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The Toyota Prius is an easy and very visible route to greenness, even if its reputation as the minicab of choice for UK drivers is now impossible to shake off

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Toyota began work in 1994 on what became the first Toyota Toyota Prius. That car appeared in 1997 — an odd-looking device with a 1.5-litre engine, a 100bhp hybrid powertrain and 120g/km CO2 emissions.

Europeans could buy the new Toyota from 2000, but not many did. The second Toyota Prius, revealed in 2003, has proved much more popular thanks to a touch of science fiction about its styling and better power units (112bhp, 104g/km). Unlike the first one, it has even made money for Toyota.

The Toyota Prius is a very visible route to greenness

The shape of the latest Toyota Prius isn’t dissimilar to the previous model but it’s actually an all-new car, with a more powerful 1.8-litre engine, more efficient electric propulsion and CO2 down to just 
89g/km in its greenest form.

No other family car of this size produces less of the greenhouse gas, continuing, for now, the Prius’s iconic green status. It’s an easy and very visible route to greenness: a futuristic-looking hybrid with a near-evangelical following among those who would demonstrate their environmental concern. Hollywood celebrities apparently love it. It’s the closest thing to an anti-car car while still doing the things a car should do.

There are just three different trim levels using the same power source. The recent addition of the Toyota Prius Plug-In has enhanced the real-world practicality of the Prius, offering more power and an extended overall range. New battery technology also allows for a greater EV-only range.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Toyota hybrid badging

The Toyota Prius is aimed not just at eco-literate pioneers or even early adopters of new technology, but also at mainstream buyers with open minds. So says Toyota, which is why the Prius mixes conventional and radical styling. Its case is helped by the way many recent hatchbacks have adopted a more Prius-like shape, 
partly to look modern and partly to meet crash test legislation. Honda’s Insight has more than a hint of Prius to its lines, while even Nissan’s Leaf has adopted the tearshape profile that’s become synonymous with these eco-friendly cars.

Visually, the Prius is not quite the pioneer it used to be, although the optional photo-voltaic glass roof adds some sci-fi. It helps power the air-con but was absent from the test car on account of the 17in wheels we used for our review.

Base 15-inch wheels get an ugly plastic hubcap, which is odd since the magensium wheel beneath is handsome

Even so, the Prius is still a roomy five-door hatchback with a very streamlined shape and it occupies a size of class one notch above that of the cheaper Honda Insight, its closest conceptual rival. 

At the back, tail-lights are vast, vertical, clear-lensed edifices with fashionable chrome fins and detailing inside. A separate, slender rear window sits under the rear spoiler, just like it did in Honda’s original CRX, and a spoiler helps towards a remarkable 0.25 Cd.

Seventeen-inch alloys are standard on top-spec T Spirit, wearing 
215/45 R17 tyres. The base car has 15in wheels with ugly five-spoke plastic covers — strange, as the magnesium wheel beneath is handsome.

Of course, where the fundamental design of the Prius changes is with the Plug-In variant. While the tandem hybrid system is identical and the 1.8-litre engine is carried over, the EV aspect of the Plug-In is suitably advanced from the standard Prius. The nickel-metal hydride batteries are now lithium-ion, which offer more energy density, swifter recharging times and, most importantly, an increased all-electric range. Toyota claims an EV range of 15.5 miles at up to 51mph, a significant increase from the regular Prius electric range of 1.2 miles at up to 31mph. A full recharge of the batteries in a Prius Plug-In takes 90 minutes.

INTERIOR

Toyota Prius dashboard

Forget normal notions of luxury here in the Toyota Prius. Even the top-spec car has padding-free plastics and a cheap, felted headlining, although you can have leather-trimmed seats. But it somehow doesn’t matter, because the plastics are of very high quality and their textures are interestingly ‘technical’ rather than pretending to be leather grain.

This decor suits the Prius’s futurism well. So does the cabin architecture, centred around an almost concept-car dashboard, with pale green displays: digital speedometer and everything you need to know about the Hybrid Synergy Drive’s activities. This console forms the top surface of a flying 
buttress between the slideable centre armrest cum storage box and the sweep of the main fascia.

Even the top-spec car has padding-free plastics and a cheap, felted headlining

A slender, horizontal, louvred space between the two houses the air vents, and a voluminous pair of gloveboves sits to the left. Below the buttress is a storage tray, which is rather more capacious than the tiny door pockets.

Contained in the centre console is a touch-screen control panel for stereo, sat-nav and a plethora of Prius parameters, plus the air-con controls. Below these is the tiny transmission selector and three buttons to select Eco, Power and EV (electric vehicle) modes. To their right are buttons for the head-up display on high spec models.

The front seats are very comfortable, but even top models lack electric movement apart from lumbar adjustment. Rear leg room is better than in many big saloons and head room is adequate despite the sloping roofline. The rear seats’ backrests flop forward to make a load bay continuous with the high boot floor, below which is a hidden tray on top of the spare wheel. 

The audio system sounds impressive, but the deep bass can be overpowering. You can control some of the stereo’s settings from a steering wheel button cluster, another one of which controls the upper display screen’s information.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

1.8-litre Toyota Prius petrol engine

Entry to the Toyota Prius requires no key. Nor, of course, does starting – not that a Prius fires up in the conventional sense. Instead, the display screen comes to life, you hear a few distant whirrs and a ‘Ready’ light appears. Then you put the selector in Drive (it springs straight back to the middle), release the foot-operated parking brake (surprisingly low-tech), press the accelerator and off you go, almost silently. 

Battery charge and gentleness of accelerator foot permitting, the Prius will run in electric-only mode at up to 31mph. Then the petrol engine discreetly joins in. Its start-up is near-silent because there’s no conventional starter, and you are in a world where what you do with the throttle and what you hear from the engine are only loosely connected. The 0-60mph time is 10.9sec, and motorway cruising is relaxed. 

