Having driven and thoroughly enjoyed Honda’s hydrogen-powered FCX and Civic IMA hybrid, I was keen to see what our best-established hybrid, the Toyota Prius, had to offer. Million-Euro prototypes aside, I only had the Civic IMA to equate as a benchmark for what I thought a hybrid car should offer, so here goes…
To the uninitiated, the Prius’ start-up can be a slightly confusing affair. Foot on the brake, mild panic at the consequent muted clonks and whines, stare at a brief ‘just hit the jackpot at Grand West’ light display from the sat-nav and instrument panel, then…not much. It just sits there quietly waiting for you as you strain your hearing against a complete lack of mechanical soundtrack and try to your best not to utter ‘is this thing on?’
Nudge the dinky, facia-mounted gear selector into ‘D’, lift off the brake and the Prius wafts silently into motion. The 50 kW electric motor’s power delivery is so smooth and immediate that its difficult to believe that there’s 400 N.m of torque at play here. I think half the reason I was getting a meagre 4,2-litres/100 km was due to my revelling in the sensation of the Prius’ low speed ‘stealth mode’ in heavy traffic.
It’s only when you bear a little harder on the throttle that the 1,5-litre petrol engine decides to bring its 57 kW to the party. Its entrance is only given away by a slightly gruff engine note and a modicum of vibration through the steering wheel – the only real feeling you get from the otherwise very light and numb drive-by-wire helm. The CVT ‘box is a mixed affair, being smooth but also causing the petrol engine to let loose a tortuous drone on up-hills and motorways. Of course, there’s also that mildly unnerving moment when the ECU cuts the engine when standing still – never fails to raise an eyebrow until you become accustomed to it.
The styling will divide opinion. My other half loved it, whereas I thought that despite its largely inoffensive nature, the car’s stand-alone sheet metal still gave the impression of trying too hard to make a statement. The IMA, on the other hand, looks just like any other Civic and that’s just fine. Think about it, do you have more respect for someone who wears a T-shirt declaring their affinity for recycling, or someone who recycles a mountain of cans but doesn’t advertise it to the world.
The interior is similarly juxtaposed, there is space acres of space in the cabin and the ergonomics are spot-on. However, despite its ease of use, the monitor sports a number of graphical interfaces and readings that tell you how many rain forests your drive to the shops is decimating…both distracting and a bit gimmicky. The IMA’s cabin is standard Honda fare (distinctive but not O.T.T), the space on offer is good, if not Prius-rivalling and the only hint of eco-gimmickry is a little battery/regenerative brake read-out next to the speedo – all you really need.
Toyota may have produced a more environmentally-friendly car in the Prius, but it has missed a trick by apportioning 50 percent of the drive power from the electric motor. This means it’s a pleasure to pilot in heavy traffic and around town, but compromised elsewhere. The IMA also uses a hybrid set up with a CVT gearbox, but the lion’s share of its power comes from the 1,3-litre petrol engine in a 71 kW/15 kW split with the electric motor. With a fuel consumption figure averaging roughly 5-litres/100 km, the IMA is not that much more thirsty than the Prius and is a more capable all-rounder in all driving situations.
Did I enjoy the Prius? Absolutely. Would I recommend it? Not just yet – its hybrid set up is still a bit too compromised to make sense in a car that should be able to travel both around town and on the motorway. A sound idea…just needs a bit more tweaking.
You can read about all the different green motoring technology and other environmentally-friendly cars in CAR Magazine’s September ‘Green Issue’, on sale August 14.