> Get a video tour of the new Prius

ORLANDO, FLORIDA--The third generation Toyota Prius represents an evolution rather than a radical departure. After a day of driving the car around Orlando, getting stuck in traffic at Sea World and passing high-voltage lines with Mouse ears, it was hard not to be impressed by the many thoughtful touches that make this car an excellent value proposition. At least, it is likely to be—with Honda’s sub-$20,000 Insight hot on its heels, Toyota is likely to hold the line on any price increase.

The high point for many will be the 50 mpg combined fuel economy—in a slightly larger car with more power. According to Chris Risdon, a tech guy from the University of Toyota in California, the car’s wheelbase is exactly the same as the 2004-2009 model, but the car overall slightly longer. Interior space increases by three cubic feet, the rear seat is roomier, and both the cargo area and the under-floor storage are enlarged.

The 1.8-liter engine runs on the fuel-saving Atkinson Cycle, producing 134 horsepower. The current Prius is rated at 46 mpg combined, so the new car has bragging rights. To get better economy, Toyota really bent over backwards: improving aerodynamics (to a .25 coefficient of drag), reducing weight in the engine, battery pack and inverter, and eliminating all belt-driven accessories. (The water pump is now electrically driven, for instance.)

Happily, you don’t need to care about any of this. How does it drive, you’re asking? It’s a Prius, taking 9.8 seconds to 60 mph (it was 10.2). It’s no speed demon, but it cruises comfortably and quietly on the highway and handles well. Visibility is excellent all around, and—important to me—there’s a lot of onboard storage (but why such small door pockets?).  An EV mode allows you to keep the car running on battery power for a mile, eco mode saves gas, and power mode provides oomph for passing.

The new Prius comes in five packages, the most exotic of which offers dynamic radar cruise control, which maintains an even length between you and the driver ahead. As part of that same package, lane keep assist will make minute steering adjustments to keep you in a straight line, and an intelligent parking system will guide you into a space. A truly green feature is a rooftop solar panel, which supplies energy to a fan that cools the interior while you’re away.

Is their anything I didn’t like? Sure, I liked the front-end styling of the old car better. But maybe this one will grow on me. Considering how many Prius cars are on the road—more than 700,000 have been sold here since 2000—I’m likely to be seeing a lot of them. Production of the new car begins in April, and it will be showing up on dealer lots soon after.

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Power to the Prius: For 2010, more power and high-tech touches
Toyota's third-gen hybrid can park itself. A rooftop solar panel keeps the interior cool, and sensors will keep you in line on the highway. And, oh yes, it gets