Toyota Prius III 2009 Road Test

Wed, 02 Dec 2009

Anyone who thought ultra-pragmatic Toyota had lost the commercial plot when it started making the petrol/electric Prius hybrid will probably have changed their minds by now.

(By Martin Gurdon)

Whether the cars actually turn a profit is a moot point, but Toyota has sold an awful lot of them (it expects 60,000 to have made European sales in 2009), and the systems the Prius uses are being applied to an ever-expanding range of other Toyota and Lexus models, so chances are that it’s only a matter of time before the company sees a return on its investment.

All this means that when Toyota launched the third generation Prius it was big news. The car has been available here for a little while, but has only recently come our way.

The arguments about how clean its technology really is are well rehearsed, and heated, as anyone looking at this website’s Prius-related blogs will quickly discover, and there are issues about mining the materials that go into its batteries, and what happens to them when they’re scrapped. But in a way all this is background noise, because real people are buying these cars and like what they do.

The new one is designed to build on the model’s acknowledged strengths whilst moving on from the outgoing Prius’s pallid dynamics. Generally, it succeeds.

The aerodynamically efficient five-door, one-box body is all new but a clever evolution of the outgoing car’s shape. Gone is the old model’s mild frumpishness, with lamp clusters and window shapes that have subtly jazzed up the Prius. It’s the same inside. The facia, centrally mounted, digital instrument cluster and especially the centre console, are now all rather rakish. On costlier versions there’s also a ‘head up’ display that reflects what the dash is doing on the bottom right hand corner of the windscreen, and works very well.

Space wise the cabin will comfortably seat five, although the car’s substantial battery pack and control systems mean that the boot is somewhat shallow, although luggage space can be usefully extended by collapsing the rear seat’s backrests. As with much of the car’s detail design, these are simple to use and nicely thought out.

The old Prius had a reputation for being rather joyless to drive. This one isn’t a barrel of laughs, but it’s thoroughly capable, with precise, accurate steering, and decent riding characteristics from a familiar suspension system (torsion beam rear axle and independent MacPherson struts at the front) that allows this car to be punted tidily through tight corners, and rarely becomes flustered, even on poor surfaces. The Prius might not have the dynamic poise of a Ford Focus, but it’s now unobtrusively competent.

You might be surprised that its petrol engine is a hefty 1,800cc four-cylinder job, replacing a 1.5 that sometimes had to work hard for its living. The new motor pulls cleanly and smoothly, and at motorway speeds seems not especially stressed, something critics of the old Prius said was a bit of a weakness.

There are all sorts of clever efficiency aids, from an electric water pump, exhaust gas re-circulating and cooling and solar powered ventilation and air con systems –the latter claimed to be a world first, and again only available on costlier versions of the car.

Performance-wise, the Prius will get to 62 in just over 10 seconds, and is capable of 112mph –the electric motor can manage up to 31mph- and Toyota is claiming a combined mpg of up to 72.4mpg, although our test T Spirit, with its bigger wheels clocks in at 70.6mpg. Real world economy is unlikely to hit these levels, but owners of the outgoing Prius reported near 60mpg returns, and this one should be better. As for emissions, Toyota claims 89g/km of CO2 for the Prius per se, but again, buried in the small print of our car’s press kit was a figure of 92g/km. This is still better than the 99g/km boasted by the stop/start 1.6 litre, diesel-only Ford Focus ECOnetic and VW Golf BlueMotion, but these car are claimed to be marginally more fuel efficient, are both simpler and cheaper, and you can expect them to become ever more efficient.

The Toyota drives like a conventional, two-pedal automatic, and its continuously variable transmission goes about its business in a low-key, jerk-free manner. This applies to the switch from electric to petrol drive, and the engine stop/start system, which is lighter and more compact than before. The car can seamlessly slip from near-silent, electric city trundling, which is thoroughly relaxing, and one of its best features, to petrol power. Likewise steering and brake inputs remain consistent whatever is making the car work.

It’s all clever stuff, that works well, and the system itself has proved tough and long lived, with Prius taxis clocking up very big mileages without anything going awry.

Overall, the latest version represents a big step forward dynamically over its predecessor. It’s rather more stylish than before –although the rear quarter pillars and steep, split-glass tailgate create blind spots- and a perfectly civilised open road companion, although anyone flogging up and down motorways might still think a modern diesel would make more sense, as the Prius would spend much of its time lugging all its clever electric bits rather than using them for motive power.

Around town it works very well, and is a civilised, stress-reducing companion, as well as a bit of a lifestyle statement, but with on road prices starting from £19,090 (our range-topping example with features like Bluetooth and automatic wipers actually cost £22,130), that lifestyle is likely to be pretty well heeled.

For prices, availability, specifications, powertrain details, dimensions, and performance figures please click the tabs.

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