Home » My 2009 Toyota Prius May Be the Pinnacle of Touchscreen Infotainment Technology

My 2009 Toyota Prius May Be the Pinnacle of Touchscreen Infotainment Technology

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I’m tired of the Toyota Prius hate, although maybe I’ve already been paid for that take elsewhere. But, it’s true! If you’ve seen me elsewhere on the internet of things, you’ve probably noticed, that like the rest of The Autopian crew, I have a penchant for buying shitty, unloved (by enthusiasts, an owner, the market, or all of the above) cars. My latest acquisition, a $900 2009 Toyota Prius, turns out to need much less work than I thought to get roadworthy. 

Now that it’s drivable and safe, I’ve been tootling around town in it while I await the Polar Vortex to disperse to get that cigarette-laden “bowling alley smell” out, as a good friend told me. But, the more seat time I’ve got with this car, the more I’ve come to understand: the second-generation Prius was fucking brilliant, especially its touchscreen infotainment system.

Now, I know there’s a considerable aversion to any sort of screen-anything in cars, and I do understand why. When poorly implemented, touchscreen systems can be irritating at best and hazardous at worst. But, yet, it seems like the Prius avoids those critiques, after, like 15 years, the infotainment is arguably a masterclass on how to do the damn thing right. Why?

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Well, for starters, Prius’s head unit is really really responsive. I feel like as we ask infotainment systems to do more and more, there’s a tendency for latency to enter the system. All too many times, I’ve been in any number of press cars, where I’ve quickly been able to ascertain how to navigate the various menus—only for the screen to not react. I poke, prod, and angrily tap like a toddler banging on the side of a saltwater aquarium, as I wait for the system to finally process my request for it to do the thing.

That doesn’t happen with the Prius. The touch areas are accurate and true, and the system nearly never freezes or slows down. It seems like an allegory for the rest of the car: unconventional, but dead reliable.

Although I’m not a fan of HVAC controls being integrated into the touch interface, the Prius gets away with it for a few reasons. Firstly, the sides of the screen have hard keys that instantly take you to the menu. When you’re in the menu, the icons are simple and easy to read. If that’s too hard, well, Toyota’s put redundant hard button controls on the steering wheel.

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It’s all really well-considered. I’m not pawing through menus to find out how to change a radio station or turn the fan on.  

Then, there’s the whole “energy monitor” screen that most Priuses default to. The more I drive the Prius the more I understand why so many hypermilers became the bane of Bush-era streets and freeways; it’s mesmerizing.

See, when the Prius first came out, it was the very first model to use Toyota’s hybrid system, which on its introduction in 2000, would have been driving like a spaceship. In essence, the Toyota Hybrid system omits a transmission, replacing it with a planetary gearset that links two electric motors and the gas engine. In a way, the electric motor sort of acts as low gearing, using its high torque to get the vehicle moving, where then the gas engine can continue forward. The electric motor can assist at different times to give the car a torque boost. It’s pretty simple to parse out now, but back in 2000, that shit was super complicated.

Toyota generously gave drivers the energy monitor, which showed the driver, in real-time, what the hell the electric motor, gas motor, and battery were doing at any point in time. For most drivers, that was some techno mumbo jumbo that had no meaning to how they’d drive the car. Me? I’m built differently.

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That little screen is kind of the key to understanding how to effectively drive the Prius at its best MPGs. The idea is to get the car to operate on electric power as long as possible, allaying the fuel-burning of the gas motor. With the energy monitor screen, that became challenge number one; taking a tip out of the hypermiling book and watching the screen like a hawk, I found a way to accelerate so slowly, that I got up to almost 15 mph on electric power alone. Suddenly, I understood why everyone hated Prius drivers. Whoops.

Now, it’s not perfect. Obviously, this is a 2009 model year of a car introduced in 2003, so it definitely looks old. The graphic design is giving very much, uh, Sega Dreamcast BIOS boot menu vibes. The gradients, flat shapes, and graphic design have made the Prius’s system super-dated. Also, in the age of cellphones, streaming audio, and the removal of the 3.5mm jack, making the auxiliary input work with Apple Music took a not-so-good 3.5mm to Bluetooth device.

But, come on, what can you expect from a car so old? Back in 2003 when the car was released, we still had ringback tones and CDs full of stolen music from Napster. What the hell was streaming audio? I’d imagine that a touchscreen interface made the car look and feel like it had driven out of the future. 

