It is quite a number of years since I last drove the Toyota Prius – the world’s first mass-produced hybrid.
In those days, it’s seamless mixing of electric motor and internal combustion power was so fascinating I remember asking my wife to drive so I could just watch the graphic display that shows, second-by-second, where power was coming from and going to.
Now, of course, we are all rather more familiar with hybrids. My own most recent experiences have been with Toyota’s luxury marque Lexus and the RX400h and the LS600h. On both of these cars the focus is not purely on economy, it’s more about extracting efficient power and performance while moderating the consumption.
What’s the thinking behind it?
As the original mass-market hybrid, the Prius has carved a niche for itself. Indeed, it has become the standard accessory for the beautiful people of Hollywood who want to parade their green credentials.
But, as with all innovations, the Prius has its detractors, who question the validity of its supposed environmental benefits. Notable among them was BBC’s Top Gear who, in typical fashion, made a good point, but took it too far. (A Prius was never meant to compete head-to-head with a BMW M3 on a race circuit!)
There has also been the turbulent recent history of the recalls. Examining the Prius with these thoughts in my mind, I think I could not find a manual means to select neutral on the move and to kill the engine. I am now told I was not giving it time, Toyota’s UK PR people kindly pointed out that you just have move it to neutral and “hold it a second or two” (to prevent accidental selection). I trust technology, but I also like to have a fail-safe over-ride.
With the latest model basics of the Prius technology remains the same as the earlier model I drove years ago.There are two power units – a conventional petrol 1.8-litre engine and an electric motor. At the back is a large battery pack.
The clever software chooses the appropriate power supply and seamlessly switches from electric to petrol and back again. What’s more, it doesn’t just do this to provide the power to drive the car, it also has the ability to switch on the petrol engine to recharge the battery pack when needed, or to run both motors in tandem for maximum power.
One element of the innovative Prius package that has become common on many new models is the regeneration of energy from braking.
Does it appeal?
As I said in the introduction it certainly appeals to those who want to polish their green image. But the Prius is quite an attractive package in other respects.
The Prius is also a successful blend of avant garde looks to match the technology and neat design. It doesn’t shout about its advanced technology, but it does look sufficiently different that people notice it and remark on it.
Inside, too, it looks subtly futuristic, but sufficiently familiar and conventional not to introduce techno-fear. There’s a floating centre console with a very short stubby at gearchange, which offers the simple options of forward, neutral, reverse and engine braking. The other advanced feature, in this sector of the market at least, is the head-up display that projects your speed onto the windscreen.
Does it go?
All you have to do to get going is press the start button, engage forward or reverse and press the accelerator. Initially it is uncanny not to have to wait for the usual whirr of the engine starting, because you normally move off silently under electric power.
The Prius is pretty quiet at all times and it is hard to tell if the petrol engine in running or not, without looking at the rev counter or the power graphic display. On electric power, of course, that quietness is not just inside the car but also outside. Note to driver – exercise more caution with pedestrians, they may not hear you approach!
If you press the accelerator to demand more acceleration, the Prius will, almost imperceptibly, start up its petrol engine and, if you demand maximum performance, the electric and petrol engines will work in tandem to deliver it.
You can press the EV button (green, of course) on the dashboard if you want to drive the Prius purely in electric vehicle mode.
You wouldn’t expect to Prius to have performance as its main goal. It is not a particularly quick car, but it has ample performance to satisfy the average driver on the average trip. The petrol engine’s power output is 98 bhp. That translates into 10.4 seconds 0-62 mph – a figure that is not so far away from the hot-hatches of ten, or so, years ago.
How green is it?
I shall put the academic arguments about the amount of carbon consumed in transport and manufacturing, plus the alleged use of rare precious metals, to one side. I simply don’t have the knowledge, or information, to express an opinion.
This video is how Toyota present the facts on life cycle impact of the Prius:
What I do know is that it looks very convincing on paper. The combined economy figure for the T Spirit model is an amazing 70.6 mpg. As always, however, these figures have to be taken as a bit theoretical. Replicating that level of economy in real driving conditions is nigh impossible.
The best I achieved over five days with the Prius in a range of driving conditions from town to country, was 55 mpg. Where the Prius really cores over conventional cars is in city driving, where much of the ‘trickling’ in traffic can be done with electric power.
The result of all this is the Prius has CO2 emissions that are so low at 92g/km that the Chancellor of the Exchequer (whoever that may be after the General Election) will hand you your tax disc absolutely free.
However, there are many diesel cars on the roads that will achieve as good, if not better mpg and equal the Prius in terms of earning a no-cost tax disc. The pioneer among them was Volkswagen Polo Bluemotion, which was so economical it encouraged me to write a cheeky headline about the Prius!
But, let’s not forget that to compare the Prius with the Polo is not comparing like-with-like. The Prius offers considerably more accommodation and rather more refinement.
What’s it like drive?
The great thing with the Prius is that you have to make very few concessions for its green credentials.
What it does offer is practical everyday motoring with good performance, road manners and refinement.
True, sports enthusiasts will not be writing eulogies about the handling, or the sharpness of the steering. But, I found the Prius quite at home on the twisty stuff and the only refinement I would have wished for would be some way to downshift into corners. The Prius has no manual hold facility for lower gears.
How easy is it to live with?
Unlike some green cars, such as the two-seater electric Mini, the hybrid technology causes very little compromise in the Prius’s design. It’s a five door hatchback with good space for passengers, both front and rear. Indeed the only thing I noted was the slightly high boot floor (admittedly with a cubby beneath) to allow space for the battery pack.
Visibility is not a Prius strong point. At the front there are rather heavy front pillars, that mean you need to be aware of potential blind spots.
At the rear there is a split rear screen with a metal bar between the upper and lower part of the window. Inevitably that is intrusive into the rear view. The rear screen wiper, in the top part of the window, is also hinged on the left side, which is not ideal for right-hand-drive.
How much does it cost?
Prices for the Toyota Prius start at £19,505 and the T-spirit Hybrid 1.8 VVT-i comes in at £22,610. That puts the basic Prius on a par with the similar mpg Ford Focus Econetic.
When you consider the fact that the Prius comes with two power units and a raft of technology, that price looks quite remarkable.