28 July 2016

Review: Toyota Prius

I came prepared not to like this car much, writes Brian Byrne. I didn’t like the design when I first saw at the 2015 Frankfurt Motor Show, nor when I first got to stand beside it on the road. Exaggerated wedge, insectoid lights, low stance. None of it appealed to me.

Still, Toyota were making a design statement, among others, when they launched this fourth generation of their model which had actually changed the automotive world significantly. After 18 years of frumpy looks, originally designed to appeal to the sandalled save the earth people, it was time to leapfrog into the future in style terms.

And there’s no doubt they have done just that with the new Prius. Just as the previous ones couldn’t be mistaken for anything else, neither can this, just in a much more high-tech way that actually better fits the technology for which the nameplate was a ground-breaker.

We should look at that technological heritage and its effects. Toyota launched its first Prius in 1997, the first mass-produced car with a combination of petrol engine and electric motor. The real trick was the engine management system they had developed, which provided seamless transitions and mixes between the two power sources that allowed, under the right conditions, some really interesting fuel consumption figures. Toyota’s faith in the technology was placed in its Lexus brand, with the promise that all future cars under its premium name would be hybrids.

That the company’s engineers and managers had seen the future correctly is demonstrated today by the fact that virtually every carmaker in the world has adopted the hybrid system in one form or another. In particular, the systems are available in mainstream models from many makers, and in Toyota’s case in most of its offerings now. And they sell well.

The new Prius drives in on a heritage of some 3.7m units of its predecessors which have rolled out of showrooms around the world, admittedly the vast bulk of these in the US and Japan. Still, it also became very visible in Europe, and enough in Ireland as to not elicit passing comment any more.

The latest one’s style makes it look smaller than the outgoing car, but it is actually a little longer, a little wider, and a little lower. It is significantly lighter, and more slippery through the air, thanks also to the details underlying the latest styling. So I guess there’s a reason why I’d get around to living with those looks.

I very much got to like living with the interior, which represents a major upshift in perceived quality and in design. Excellent driving position, lots of room front and rear, and a decent boot all make this a very practical day to day family car. But the ambience is also one of the better iterations of futuristic design around, and there was nothing in the instrumentation or the controls that caused me to cringe. It did make me wonder if it’s time to upgrade my phone, because one of the features is a pad on which savvy phones will be recharged without wires.

There were the usual drive options, EV-only up to a certain speed or power demand; eco, standard and sport in hybrid mode. I usually find that these things are best left to sort for themselves.

There’s a more powerful engine in this latest Prius, and a lighter but more powerful battery. So although there’s a very discernible improvement in driving feel, the car is also rated to be significantly more efficient. Toyota’s plan has been to improve by 10pc the economy/emissions with each generation, and while there has always been some contention about how hybrid efficiency is measured, they have apparently achieved that goal each time.

The ride and handling in the latest car are very much improved, thanks to a completely new platform with a lower centre of gravity, and a more sophisticated rear suspension. It is likely this which has garnered most of the appreciation from reviewers which the latest Prius enjoys.

After my time with it, I’m still not gone on the looks, but I’m not as bothered about them as originally either. So, looks like I’ve been won over.

Pricing from €31,450, and they don’t try to build the prices with a long options list. Road tax €180/€190.