This car, which is becoming known as the go-to choice of green celebrities, the so-called “Pious Prius” owners, and a staple at green fairs, also bears the distinction of being the only car on the market that is only available as a hybrid. Other hybrid cars and SUVs are test-the-water vehicles with better selling gas-powered twins.Those other vehicles – the family sedans and SUV models available with hybrid technology – typically offer more space or power than the Prius. But none achieves its gas mileage, which even at the revised 2008 EPA ratings of 48 in the city and 45 on the highway blows away most cars, even the other hybrids, on the American roadways today. (A word about European cars coming up.)

Toyota is quick to point out that the Prius suffers no shortfall of power as the result of its commitment to the environment. The compact five-seater is powered by a 1.5 liter gas engine that sits side-by-side with an electric motor; the two power the car in combination or on their own as traffic needs dictate. The system is recharged by a rear battery that regenerates power even as you drive, thus capturing the best possible gas mileage, while still providing adequate road power.

toyota_prius_monitor.jpgToyota calls this integration of its gas engine and electric motor Hybrid Synergy Drive. We call it a car that thinks on your behalf. When you don’t need the gas engine, while idling in city traffic or even coasting on the highway, it dismisses itself. The electric motor can be polite too, conserving energy when not needed.

What do car critics think of the Prius? Well, Motor Trend named the second generation model Car of the Year in 2004. But later, Editor Angus MacKenzie wrote that “the Prius is not the car that will save the planet.’’ He pointed out in an editorial that dozens of small European cars get close to, comparable and in some cases better gas mileage than the Prius.