Toyota expands the Prius line-up with seven-seat people carrier

What is it?

The Toyota Prius+ is a new three-row, seven-seat version of the Prius hybrid that is likely to be introduced next June. Buyers of people-carriers, Toyota says, are getting worried about their cars’ economy. Choose something with the seven-seat carrying capacity you need, they complain, and you’ll be stuck with vehicle that consumes more fuel than you can afford.

Defeating this problem is why Toyota plans to introduce the Prius+, and the company recently allowed Autocar an early drive in one.

What’s it like?

The Prius+ draws much from existing hatchback models: suspension, chassis components, hybrid drivetrain and many interior features, for instance. In fact, given its extra row of seats, it feels remarkably like a regular Prius to drive, probably because it is only 135mm longer and keeps the sleek Prius family look.

Even so, Toyota has introduced improvements likely to feed back into existing models. The Prius+ uses more advanced li-ion batteries that weigh less, are little more compact but preserve the EV-only range of about two miles.

The steering ratio is a little quicker, the damping has been re-calibrated, there is an improved exhaust heat recovery system, and a slightly shorter final drive ratio means the Prius+ accelerates like a Prius hatchback even though it is 80kg heavier. The Prius+ also introduces a new anti-dive, anti-pitch system that varies powertrain torque – by a couple of per cent so you don’t feel it – to level the body under brakes or over bad bumps.

Driving the Prius+ is a nice surprise. In EV mode it is expectedly silent, and even with the engine running it has all smoothness and quietness we’ve come to expect. The quicker-acting steering is pleasantly firm, the chassis turn-in is better than the MPV norm, yet the Prius+ feels serene and stable at all times. You never feel the powertrain varying its torque, but the car certainly does ride flat.

Should I buy one?

Toyota can expect success with its Prius+, mostly because few rivals can match its 50mpg-plus. Its main drawback is that the rear seats are too cramped for European-sized adults, but then, cars like this are mostly for kid-carrying anyway. For that purpose, the Prius+ is ideal.

Toyota Prius+

Price: £25,000 (est); Top speed: 106mph; 0-62mph: 11.8sec; Economy: 57.7mpg (combined); CO2: 99g/km; Engine type: 1797cc, 16v, 4cyl petrol + electric motor; Power: 98bhp + 80bhp; Torque: 105lb ft + 152lb ft; EV range: 2 miles; Gearbox: CVT

Steve Cropley

Steve Cropley Autocar
Title: Editor-in-chief

Steve Cropley is the oldest of Autocar’s editorial team, or the most experienced if you want to be polite about it. He joined over 30 years ago, and has driven many cars and interviewed many people in half a century in the business. 

Cropley, who regards himself as the magazine’s “long stop”, has seen many changes since Autocar was a print-only affair, but claims that in such a fast moving environment he has little appetite for looking back. 

He has been surprised and delighted by the generous reception afforded the My Week In Cars podcast he makes with long suffering colleague Matt Prior, and calls it the most enjoyable part of his working week.

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Maxycat 10 December 2011

Re: Toyota Prius+

MrTrilby wrote:
I also wonder whether the emissions legislation for engine emissions only really applies to a fully warmed up engine. Which might not apply to many diesels used on small trips.
Yes it gets very complicated comparing differing car emissions with such variables in temperature and journey type. I have read that diesel engine emissions are far better in cold weather starting than petrol because petrol engines need the fuel supply increased when cold due to the vapour condensing upon the cold engine cylinders and the petrol catalyst does not work until operating temperature is reached. Some diesels have heaters, burning the diesel fuel, to provide cabin heat quicker due to lack of waste heat from a diesel but I do not know which models have them. Webasto make a retrofit version for all cars that you can set on a timer so you can have a warm car and engine ready for your journey, it heats the coolant and pumps it around the engine.

MrTrilby 10 December 2011

Re: Toyota Prius+

I forgot to say that the above explanation is how it works for us after a cold start. If I borrow the car after my wife has returned from work and it's already warm, the experience is quite different. It will run battery only from the off, and only fires up the engine once you use more throttle than the battery can handle or you run the battery too low. In my opinion this is one of the biggest reasons that people don't see the published combined cycle figures for cars such as this or Bluemotions. They're tested with the car preheated to between 25 and 30C, with the heater and A/C off, and driven very gently. In reality, the car has sat on the drive overnight at 5C, and most normal people expect to use the heater (which delays warm up) or the A/C (which saps significant power). I also wonder whether the emissions legislation for engine emissions only really applies to a fully warmed up engine. Which might not apply to many diesels used on small trips.

If the EU adopted a more realistic test, manufacturers might be compelled to focus a bit more on improving the impact of the A/C and heater. Although to be fair, the heat recovery system of the mk3 Prius clearly does make a big difference so I might be being a little unfair.

MrTrilby 10 December 2011

Re: Toyota Prius+

Maxycat wrote:
Can you enlighten us as to how your Prius uses its battery and engine on your 6 mile regular trips?

If you want the full geeky explanation of how the Prius runs from cold, this is as good an explanation as any:

In practice for us, what happens is: pulling away on the drive the engine fires either after around 10s, or almost immediately that you touch the throttle if the weather is very cold and you have a screen heater on. By the time we get to the bottom of the drive the engine is always running. We then have around half a mile of 40MPH limit road before hitting a T junction. With a gentle throttle application, it will run in battery only mode for around half that distance before switching to the engine. With a more aggressive throttle input it will rev the engine up and use that too.

At the T junction in summer, whilst waiting for a gap in the traffic the engine normally hits a temperature it is happy with and shuts off. It doesn't in the winter, presumably because the coolant was colder to start with, and the cabin heater is also sucking what heat it can. We then have around 3 miles of 50MPH limit road during which the engine runs pretty much constantly. After about 3 minutes from switch on, the displays are showing "normalish" fuel economy and by the time we get to the end of the 3 miles, the battery will be fully recharged.

Where we go from there is either a choice of a 1 mileish 60MPH single carriageway, or 30MPH stop start town driving. In the winter our mk2 Prius would run the engine pretty much continuously even on the 30MPH section. The mk3's heat recovery is massively better and it will switch to using the battery a lot pretty much straight away from this point. What fuel economy you see depends on how heavy the traffic is. Obviously if we go the 60MPH section it runs in parallel hybrid mode with the engine running - the rest of the trip is slower 40MPH roads where it will accelerate on the engine and then coast along at 40MPH using the battery. Our mk3 Prius seems to warm up much more quickly than the mk2, and is able to use its battery much more aggressively, much sooner.

Maxycat wrote:
Does it use battery only on a cold morning at any time or must the engine run?
If you only need to do a very small trip, like manoeuvre on the drive, pressing the 'EV' button before the engine fires up will prevent the engine firing up, unless you try accelerating moderately hard or run the battery too low.
Maxycat wrote:
If you drive gently on battery only does the heater work in battery only mode?
I think the mk2 had an electric heater to assist warm up, but I very much doubt that it worked off the battery - if I recall on both the mk1 and mk2, the amount of current that the battery can supply is the limiting factor, and there wouldn't be any spare to run both the electric motor and a heater (I think the electric motor can handle more current than the battery alone can supply). If the coolant is already warm, then the Prius has a couple of tricks to keep the cabin warm when running on battery - I think it switches the footwell vents to recirculate and reduces how hard it tries to heat or cool the air. Particularly if it's set to "Eco" mode.