I’VE come a long way with the Toyota Prius – it’s over 13 years since I drove the first production version in 1997 at the time of the Tokyo Motor Show. Back then, Toyota Motor Corporation challenged other manufacturers to contribute their expertise to try and answer the world’s energy and pollution problems. Apart from Honda, which followed soon after with its first two-seater Insight, initially there were no takers. It’s only recently, well over a decade after the first Prius debuted, that others have begun building serious eco vehicles. In that time, Toyota has produced three Prius generations and there’s no doubt the carmaker has led the way in developing sophisticated electronic control systems that have significantly improved vehicle efficiency.
At its launch in 2005, the second generation was the first Prius to reach South Africa. While it retained a parallel-hybrid system – known as Hybrid Synergy Drive – featuring an Atkinson-cycle petrol engine linked by a system of planetary gears and a sophisticated electronic interface to a large electric motor, it was considerably more refined than the original. CAR staffers drove that version extensively, initially strapping our performance equipment to one before driving another for 20 000 km.
Some of the results of the longterm test were controversial: our car produced economy figures that were completely at variance with Toyota’s claims. Instead of being super-economical around town, the car proved average. Yet it returned frugal figures on the open road, when logically the use of the petrol engine and electric motor together for fast cruising should have had the opposite effect. We scratched our heads, but put it down to the tester’s driving style.
With the third generation, the size of the petrol engine was increased to 1,8 litres to improve acceleration and out-of-traffic “cruisability”, while the Hybrid Synergy Drive set-up was fine-tuned and improved, one of the results being a 30-per-cent reduction in the mass of the system’s components.
When our silver Prius 1,8 Exclusive arrived, family members commented it looked less distinctive than the previous car. Certainly, it has the familiar Prius silhouette but, with detailing more in line with the Toyota norm, it stands out less in traffic.
On the power front, the verdict was positive. The engine is more torquey and, although Toyota quotes peak output at the same 4 000 r/min as in the 1,5, it felt a lot more relaxed. The drone resulting from the CVT striving to keep the unit close to the ideal engine speed was still intrusive, but nowhere near the level of the previous model’s. I also found the control systems significantly smoother – I was often unaware of when the drivetrain switched from petrol to electric and vice versa (with the only indication the diagrammatic drive display in the upper section of the bi-level facia).
The cockpit proved immediately comfortable, with the occupants finding the leather seats supportive and rear-seat occupants revelling in the acres of legroom. (The boot, too, is huge, with a useful double floor.)
The biodegradable plastics in the cockpit are presentable rather than high quality, and were easily scuffed. But there was satisfaction to be derived from the fact that they are lightweight and easily recyclable.
The sound system, with handy buttons on the steering wheel, was a dream, and it is easy to store your favourite music on the hard drive. Although it comes with manual seats, the Exclusive model has several luxury features, including an efficient climate-control system, satnav, a reversing camera and a self-parking mode.
From early on, it was notable how the car would influence the driver’s mood, inducing a more delicate touch. You may choose to drive in Power mode, providing more instantaneous response but sacrificing economy, or, for quiet arrivals, there’s EV mode, driving on the battery alone when the state of charge permits. I almost always used the third option, Eco mode, which covers the full range of driving needs smoothly and efficiently.
While on the subject of the brakes: Halfway through our time with the car, Toyota had a recall to adjust the electronic management set-up of the braking system. It took a while to suss out what they were getting at until, at the height of a wet Cape winter, I sensed that the brakes were releasing for a fraction of a second on slippery, bumpy tarmac. The adjustment was attended to in a day and all semblance of a problem disappeared.
From the beginning, we were impressed with the ride quality, even though the plastics creaked and rattled on rough surfaces.
The steering is light, but with acclimati sation I appreciated its accuracy.
Early in its stay, the Prius embarked on a couple of road trips, first up the West Coast from Cape Town to Paternoster and back, and then a longer journey into the Karoo. Both were undertaken at a fast cruise and fuel economy was impressive, matching the 5,3 litres/100 km it had averaged around town. Even though the fuel tank holds only 45 litres, our car regularly managed more than our estimated range (calculated on CAR’s 5,64 litres/100 km fuelindex figure) of 798 km.
The next 8 000 or so kilometres, up until the 15 000 km service, were racked up mainly in urban motoring, the test car sticking doggedly to its 5,3 litres/100 km average. The service was performed at no charge under the car’s eightyears/ 195 000 km service plan, with the total cost on the job sheet showing R821,90. In addition to the normal inspection of the petrol engine, the commutators and bearings of the electric motor were checked.
The whole operation, performed by Market Toyota Culemborg, was a model of efficiency. Making an appointment was easy and we received a friendly SMS reminder the day before. The car was dropped off at 08h30 and ready for collection, washed and vacuumed, by noon.
Soon after, the Prius undertook a cross-country run from the Cape to Gauteng and back. Fast driving and lots of overtaking saw consumption increase to around 6,0 litres/100 km.
Back in the Cape, the Prius had a few weeks on the daily commute before its next longdistance trip, this time to Port Elizabeth. Fewer trucks and almost no road works resulted in the economy average returning to a steady 5,3 litres/100 km.
The few remaining kilometres of the test passed in semi-urban motoring, our final calculation putting consumption at 5,4 litres/100 km.
Having driven all three Prius models, I found the first a revelation, the second a notable improvement and the newest one superb. As a result of the latest refinements, there’s no need to make excuses for its eco attributes; rand-for-rand it’s a match for its more conventional competitors. And I don’t believe there’s any car of this body size and luggage capacity that will achieve the kind of real-world fuel economy and low emissions returned by this car in this particular test.
However, its rivals are queuing up: Honda’s simpler series-hybrid Insight is a serious rival: perhaps not as accomplished, but cheaper (R259 900). Full electrics such as the Nissan Leaf and Optimal Energy Joule could well be on their way, while the French and Germans are punting their eco-diesels. The world may have risen to Toyota’s challenge, but it’s the Prius that showed the way and that head start still counts.