Gareth Butterfield thinks Toyota has finally hit the sweet spot with the excellent new Prius hybrid
BELIEVE it or not, the Toyota Prius will be celebrating its 20th anniversary next year. Toyota’s awkward-looking hybrid car was the first mass-produced vehicle to run on electricity and petrol and, quite unexpectedly, it was an instant success.
It became the darling of the eco-conscious set, it was snapped up by image-conscious celebrities and the taxi industry bought thousands of them.
The turn of the millennium heralded a boom time for the Prius, particularly in America and Japan and, by 2008, one million people had bought one.
Over the years they’ve evolved into increasingly bold and futuristic bodyshells, but the concept behind the technology has remained broadly the same.
In short a small, economical petrol engine sits where you’d expect to find it, under the bonnet, while an electric motor sits alongside it and a large bank of batteries is buried beneath the cabin.
This has been a winning formula for Toyota, and the setup has since been carried over into most of the models in the range. Even the luxury arm, Lexus, uses a very similar layout for its own hybrids.
But while the Prius certainly doesn’t have the hybrid market to itself any more, it does still dominate sales. In terms of the public’s perception, a Prius is to the hybrid car sector what a Hoover is to the domestic vaccuum market. It’s a brand synonymous with economic driving.
And the newest version has moved the game on even further. With each fresh incarnation of the Prius we’ve seen Toyota stick its neck over the eco-car parapet a little further. And just look at the latest Prius. It’s styling is dramatic, ostentatious and purposeful. It looks like someone’s been at it with an axe.
All these angles open up room for controversy and, personally, I’m not sure all of them work. There are perspectives from which you can look at the newcomer and see it as a very pretty car but most of the angles are just daring and a bit mad. Overall it’s just a bit too much.
Inside it’s a bit less mad. It’s still as futuristic as you’d expect a Prius to be, but there’s now a big white kitchen appliance-like centre console with very few buttons dominating the middle of the cabin. It grows on you quickly, I promise.
In fact, it becomes very easy to like the minute you sit down. Despite the unconventional layout the seats are exceptionally comfortable and everything comes easily to hand. It’s a great interior.
Importantly, much of the futuristic nonsense is there for a reason. The slashes on the exterior have some aerodynamic merits and the interior feels well built, functional and spacious.
In fact, the latest Prius sits on an entirely new platform. So it’s not just a facelift, this is a completely new Prius with new technology, improved parts and a whole new setup.
And it shows. It drives better than any of its predecessors and somehow feels less heavy and cumbersome. It’s far from dainty, but this is by far the best-handling Prius yet.
There’s still a continuously variable transmission-type gearbox and that puts paid to any hopes of a sporty experience, but it honestly does drive very well and picks up speed very swiftly.
Of course, the electric motor takes much of the strain under light load – so pulling away from a parking space or bimbling through a town centre is a very silent affair. And, when the engine does cut in, it’s very quiet and unobtrusive as long as it’s not worked too hard.
More so than any other Prius that has gone before it this one feels exceptionally well made. Even the brakes have a well-engineered feel to them and haven’t got the annoying propensity to “grab” as can often be the case with hybrids, which use braking energy to charge the batteries.
The touch-screen infotainment system is good, there’s plenty of standard equipment and visibility is good too.
But not only is it better to drive and nice to sit in, the fourth generation Prius is also cleaner and more efficient than ever before. Improvements have been made with every generation, but this one brings CO2 emissions down to just 70g/km. And that’s really impressive.
You’d also expect its fuel consumption to be impressive. Every previous Prius has performed well in the real world and, while you might not expect it to live up to the claims of nearly 100mpg, in practice 70mpg is within reach and you’d actually have to try pretty hard to drop this below 50mpg. It does do what is say on the tin. Fewer hybrids than you might expect can pull off this level of efficiency with such ease.
Of course, it’s still something of a fish out of water on the motorway and efficiency will suffer accordingly. And while the CVT gearbox is less of a burden on this car thanks to its meatier engine, it’s still the wrong way to handle forward propulsion.
But there’s a lot to sell the Prius. It’s no longer just a vanity purchase for those who like people to think they care about the environment. It’s now a credible model in its own right offering plenty of reasons to shell out a minimum of just over £23,000.
Let’s make no bones about it, it’s the best Prius yet. And the really good news is that much of the technology bolted to the new platform will find its way onto other Prius variants and other hybrid Toyotas. That means there’s a very bright future for the Midlands-based firm’s next generation of designs.
I just hope the Prius’s many spin-offs and siblings don’t inherit its insane looks. Because barring the only-its-mother-could-love-it exterior, it’s a genuinely excellent car.