Regardless of its tenuous association with “ecoconscious” Hollywood stars and the nasal braying of naysayers pointing out the irony of the Yeti-sized carbon footprint involved in importing it to our shores, you simply cannot help but admire the staying power of the Toyota Prius. When the fi rst version arrived in 1997, there was a collective snort of derision from many in the motoring sphere, and understandably so; 12 years ago, stringent emission laws were little more than whispered rumours during the launch of the latest V8 SUV and the Prius was viewed as a glimpse of fl awed futurity doomed to failure… Fast forward to 2009 and, while gasguzzling SUVs and their ilk are dropping like Doom-seasoned mozzies, the Prius undergoes its third incarnation as an even greener, more frugal, form of mass transport.
A cursory glance at the new car suggests that little has changed on the outside. The new Prius retains that wedgeshaped silhouette with its curved roofl ine, deep fl anks, stacked brake light clusters and split rear glass that made the previous model so recognisable. The nose has adopted more familial traits, such as the horizontal grille with its badge-bearing protuberance and more sweeping headlamps with neat cut-out sections at their apexes. The 15-inch alloy wheels do look a little lost in the arches, especially given the way in which the rest of the car has been massaged to look larger and more imposing than before.
However, it’s fair to say that the latest Prius manages to look suitably sci-fi , yet more conventionally acceptable in its appearance. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the cabin. As with the previous car, the interior is vast – this is one of the few cars our tallest testers are genuinely able to do the sit-behind-yourself test without knees grazing the backrest of the driver’s seat.
The dramatic sweep of the facia, with its floating centre console and the array of buttons thereon, is actually very userfriendly. Well-marked buttons fl ank the climate control and satnav modules, while the stubby gearlever, which has now moved to a more conventional position, sports a neat silvered gate and translucent blue gear knob.
The new car’s tiered display still flashes the odd incongruous light upon selecting a pre-set propulsion mode and the ‘Touchtracer’ steering wheel mounted display/audio control buttons are a bit gimmicky, but the more subtle treatment of the drivetrain efficiency read-outs and clear heads-up display projected onto the windshield are far less distracting than the full-colour graphics that ran through the previous car’s infotainment screen.
A sliver of chrome bisecting the facia and central air vents, and neat ovoid steering wheel lift the ambience of what is otherwise quite a grey cabin. Still, the leather-clad front seats are comfortable and easily adjustable, and the quality of fit and finish is good.
The really clever stuff happens beneath the Pruis’ smooth-skinned exterior, where Toyota engineers have managed to tweak the company’s Hybrid Synergy Drive propulsion system to include a larger petrol engine and more powerful electric motor that return even greater fuel effi ciency than before.
The previous car’s 1,5-litre petrol engine has made way for a 1,8-litre 16-valve Atkinson cycle unit with variable valve timing that develops 73 kW at 5 200 r/min and 142 N.m of torque at 4 000 r/min. Adopting a larger engine may sound counter- productive, but Toyota claims that this powerplant offers improved torque and refinement at higher revs, as well as greater effi ciency at the long-distance cruising speeds often dictated by road travel in this country.
This works in conjunction with a permanent magnet synchronous electric motor developing 60 kW and 207 N.m of torque, as well as a 42 kW generator that doubles as a starter motor and helps to charge the 27 kW nickel-metalhydride battery upon which the Pruis’ electric drive components are hinged. The hybrid transaxle, which plays host to the shift-bywire CVT transmission, electric motor and generator, is some 20 kg lighter than before and has been designed to cut energy losses and transmission noise by 20 per cent.
The basic workings of this complex system entail the Prius being propelled by the electric motor at speeds below 50 km/h with the petrol engine lending its muscle as under harder acceleration or increasing speed. The ECU then apportions power between these two sources whilst overseeing such technologies as regenerative braking, which recuperates kinetic energy from braking – and when coasting – and channels it back to the battery pack. Listing the clever technical touches that Toyota has employed in the new Prius would take forever and a day, but aerodynamic aids such as air-diffusing zig-zag structures in the wheel arches, a smooth underbody with downforce- inducing fi ns and 90 per cent of the vehicle’s components being re-hewn from lighter, more robust materials (including plantbased eco-plastics for many interior appointments) go to show that even the smallest aspects of this car are executed with
efficiency in mind.
It’s all very innovative stuff, but how do these changes translate into the new car’s driving characteristics? Having driven the previous Prius, it has to be said that the appealing quirks of hybrid driving have re-emerged largely intact in the new car, but there’s a feeling that everything has been honed in order to address some of its shortcomings.
The Prius has always majored in near-silent running when running in EV mode, but in the previous car the lack of engine noise brought a number of muted clonks and whirs from the electric motor and transmission into the cabin. The new car is bereft of these aural accompaniments and simply wafts into motion with little more than a slight starship- like whine from the nose. The electric motor’s power delivery is so smooth that it’s diffi cult to believe that there’s 207 N.m of instant torque at play here.
It’s only when you bear a little harder on the throttle that the petrol engine decides to bring its power to the party. Its entrance is only given away by a slight thrum from the front and a hint of vibration through the steering wheel – the only real feeling you get from the otherwise very light and insulated drive-by-wire helm. The brakes are strong and don’t quite possess the slightly grainy feel that the last car’s system had – probably a symptom of their dual role as anchors and means of topping up the battery – although a glimpse at the battery charge display bar when pressing the pedal reminds you just how hard they have to work.
The CVT ‘box is a mixed affair, being silky-smooth in its execution but also causing the petrol engine to let loose a somewhat pained drone on uphill sections and hard acceleration. It’s not as vocal or quite as gutless as the 1,5-litre unit in the previous car, but being an Atkinson cycle unit it sacrifi ces a lot of its low-down grunt (where the electric motor comes into its own) in favour of more frugal operation at higher speed. Prodding the ‘Power’ button increases the throttle response and provides a little bit more urge, but it accentuates the petrol engine’s rather thrashy nature. Once you’ve reached your desired speed, however, there are few cars that can match the serene manner in which the Prius effortlessly cruises along. And it’s cruising and low-speed pottering with which this car feels most comfortable.
Although the new Prius feels light yet substantial most of the time, hurry it into a corner and that hugely absorbent and comfortable suspension suddenly feels rather wan and reluctant to reel the in the car’s lateral inertia. The light, rather artificial, feel of the steering also conspires against any hard cornering but the Prius simply isn’t about slaloming through back roads – just relax as it gently floats you from A to B.
Summing up the new Prius, it’s fair to say that Toyota has done an admirable job of smoothing out the previous models rough edges whilst retaining the unique qualities of its most recognisable hybrid car. At R370 700 for the well-equipped Exclusive specifi – cation model tested here, it’s not cheap but there’s nothing to directly rival this car except the new Honda Insight, which has not yet reached the South African market. It feels more honed, yet still offers such amiable quirks as its magic carpet low-speed driving characteristics and that mildly unnerving moment when the ECU quietly cuts the engine when standing still.
Obviously, those seeking white knuckle thrills will do better to look elsewhere, but for those who appreciate comfort, refi nement, low fuel bills and emissions, as well as something with a touch of off-the-wall charm about it, the Prius pretty much fits the bill. One bystander asked if this car is as “cool” as its predecessor; a difficult question to field, especially given this car’s more polished overall execution. The sensible answer would have to be yes… Until Ashton Kutcher orders his.