I just wish Toyota took the lessons learned from the Prius’s infotainment and applied them to other places in the lineup. The modern Toyotas I’ve driven don’t have an interface half as intuitive or innovative as the one it gave us in the Prius.

Long live the second-generation Prius.

All photos: Kevin Williams

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29 Responses

  1. Ugh, no. My partner has the same car (same color, prior year) and I passionately hate the touch screen interface. I can’t turn the fan or the temperature up or down or, really, do anything I want to do except lower radio volume without looking at the screen first and figuring out where to touch it. Give me knobs, please.

    OK, I will also confess that until I read the comments I totally forgot or perhaps never really noticed that I can apparently do some of this from the steering wheel controls. I don’t really drive the car often enough, I suppose. My partner loves it to death so she’ll be keeping it forever.

  2. This. Jeep 4xe’s have a similar setup, even going a little farther and giving you actual measurements in KWH of energy output from the engine, electric motors, and usage from the HVAC. Upon regen, you see exactly how many KWH are going back into the battery. I’d come to long hills and think “oh this one’s a banger” as I flutter the throttle just enough to maintain speed while keeping 15-20 kwh going back into the battery. It was so much fun. I NEVER should have sold it!

    More recently, we took in a 255,000 mile Prius for the princely sum of 2,000 american pesos.
    I took it for a spin and I couldn’t believe how nicely set up that center stack and screen were. Totally delightful. I bought it without blinking an eye, and about a year later and somewhere around 265K miles she’s still humming right along!

    1. Even just a basic instantaneous/trip MPG display is super useful and makes me a more efficient driver. In my Alltrack, if I ignore the car’s displays and just drive “normally,” I get about 25-27 mpg on an average trip. If I use the car’s feedback and concentrate on driving smoothly and making sure I’m in the right gear—while driving at totally normal speeds and keeping up with traffic—I get around 31-34 mpg. That kind of difference adds up!

  3. The other great thing about that touchscreen design? The way it integrates into the dash. It’s recessed. That means you’re much more likely to be able to actually see it, instead of having it get washed out by solar glare. It’s always super frustrating when I need to use the touchscreen but I can’t see the damn thing because the sun is reflecting off of it.

  4. I actually hate the Prius (and other hybrids, though the Prius is by far the worst I’ve been in) for a different reason entirely: the hum. Every Prius I’ve ever been in has given me a horrendous headache due, I guess, to the 60-cycle hum given off by the electric motors. It might not be 60-cycle, but that’s the closest thing I can approximate it to, and for whatever reason both my wife and I are super sensitive to it.

    The irony is, I couldn’t give the slightest sh*t about vehicle noise usually. I daily’ed an ‘86 M1008 for over a year with straight pipes and exhaust exiting right under the cab. In fact, most of the old shitbox trucks I’ve had were straight piped, if they had any exhaust at all. But a Prius…oof. Can’t handle that hum. Would love to hear a scientific explanation for this.

    1. Maybe it’s the tires? I hear almost 0 drive train noise. Aux jack and 12 volt accessory jack combo, I get electrical noise on the audio.. aka plug cell in to charge and play via headphone jack aux in.. radio has a slight noise to it. I’ve also heard that noise.. again via the stereo.. when regenerative braking. If I want silent, I turn off the radio.

    2. Not suggesting this is what you are dealing with but my daughter is non-neurotypical. She definitely has a sensory processing disorder which makes sounds others don’t notice or can ignore like light bulbs humming or other things like that very noticeable and often times disturbing.

      1. I know, it’s very odd. I’ve played and built guitars for years so I am roughly familiar with shielding and electric noise as it relates to audio. In a musical capacity, I’m not terribly sensitive to it. But for whatever reason, Prius hum I guess operates At a frequency that bothers me. I don’t think it’s motor noise as I understand that’s variable pitch. The only guess I’d have is maybe poor shielding around the batteries? Perhaps it’s battery noise? Not sure.

        As an aside, I will say that my brother-in-law’s 2019 Highlander Hybrid doesn’t affect me in the slightest. I was pleasantly surprised to not hear the dreaded hum in that car.

  5. I thought the Prius had a CVT as well as the gas engine and electric motor.

    The brilliant part of the touch screen in that generation of Prius is that almost everything can be done through the steering wheel buttons and they are designed to be completely used by touch. Each button is shaped differently and with a little muscle and tactile memory, you can change the audio or the HVAC without looking.