What you do with the throttle and what you hear from the engine are only loosely connected

All the while, you have a choice of ghostly green graphics to hold your interest. There’s an energy flow diagram showing, in a side view with rotating wheels, what is charging or being driven by what. Or you can select bar graphs showing fuel consumption and energy regenerated.

The Prius Plug-In delivers a similar driving experience. The extra 36kg of batteries make it seem sluggish from a standstill and the car will of course run on electricity for longer than usual. But the engine is integrated to provide more power just as seamlessly and it can run with faster traffic with ease. The claimed 0-62mph time is half a second slower than standard, at 11.4secs.

Finally, there’s a scale that shows your instant energy use or recovery. You can see on this scale the results of selecting Power mode (sharper response, higher engine revs), Economy mode (the opposite) or EV (watch the battery’s bar graph fall).

The transmission selector also has a ‘B’ (for Braking) mode that increases the amount of regenerative braking. The brakes themselves are soft underfoot and hard to feather smoothly, but the transition from regenerative braking to using the discs is undetectable at the pedal.

RIDE & HANDLING

Toyota Prius rear cornering

Toyota's top-spec Prius T Spirit has 17in wheels as standard instead of the 15in ones fitted to base models. These are heavier, and were they to be combined with 28kg of solar roof, the Prius would be tipped into a higher weight category and thus need expensive rehomologation. That’s why you can have a solar roof only on the base T3.

So, fat wheels and a lower centre of gravity help the T4 and T Spirit, as does a much quicker steering rack, with 2.8 turns lock to lock instead of 3.7. The result is cars with very different dynamic characters, but the Prius has a remarkably quiet, controlled and supple ride even on 17in wheels.

At first it’s not obvious where to insert a CD, such is the close fit of the central display screen. (It powers open to reveal the CD slot.)

It also has plenty of grip and the steering has a precision and proportionality of effort not always found in an electric system. There’s not a whole load of dynamic feedback through the wheel, but that’s not what this car is about.

However, we were surprised at the tidy, well balanced handling, but don’t expect more than the merest hint of throttle adjustability in a bend. It’s not in this car’s nature.

The bigger wheels of the T Spirit also makes the ride a little more fidgety, especially at slower speeds. Even on 15in wheels, this isn’t a soft-riding car – there’s plenty of movement to the secondary ride, while larger bumps will make you glad the car is screwed together so well.

A vertical glass panel below the main tailgate window makes manoeuvring easier, and the T Spirit has a camera to aid reversing (accompanied by an incessant beep).

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Toyota Prius

The pragmatic reason to buy a Toyota Prius is to save money, through free road tax and a lack of London congestion charge, as well as its fuel economy potential. It makes good sense as a company car, too, with low benefit-in-kind tax and a 100 percent capital allowance write-down in the first year.

Running costs are a mixed bag, though. Yes, you’ll make substantial tax savings each year and strong demand for used cars means impressive resale values.

We found the Prius more economical at a steady 80mph than 60mph

But although real-world economy is impressive in its own right, with 56.4mpg over our touring route and 47.5mpg overall, you’ll do well to match the ‘official’ average – forums are rife with tales of owners unable to get anywhere near those figures.

The Prius Plug-In should address these concerns to some extent. With an EV range of 15.5 miles, it is entirely possible a low-mileage user could go days without using any petrol, recharging the batteries only. With no electric range remaining, Toyota claims 78.5mpg and 84g/km as the petrol engine is used. Our experience suggests more than 60mpg should be achievable on long runs.

However, the Plug-In is also the most expensive Prius to buy outright, and it's hardly an affordable car to begin with. It carries a near £8000 premium over the T-Spirit at £32,895. Regardless of its improved range and efficiency, that makes the Plug-In an expensive car.

With the 17in wheels comes a marginally higher CO2 score, but that currently has no bearing on the tax or congestion charge issue and a microscopic effect to fuel economy. 

Maintenance costs are low, with no drive belts to replace thanks to an electric water pump, built-in generator and chain-driven camshafts. Toyota says the hybrid components, which have their own five-year/60,000-mile guarantee, have so far accounted for just 1.3 per cent of the Prius line’s warranty costs, and the battery pack should last for at least 10 years. 

The Prius is also a consistent high performer in customer satisfaction surveys. That’s due as much to dealers’ professionalism as the reliability of the car itself.

The only significant black mark is against the Prius's high purchase price relative to its mainstream hatchback rivals. However, those strong residual values go some way to offsetting this.

VERDICT

4 star Toyota Prius

What the Toyota Prius sets out to do, it does it very well. The idea of such a hybrid was always attractive in a pure, technical way, and for those wanting to make an environmental point that was enough. Now, though, the idea has been developed to the point where the latest Prius can be bought and used by anyone, after a little acclimatisation to its residual strangeness, and no one need to suffer for the greenness.

There are other hybrids but, at the affordable end of the market, only the likes of the Peugeot 3008 Hybrid4, Vauxhall Ampera and Chevrolet Volt compete for sophistication. The Honda Insight tries, but largely fails.

Head-up display shows speedo, hybrid drive status and sat-nav info. It’s more of a distraction than an aid

However, the biggest challenge to the Prius doesn’t necessarily come from all-electric cars like the Nissan Leaf and other hybrids, but ‘normal’ cars offering decent power and low emissions. Meanwhile, diesel cars continue to cut emissions rapidly.

That notwithstanding, the Prius is now a desirable machine in its own right, and it has answers to almost all the questions its long-standing critics can throw at it.

Toyota Prius 2009-2015 First drives