Published on Sunday 9 March 2014 16:45
Ten Second Review
Toyota says its Prius isn't just for green crusaders anymore and we'd have to agree. With the introduction of the roomier, better-looking and sweeter-handling third generation car, it looked to be a more convincing alternative to a conventional family hatch. The most recent facelift takes things a stage further with still smarter front-end styling, a stiffer bodyshell, more equipment and improved comfort. As before it brings a hushed dimension to urban motoring while returning 72mpg on the combined cycle and 89g/km emissions.
Toyota isn't always seen as the most dynamic or exciting of car manufacturers. Its products revel in a certain no-frills efficiency, underpinned by the excellence of its engineering and the highest manufacturing standards. That's all great but sometimes a gimmick or two can go a long way, which is what makes the Prius such an important car for Toyota. With its groundbreaking hybrid powertrain, celebrity endorsements and futuristic looks, it's a Toyota people can get a handle on and get excited about. The latest model is tasked with extending its appeal out of the green niche market and into the mainstream. We tried a top spec T-Spirit model to assess its chances.
Sometime back in the 1980s Toyota decided that petrol/electric hybrid cars might be important in the future. It undertook to become a world leader in hybrid powertrain technology, then it pinned back its ears and went for it. Whatever you think about hybrid technology in cars, its long term viability and environmental benefits, Toyota must surely be congratulated for having the courage of its convictions. While other manufacturers lowered tentative toes into the water, the Japanese marque was setting a new world record for the individual medley. The Prius has more hybrid competition these days but it remains a remarkably effective package.
The more you read about the Toyota Prius, the more you appreciate how high tech it is. This is a cutting-edge car in any number of respects but if you forget the thinking behind it and the complexity of its running gear, the opposite impression takes hold. From a driver's perspective it's incredibly simple. You can forget about keys, ignitions, clutches and gears. Get in, hit the power button, prod the jewelled joystick of a gear lever into drive and you're off. It happens in near silent electric mode at first but with the petrol engine joining in when required. In some respects, it feels like the future and for motorists looking for that low level of involvement, it's great. Delve a little deeper, though, and impressions are more mixed.
The petrol engine in this Prius is a 98bhp 1.8 which can generate up to 134bhp with its electric assistant going at full chat. It makes for lively performance on the road and if you did sprint from 0-60mph (hardly the done thing in a Prius), you could get there in 10.5s. Toyota has made the bodyshell of the Prius marginally stiffer by increasing the number of welding spots, as a result of which it's been able to make the suspension slightly softer for a more comfortable ride and the steering column more rigid for better steering feel. That said, the Prius still feels quite a lump if you try to drive swiftly on a twisty road but again, that isn't really the point.
On the motorway, there's a lot of wind and road noise which spoils the calming effect of the beautifully hushed drive system. Visibility is a further bugbear as the split rear screen hinders the view out the back and much of the bonnet is out of sight from the driver's seat. Thankfully, the T Spirit model has a full array of parking assist features. The manoeuvring issue aside, the Prius is in its element around town where the serene and noiseless progress puts you in a good frame of mind to cope with the inevitable traffic chaos.
Design and Build
By now, you should have heard of hybrid cars and be aware that they use a combination of an internal combustion engine and electric motors to get moving. The Prius is a 'series' or 'parallel' Hybrid which gives it the flexibility to run exclusively on electric or petrol power or on any combination of the two. As you might imagine, there's a huge amount of technology at work in the car, making this possible and maximising efficiency but to succeed, the Prius needs to integrate that technology into a user-friendly package. It does a decent job.
The latest facelift is a fairly subtle one comprising a remodeled front bumper - which adds another 20mm to the Prius' overall length - and a larger front grille. The headlights have been given clear lenses and the LED daytime running lights relocated to beneath the indicators in the bumper while the fog lights shift to the lower part of the grille.
Rear legroom is good but the swooping roofline means anyone over six feet tall will struggle for headroom. The battery pack is located under the boot floor and this means that the luggage space available in is quite shallow but there's plenty of length and a 445-litre capacity is far from stingy.
The cabin itself is standard Toyota stuff, very well built but lacking a little sparkle on the design side. At least the neat blue gear lever offers some respite from the muted grained plastics. The wide dash top display screen is another point of interest with its series of graphical representations showing the operation of the hybrid system or various measures of how efficient the Prius is being and has been. The car gets a heads-up display as standard which projects key information onto the inside of the windscreen to avoid the driver's attention being diverted from the road.
The Prius exterior has a little more drama about it these days, the car looking wider and more planted on the road. The classic aerodynamic Prius shape is obviously retained (how else would everyone know you were driving a hybrid?), but the shapely headlight clusters, more pronounced wheelarches and a sharp crease running down the flanks make it more a engaging thing to view.
Market and Model
Prices for the revised third generation Prius begin at around £21,000 for the entry-level model, rising to nearly £25,000 for the top-spec T Spirit model we're looking at here, representing an increase of around £300 over the outgoing range. The car comes fully-loaded with a hard disc satellite navigation system, an on-board music library, a reversing camera, Intelligent Park Assist and automatic wipers. Toyota's Touch central touchscreen is standard on mid-range models while the T-Spirit gets the Toyota Touch and Go Plus, which adds sat-nav, voice recognition and allows you to use Google local search through your phone's 3G connection. The colour choice has been expanded to eight with two new shades - Dark Blue and Cabernet Red. T Spirit drivers also benefit from water-repellent glass, dusk-sensing LED headlights and an electrochromatic rear view mirror.
Cost of Ownership
The headline figures with the latest Toyota Prius are its 72.4mpg combined cycle fuel economy and 89g/km emissions. Unlike a conventional, car the official economy measures show the Prius giving similar returns in town and on the open road as the advanced powertrain adapts to the conditions. Whether you can mimic these figures in real world driving is a different matter but there's no doubt that the Prius is one of the most fuel and tax efficient vehicles around. The car can be set into ECO mode to enhance economy or EV mode which uses electric power only for very short distances at low speeds.
From the manufacturing process to eventual disposal, Toyota has invested heavily in lowering the carbon footprint of the Prius. The car is 85% recyclable and the car itself uses all manner of systems to prevent energy loss. The manufacturer is also extremely proud of its reliability record through the three Prius generations, with very low levels of warranty claims despite the car's complexity.
Toyota's gradual evolution of the Prius hybrid has grown its appeal beyond environmentalists, congestion charge dodgers and publicity-hungry celebrities. In its latest form it's better suited to the needs of mainstream car buyers who aren't necessarily interested in the car as a technological masterpiece or a green icon but want a practical, affordable vehicle. It's a difficult task but the latest third generation version comes very close with its enhanced driving dynamics, roomy cabin and user-friendly design.
All that technology in the Prius is very well integrated and couldn't be much more straightforward to use. The various digital displays can be confusing but they aren't essential to the car's operation and the hushed progress in urban traffic really sets the Prius apart. Crucially, there aren't any major drawbacks to owning a Prius anymore and that more than anything could see Toyota's hybrid revolution gather pace.