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Toyota Prius review (2009 onwards)
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What – Toyota PriusWhere – Stockholm, SwedenDate – June 2009Price – from £18,370Available – August Key rivals – Honda Insight, Mercedes A150 BlueEfficiency, Ford Focus Econetic, SEAT Leon Ecomotive, VW Golf Bluemotion
Third generation Prius's 72mpg and 89g/km finally make good on the green claims of Toyota's advanced hybrid drivetrain and aspirations to eco warrior status
We like – Really delivers on economy figures, brilliantly integrated technology, refined drivetrain, zero-emissions driving, clever displays, Toyota reliability, running costs We don’t like – Looks, plasticky interior, no fun to drive, wind noise and tyre roar, limited electric-only range, pricey, self-righteous owners
Arguably one of the most significant - and divisive - cars of recent times, this is the third generation of Toyota's Prius petrol-electric hybrid. Introduced in Japan 12 years ago and in the UK since 2000, the Prius has captured the headlines and seen itself championed by the eco brigade as the answer to our green driving needs.Others beg to differ, claiming Toyota has successfully played the figures and scored a marketing coup in allowing people to think the Prius is greener than it really is. Bandwagon-leaping celebrities and politicians have only served to polarise the debate further but sales of the existing Prius continue to grow, despite its impending replacement.
People clearly want the Prius and to believe in its green credentials. Or, failing that, pocket the generous tax incentives and other money-saving bonuses like exemption from the London congestion charge. Winning over the cynics is going to be a whole lot easier with this new version too, the headline 72.4mpg and 89g/km CO2 genuinely significant. An evolution of the existing Prius with added iQ-inspired design sparkle, the similarity to Honda's Insight is apparently down to aerodynamic necessity. The technology underneath is very different though, Honda's simpler hybrid drivetrain contributing to a near three grand saving over the Prius, which with a starting price held at £18,370 remains a pricey choice.
In simple terms there are two types of hybrid. Parallel, or 'mild' systems like Honda's simply boost the conventional petrol engine with an integrated electric motor. Series hybrids meanwhile rely entirely on electric power, the petrol engine reduced to the role of an onboard generator. But Toyota's much vaunted Hybrid Synergy Drive can work as both.The unique, computer controlled Power Split Device transmission enables the Prius - and related Lexus hybrids - to work under petrol or electric power or a combination of the two. Charged by the engine and under braking, the battery can power the Prius as an electric vehicle up to 30mph and for just over a mile.
For this third-generation car the Toyota engineers have refined the Hybrid Synergy Drive to make it lighter, more powerful and more efficient. 90% of the hybrid system's components are new and there's a bigger 1.8-litre Atkinson-cycle petrol engine. Combined power output has increased by nearly a quarter and the drivetrain weighs 25kg less.Nominally the combined power output of 136hp beats the Honda Insight's 102hp but the constantly varying division of petrol and electric output makes direct comparisons difficult. Working much like the CVT gearbox in the Insight, harsh acceleration results in little more than a screaming engine and that unpleasant slipping clutch sensation found on all such transmissions.
Ride and handling
The Prius maybe dazzlingly clever technically but it's never delivered a driving experience you could describe as fun. Don't expect any change with this third-gen car either. Let's start with the positives though. The ride is decent, though lacking body control, and the drivetrain commendably smooth. And it's very easy to drive, especially in traffic.Pull away gently and under electric power only the Prius moves off in near-silence, which can be a little disconcerting at first. Demand more and the petrol engine will fire up too, the dash scolding you for overwhelming the 'electric vehicle' EV mode with your 'excessive' speed and acceleration.
A common criticism of hybrids is that the extra weight of the battery and other gubbins blunts the handling. But at around 1,400kg (depending on spec) the Prius is no heavier than a diesel Focus. You wouldn't credit that having driven it though, the dynamics resolutely stodgy and inert.And though the varying power of the two different powerplants is very well integrated when slowing down the balance between regenerative force in the drivetrain and conventional brakes can feel a little odd. Toyota has managed this better than Honda though. In summary though the Prius trades eco cred for driving pleasure, whichever way you cut it.
From the standard-fit head up display projecting speed and nav info onto the windscreen to the clever way the touchpads on the steering wheel appear as 3D overlays on the central display when pressed, the Prius cabin is full of futuristic flourishes. And though less playful than Honda's Tamagotchi-style tree icons there's plenty of info to help you drive efficiently.Given that half of Priuses sold are expected to be £21,210 T Spirit spec some might be disappointed at the amount of cheap feeling plastic. But accommodation is fine for four adults, the Prius a significant 150mm longer in wheelbase than the Insight. The 445-litre boot sounds generous but the load area is disappointingly shallow.
Economy and safety
Toyota takes safety very seriously these days, all its models fully stocked with all the airbags and electronic safety nets you could ever wish for. In the Prius you get seven airbags as standard (including a driver's knee bag), active anti-whiplash headrests and fully integrated Electronic Brake Control (EBC), brake assist and VSC+ stability control.So what about those green claims? A common criticism of the current Prius is that it's near-impossible to match the official 65.7mpg in normal driving conditions and that out of the city the advantages of the hybrid drivetrain disappear compared with more conventional diesel or petrol engines. The new Prius takes the fight back though.
Even on fast country roads and driven with no particular regard for economy we scored nearly 60mpg. But on an 11-mile economy run on a variety of roads - urban, suburban and motorway - we managed a staggering 88mpg. And a huge tailback in our wake as we trundled along, eyes fixed on the mpg gauge... Further efficiency boosting measures include remote controlled air con and a solar-powered ventilation fan to cool the car on hot days before you get in, so you don't have to waste energy by running the air con on full power. Electric Vehicle, Power and Eco driving modes are also offered, the latter improving fuel consumption by up to 15%.
The Prius isn't going to save the planet, no matter how impressive the mpg and CO2 scores. Or how passionately its advocates argue its case. But Toyota has addressed many of the common criticisms levelled at hybrids. It's still no fun to drive but the Prius moves the game on with a dazzling mastery of high technology.
Need to know Engine - petrol1.8-litre four-cylinder, plus electric motorEngine - dieselN/APower (hp)136 (combined petrol-electric)Torque (lb ft)105 (petrol engine only)0-62mph (secs)10.4Top speed (mph)112Economy (mpg)72.4CO2/Tax89g/km/0%
Rating - Toyota Prius Performance**Ride and handling**Interior***Safety*****Price***Practicality***Fuel economy*****MSN Cars verdict****
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