The archetypal environmentally-friendly car is aiming to stay that way. June Neary tries it.
Will It Suit Me?
When the Toyota Prius first came on the scene at the turn of the century, the very fact that it was a hybrid car was enough to guarantee it success. If I'm honest, the magic hasn't completely worn off and there's still a sense of anticipation attached to driving a Prius, centred around the fact that it remains one of the most futuristic cars on the road.
Early on, Hollywood celebrities and city dwellers flocked into ownership of this eco-friendly Toyota in order to project the right image to the world at large, but if the car is to really catch on and sell like the Ford Focus or BMW 3 Series does, there will have to be more to it than a rosy public perception. That brings us to this fourth generation model, a hybrid that aims to do more.
The Japanese designers were obviously well aware that to take things to the next level of commercial success, the Prius had to pass muster as an ordinary family car. It was no good relying on the hybrid factor to generate sales: there are, after all, now plenty of petrol/electric models on our roads. So things have changed. Today's Prius still feels ahead of its time but it's also bigger, better looking, more powerful and easier to use. I like the sound of that.
The appearance of a Prius must not only be instantly recognisable but also aggressively futuristic. That is, after all, the whole point of it. Were you to want this technology packaged more conventionally, you'd be looking at one of Toyota's more ordinary models - a Yaris, an Auris or a RAV4. Here, in contrast, is the poster child of the eco revolution, complete with its familiar styling cues - the trademark arching roofline, the slab sides and the double rear screen. Yet somehow, this time round it's different, the concept behind this car reinvented for the modern era by a team of young Japanese designers who set out to make it look more powerful, engaging and sporty.
Time to move inside and investigate a cabin that committed Prius people will find much the same - yet very different. As before, there are no dials to view through the three-spoke steering wheel: instead, the instrument cluster retains its position top and centre on the dash, in this case made up of a couple of 4.2-inch TFT colour screens. The main display closest to you incorporates a digital speed read-out and also shows the colour for the driving mode you've selected - blue for 'ECO', grey for 'Normal' and red for 'Power'. To the left of it, a further 'Multi-Information Display' gives you information about the hybrid system and eco driving guidance, along with multimedia info, climate control settings, a compass and driving assistance alerts.
Anything this can't tell you will probably be dealt with by the 'Toyota Touch 2' media screen that sits a little further down on the centre stack, just below the neatly-branded airvents. 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.
Enough with the various screens: what about the design? The lower bonnet and the deeper windscreen mean that forward visibility is certainly better than in the past. Unfortunately though, the split rear screen still compromises your view out back, so the standard rear view camera is a welcome feature. Otherwise, as usual with a Prius, it all feels very different, with the layered dashboard as ever prioritising distinct control and display zones.
In the rear, headroom is at something of a premium for taller folk. Normally, these seats would have been positioned a little lower to compensate for the swept-back ceiling, but that's not possible with a Prius since they sit right on top of the hybrid system's bulky battery pack. Otherwise though, there isn't very much to grouse about. Legroom at the back is generous and, thanks to the low central transmission tunnel, it's easier to seat three folk than would normally be the case in this size of car. Useful practicalities include provision of a 12v socket, good-sized bottle holders in the doors and sizeable cupholders in this redesigned central armrest.
Finally, I checked out the bootspace. With previous Prius models, the batteries took up cargo room. No longer. They've been redesigned here to be more compact and this, along this MK4 version's revised rear suspension and more compact hybrid system, means that boot space has risen by 56-litres to a 502-litre total, 343-litres of it below the windowline.
Behind the Wheel
Hybrid cars use various combinations of electric motors matched to internal combustion engines to save fuel. The Toyota Prius is one of only a few such vehicles that you can buy today and arguably the most advanced.
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. If you don't particularly like the mechanics of driving, the Prius gets rid of a lot of them.
On the move, you'll notice some changes to the Prius this time round if you happen to be familiar with an earlier model. For a start, you sit lower down and the driving position's more engaging. That promises a more responsive set of drive dynamics - which are duly delivered through the corners thanks to the extra stiffness and lower centre of gravity made possible by this car's new 'TNGA' 'Toyota New Global Architecture' platform. The sharper electric steering rack also helps here, as does the newly-developed double-wishbone rear suspension which is nearly 50% better at soaking up impacts from our country's terrible tarmac.
At first glance, fewer changes have been made to the hybrid powertrain, which still comes mated to a 1.8-litre VVT-i petrol engine. Actually though, that VVT-i unit is very different in this car, now working in partnership with a more responsive CVT auto gearbox. The hybrid technology's been developed too and as part of that, you get a more effective battery and a clever heat recovery system which combine to enable the electric motor to cut in 60% more frequently than it did with the previous generation model. That's a major factor in the creation of the substantially improved efficiency stats this time round - up to 94.1mpg on the combined cycle and 70g/km of CO2, when the car is running on the smaller 15-inch alloy wheels. To get anywhere near to that kind of return of course, you've got to embrace a very environmentally-minded style of driving, activating the provided 'ECO' mode and keeping an eye on the vast array of electronic read-outs provided to discourage any unnecessary flexing of the right foot. It's the Prius way though - and the pay-off comes at the pumps.
Value For Money
Prius pricing starts from just under £24,000 and ranges up to just over £27,000 for a package that's mechanically identical across the range: a five-door bodystyle powered by a 1.8 VVT-i petrol/electric hybrid engine that has to be mated to a CVT automatic gearbox. Toyota also offers a 'Prius+' 7-seat MPV that uses much of the same technology. And a pricier 'Prius Plug-in' version of this standard bodystyle, a variant featuring batteries able to be charged up from a mains supply to considerably increase your all-electric driving range. For that though, you need to think in terms of spending just over £30,000, which is beyond the budget of most typical buyers.
Could I Live With One?
I could live with this Prius. You don't feel like you're making major sacrifices with the car in order to get its hybrid drivetrain and excellent economy. That wasn't the case with previous versions of the car which felt small and sluggish by comparison. The latest design looks good too so all in all, I might have to declare myself ready to join the hybrid sisterhood.