    1. Lots of manufacturers call the Prius’s “power split device” an “eCVT”, but at its core, it isn’t really a CVT with varying gear ratios; it only has one. The “variable” part comes from the ability to introduce electric assist to achieve the torque that you’d normally get from a lower gear ratio. They can feel similar in practice to each other, but an eCVT is a very mechanically robust device, which is likely why you rarely hear of Priuses or any Toyota hybrid having transmission issues.

      There are some really good videos on YouTube that explain how it works.

      https://youtu.be/jofycaXByTc

      1. Toyota actually calls it an eCVT in their literature.

        The power split device does create a continuously variable gear ratio between the engine and the wheels. By varying the current generated by MG1 it varies the rpm of the sun gear and thus the gear reduction between the engine and wheels. Low current, low gear ratio, high engine rpm, larger percentage of engine power flows mechanically. High current, high gear ratio, low engine rpm, larger percentage of power flows electrically between MG1 and MG2.

  6. I wonder if the touchscreen was a hardware versus a software based solution. Old Japanese flip phones were the masters of hardware-based design. Stuff happened instantly and things originally designed in the phones worked wonderfully. Of course, you couldn’t change much because it was all uniquely designed and inflexible. Modern UX design uses more generic hardware, and depending on how cheap you are, how good your programmers are, and what you are aiming for… the displays are update-capable and much more flexible, but at the expense of responsiveness.
    The Prius at that point was very much a technology demonstrator to show Toyota’s tech ability, so I would think the touchscreen was hardware based. For instance, the hot coolant thermos bottle.

  7. Trying to stay in EV in a hybrid Prius is actually counterproductive to getting higher gas mileage. You drain the battery, which has to be recharged with the engine, so there’s an additional energy conversion with associated loss. It’s best to accelerate moderately, but not so hard that it’s drawing down the battery state of charge.

    There’s one guy who hypermiled a Gen 3 hybrid Prius to a 1,000-mile tank of gas. I think a lot of it was doing 20-25 mph in a right-turn only, quiet office complex block, so a very low speed to minimize aerodynamic losses.

  8. Owned an ’06 for 300k miles before my poor maintenance plus slipping water pump killed it.
    Some tips:
    Keep an eye on oil level, starts burning it around 200k.
    Do NOT overfill oil else it gets on MAF sensor.
    When passing or planning to accelerate, back off throttle slightly to let gas engine power car and drop electric engine rpms. Then when hitting gas pedal, the low rpm electric engages at lower rpms providing more torque.
    Connect quality sine wave inverter to 12v for up to 1300 watts aux power for when power is out or for camping.

  9. The Prius has another trick up its sleeve: after a day in London, I’ve determined that a used Gen 2 like Kevin’s is the cheapest vehicle that complies with the city’s Ultra Low Emission Zone scheme. I’m not sure how else to explain the fact that 1 in 3 vehicles here is seemingly a Gen 2 Prius.

  10. If that HVAC screen is “simple” well, I guess I’m just too old. Just give me a temperature knob I don’t have to reach way over or up for, and not a touch button I have to hit many times to get the right temp (and hopefully don’t have to take my gloves off for.

    As for my dislike of the Prius in general, it’s not due to the car itself, as I’ve never been in one. But have spoken with some of the owners, and that’s what’s turned me off. Seems like most of the ones I’ve spoken with didn’t buy it to save gas, they bought it to SAVE THE PLANET, and if you don’t have one YOU’RE DESTROYING THE PLANET. Yikes. That’s why I usually refer to the as the “Pious.”

    I hope that’s far from true from most drivers/owners, but it hasn’t been my personal experience.I did know one owner who didn’t feel that way but he dumped his after a year as too boring and picked up a Fiero.

    1. Just the typical case of “the most annoying owners are the loudest”.

      Not every Prius driver is an insufferable party-pooper, just like not every guy that drives a lifted truck is a Redneck.

      But you see two or three, and the perception is there forever.

    2. ” well, I guess I’m just too old”

      Yes.

      “As for my dislike of the Prius in general, it’s not due to the car itself, as I’ve never been in one. But have spoken with some of the owners, and that’s what’s turned me off”

      But consider that if you bought a Prius, then you would be that one Prius owner who is not ‘Pious’.

      But from what I’ve observed, the ‘Pious Prius’ crowd mostly have moved on to BEVs and the Prius has taken over where the Ford Crown Vic left off as the go-to vehicle for people who drive a lot and need a reliable/durable vehicle with a low TCO. So the Prius has become very popular with taxicab owners and Uber/Lyft drivers in recent years.

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