[2] - all with the performance of a conventional car. And to make up to 650 miles

[3] between fill-ups comfortable, there’s now an available leather-trimmed interior and available cutting-edge features like Bluetooth®

[4] wireless technology, Smart Key System and backup camera

[5]. Plus you never need to plug-in for recharging. What more could you ask for? Well, several states now give Prius owners carpool lane privileges. And you'll definitely want to read more about federal tax benefits for Prius owners.

The Prius wasn't the first hybrid car on the market in the U.S., but with four doors, a sizable trunk and room for four, it was the first such vehicle to offer the practicality of a typical economy car along with the outstanding fuel mileage of a hybrid. The second-generation model, introduced in 2004, delivers all that and more, with an even larger interior, hatchback utility and a hybrid drivetrain that's more powerful and cleaner than the previous version.

For the uninitiated, a hybrid drivetrain typically uses a small gasoline engine in conjunction with an electric motor to provide power while keeping emissions and fuel usage to a minimum. Under full acceleration, both power sources work together to provide maximum oomph, but under lighter load conditions, such as stop-and-go traffic, the Prius alternates between the two, oftentimes running purely on battery power alone.

A regenerative braking system converts energy normally lost as heat into electricity to charge the car's batteries. Although the current powertrain works in much the same way as the first-generation model, it delivers considerably more power with fewer emissions. Toyota claims that its exhaust emissions have been reduced by 30 percent over the previous model, allowing it to earn both SULEV (Super Ultra Low-Emission Vehicle) and PZEV (Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle) ratings. Although the car is rated to get combined city/highway mileage of 55 miles to the gallon by the EPA, our experience has shown that its real-world mileage is about 45 mpg.

Apart from its high-tech drivetrain, the Prius offers comfortable accommodations for four adults. It's a little smaller than most midsize sedans, but even tall passengers have enough room in the rear seats. Top-notch interior materials and a unique design give the cabin an alternative look and feel, but all the amenities you would expect are there. The Prius features an innovative automatic climate control system that runs entirely on electricity.

This means the A/C will continue to cool even when the gas engine is not running, such as at a stoplight. It also features a humidity sensor and smart programming so the A/C compressor runs only when it is necessary. The benefit is that you can leave it in auto-mode year round without worry of wasting any energy. The Prius' hatchback design makes loading larger items into the cargo area a snap, and with 16.1 cubic feet of space, there's nearly as much room in the trunk as in a Camry.

The Prius is a legitimate family sedan that offers everything you would expect from a Toyota -- like solid build quality and refinement -- and a few things you don't -- like a low base price. Add in the eye-popping mileage and long list of standard features, and it's easy to see why the Prius remains one of the most talked about cars available today.