This weekend, I had the pleasure of test-driving a 2005 Toyota Prius.
For those who don't know, this is a hybrid vehicle built from the ground up by Toyota. The engineering that has gone into this car is amazing. It has an internal combustion engine, and 2 electric motor/generators. They are connected to the wheels by an innovative planetary gear arrangement, which is basically simpler than an automatic transmission, yet has all the benefits of a continuously-variable transmission. There are other hybrid vehicles available, but as far as I know this system is the only one that's not really an "electrically-augmented internal combustion vehicle", with the exception of the Honda Insight which is a 2-seater. Toyota will be putting it into their Highlander SUV this summer.
For many more details and pictures, I recommend the web site of a Prius owner.
The strangest thing about this car is getting going. Insert your key fob into a slot on the dash, hold down the brake, and push the power button on the dash. The shift-by-wire control is built into the dash as well, so you simply temporarily move the knob to D for drive, and away you go. After that, everything is surprisingly normal - except it's almost silent until the engine turns on. The gasoline engine turns on and off as engine load or electrical loads demand. The window sticker says 60mpg city and 51mpg highway, and even though you'll probably never see those numbers in real life - I think you'll get 40-50 mpg in city driving no matter what. Oh yes, and emissions are reduced by 90% over a conventional vehicle.
It seems to have plenty of power. Although it's not meant as a performance vehicle, you have no trouble whatsoever merging into freeway traffic, for example. It's also got plenty of room - bigger than a compact car.
Right now as they ramp up production - they can't make enough of these cars. I just happened to get to my dealer when one showed up, and there were people in line behind me to buy it. Even at sticker price from $22K to $26.6K, these are very reasonable cars and look pretty distinctive as well.
I ended up buying a Corolla instead, but not because of any shortcomings of the Prius. It was a choice between the high-end Prius which had a bunch of gadgets I don't need, and a $17K car which would do exactly what I needed. Still, I can't help but believe that my next car will be a hybrid.