I’ve tested the Toyota Prius a few times in the past. The Prius was the first modern-day hybrid launched almost 20 years ago, going on sale in 1997 in Japan. This time I am driving the fourth generation model built on a completely new platform named TNGA (Toyota New Generation Architecture).
Of course, the history of hybrid and electric vehicles goes much further back. Indeed, Scottish inventor Robert Anderson produced the first electric carriage in 1832 and a surprising number of electric cars were in use in the early 20th century, particularly in the USA. But, the problem with Robert Anderson’s carriage and the earlier 20th century electric cars was their range.
That was the brilliance of the Prius. It made use of electricity to reduce fuel consumption, but could bring in the conventional engine to boost the power and to recharge the batteries.
While the appearance of earlier Toyota Priuses gave little clue to the cutting-edge technology under the bonnet, this fourth generation model is no shrinking violet.
In recent years, Toyota and its up-market sister company Lexus, have made a very deliberate effort to shake off their past image of bland, forgettable designs. This new Toyota Prius looks much more avant guard, with its deliberate use of, conflicting angles and edges.
Does it look different? Yes it looks very different. Is it exciting? Yes, it looks exciting. Is it beautiful? I’m not sure that would be first thought. Is it graceful? Definitely not. Does it look good? Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
The first thing that raised an eyebrow about the interior of the test car was its white centre console (very unusual in a world attuned to black) and the display strip running across the top of the dashboard. If you are concerned about finding the speedometer in that spread of display panels, don’t. Just like a aircraft, this model has a head-up display.
There is inevitably a little bit of disorientation when you get behind the wheel. If you have driven a Prius before, you will be familiar with the stubby little gear selector poking out of the dashboard. This offers you Neutral, Drive, Reverse and Brake (for engine braking on downhill sections). Park is selected by pressing the P for Park button. There is no provision for selecting gears, either by the selector, or by paddles (more of which later).
Starting up is relatively simple once you accept that this car’s primary market is the USA, where foot-operated parking brakes are commonplace. You simply press the brake pedal and the start button. A green ‘Ready’ message illuminates on the dashboard to tell you the car is, err, umm, ready. You then select D for drive, press the parking brake with your foot to release it and you waft away.
Unless you have ‘power’ mode selected, you stamp on the throttle, or the battery is severely depleted, you will find the Prius trickles forward in almost complete silence. This is electric motoring. Just beware, in this stealth mode, pedestrians may not hear you coming.
You can choose three driving modes ‘power’, ‘normal or ‘eco’. The ‘power’ mode will tend to run both the conventional engine and the electric motor to give a total power potential of 168 bhp. ‘Normal’ chooses the best form of power in the driving situation. So, on light throttles, it will use electric power, but when the driver presses the accelerator hard, it will combine both electric and petrol power units. ‘Eco’, as you can guess, prioritises use of the electric motor to get the highest possible mileage per gallon. Provided the batteries are well charged, you can also press the EV button to run as long as feasible in pure electric mode.
If that all sounds too complex, do not panic. So clever is the Toyota technology that you simply choose your preferred driving style (‘normal’ is a very good setting for most users in most conditions) and the car will do the rest. The system seamlessly juggles electric and petrol power to produce the optimum drive. You will surely note the quietness of electric drive at low throttle openings and might just be able to detect when the petrol power unit kicks in, but it is so smooth it is very hard to hear.
The result is that, once you have overcome any initial techno fear, the Prius is an extremely easy car too drive or to live with.
I think the image of electric vehicles being slow, like the milk floats of yesteryear, has been well and truly consigned to the dustbin by more sporty hybrids in recent years. The Prius has enough performance so satisfy all but the most focussed of performance enthusiasts. This may not be a drive that will provide you with lots of feedback through the steering or the ‘seat of the pants’ but it will prove comfortable and suitably swift.
One downside for the more enthusiastic driver is the lack of any gear holds. You cannot select a lower ratio as I mentioned earlier. That means that the Prius will often, by default, enter a bend in a higher gearing on a trailing throttle, whereas enthusiasts would prefer to be in a lower gear to stabilise the car and also be in the right gear to apply power for the exit.
In terms of practicality, the Prius does a good job of packaging. After all, there has to be space in this car for a second motor and an array of batteries. Yet, there is comfortable space for a full complement of passengers and ample luggage space too.
In terms of practicality there is an issue with rearward visibility. Presumably in the search for the best-possible fuel efficiency through aerodynamics, the rear window is split into two sections – upper and lower – with a small spoiler in the middle. This inevitably compromises the rear visibility, so I was glad of the rear-view camera when manoeuvring.
In the past I admit feeling that the Toyota Prius was a brilliant technical exercise, underlined by the way it set the formula for a new breed of petrol-electric hybrids. But, being a complex motor, it used a lot of resources gathered from various corners of the world.
So, there was always this nagging suspicion that, in total energy and resource use, the Prius was not as ‘green’ as Holywood stars wanted to believe. The last time I drove a Prius, I pointed out that a Golf Bluemotion would, perhaps, be a more environmentally-friendly in the real world.
But, my experience with the fourth generation Toyota Prius has pushed me much closer to being a Prius convert. On a 300-mile trunk road and motorway round trip, we arrived back at base with the fuel economy indicator reading just a shade over 60 mpg. That on a vehicle which was keeping up a quick pace and offered such space and comfort, has to be impressive.
It is a relaxing car to drive, with a reassuring a good feeling of capability. The controls are generally well set up although – perhaps reflecting its focus on American customers – the brakes are maybe a little too powered and not progressive enough.
The test car was also well equipped with a full complement of air bags including knee bag on the driver’s side, tyre pressure warning, blind spot monitor and lane assist. The test car had rear cross traffic alert (an excellent system that warns of traffic from either side, if you are reversing out from a parking place). Other luxuries include the head-up display, leather upholstery, heated from seats, automatic dipping lights, road sign alert, a wireless phone charger (unfortunately it doesn’t work with iPhones) and sat nav. Toyota Prius Excel with Touch and Go Plus
Carbon dioxide emissions: 76 g/km
Combined fuel economy 85.6 mpg
Top speed: 112 mph
0-62: 10.4 secs
Power (engine) 97 bhp
Power (electric motor) 71 bhp
Engine size 1798cc petrol
Boot capacity 502 litres