Still a Prius, and yet not really a Prius.
1997 was the year that the Toyota Prius first became a part of our consciousness. With a slightly odd shape and an even odder powertrain, the Prius espoused the virtues of being eco-friendly and carbon-conscious, which made environmentalists all warm inside and regular folk go (enviro)mental. The wedge-shaped oddity soon became the wedge-shaped mainstream, with four generations going by, retaining the tall-rear low(ish)-nose shape, progressively getting bolder and bolder with its design cues while retaining that recognisable shape. So iconic is the shape of the Prius, that even its competitors adopted its profile, and continues to be synonymous with the hybrid.
Available in two trims in our market, the Prius continues to command a strong following, even though leaner, smarter engines have come about, closing the gap between it and regular non-hybrid cars in the outright fuel economy race. However, like the name suggests, the Prius continues to be regarded as the quintessential hybrid, with all others merely following in its wake. Is that necessarily the truth, or is the Prius now an antiquated concept, left behind by better engines and indeed better hybrids?
“This, we're told, is what a re-invented Toyota Prius looks like. Edgier, bolder, more efficient and even "fun to drive.”” - Drive
While the first-generation Prius (which was never officially offered outside of Japan) cut a rather typical three-box saloon shape (think an old Toyota Corolla, and you’re about there), the second-generation model was the one we all got acquainted with. The design details, the little things, were rather plain, especially when compared to the ‘revolutionary’ shape that was designed to cut through the air better than anything else.
The ‘actually plain’ summary cannot be applied to this fourth-generation model, though. Every surface is complex, and everything that should be regular isn’t. The headlights, for example, have so many different curves and lines that you suspect the designers were simply told to not do what has been done before. Even the wedge shape has been fettled, with the roof now tapering off to some degree before the rear. The rear is also an exercise in unconventionality, with rear lights that stretch almost all the way to the lowermost lip of the bumper.
Look beyond the flash, and the all-new Prius continues to retain the philosophy of the original: To be as slippery though the air as humanly possible. While it’s arguably less wedge-ey than its predecessors, the Prius continues to offer all the air resistance of a pebble. What the Prius is is 21st-century flash, backed by 21st-century smarts. And boy does it look smart.
Engine & Drivetrain
“The new Prius delivers incremental improvements in almost every respect. The powertrain is significantly more efficient.” - Motoring
While the Prius looks all-new on the outside, the drivetrain continues to maintain a rather familiar setup. The latest-generation Prius brings with it a denser battery, smaller electric motors with higher power density, and greater thermal efficiency from the engine, all contributing to a 10% average improvement in fuel efficiency over the outgoing car.
A 1.8-litre petrol engine working alongside an electric motor means that the Prius returns a claimed fuel consumption figure of just 3.4L/100km, which is about half of what a contemporary Toyota Corolla would return. The Prius hybrid does the best mileage in town however, where speeds are low and the electric powertrain is maximised. Out on the open road, the heft of the electric gubbins as well as the size of the Prius (it’s by no means a small car) means the relatively small petrol engine works harder, especially on the motorway. The electric motor assists least on motorway cruises, meaning fuel consumption tends to climb to what you’d expect to see out of a regular family saloon car.
“… the Prius’ interior no longer looks and feels like the inside of a kitchen cupboard.” - Motoring
While the exterior of the Prius marks a distinct departure from ‘Prii’ of old (that’s the official Toyota way to refer to more than one Prius, by the way), the cabin is more of an evolution. While previous models felt either on-par with or inferior to contemporaries it shared a showroom with, the latest Prius feels markedly improved in every respect. The cabin features a more visually-pleasing design, while use of plusher, more pliant materials means that the general ambiance of the interior is lifted to heights hitherto unknown to the Prius family, and now features more insulation material to ensure quiet progress.
The dashboard now protrudes more than before, which compromises knee room to some extent, but visual flair and flowing sculpture means the Prius now sits more deservedly as the flagship Toyota hybrid. Everything except the essential controls are now more stylised and futuristic, making the whole thing feel a little more special. Even the steering wheel has been revised to provide more tactility in operation, while the instrument cluster has been thoroughly updated to offer more futurism than previous iterations.
Behind the Wheel
“The Prius is an easy, quiet car to drive around the ‘burbs. You don’t lack for power, although this is no sportscar.” - Practical Motoring
Based on Toyota’s ‘New Global Architecture’ that will go on to underpin more than half of the Toyota passenger vehicle lineup, the Prius promises more in the way of a rewarding drive than previous generations, which by and large drove like soggy dishcloths. The centre of gravity is now 24mm lower than previous generations, along with a lower seating position to make it all feel more ‘connected.’ A lighter, stiffer chassis, paired with an independent double-wishbone rear suspension means that cornering is now dealt with with greater control and finesse.
While power is down somewhat, the drivetrain has been optimised to adapt to your driving style, and so it never feels particularly out of puff. Adjust the drive mode settings and you’ll find the Prius becomes progressively more responsive, while the regenerative brakes (a bugbear against previous iterations of the Prius) have been retooled to provide a more linear, natural sensation. While the Prius is now more grippy and eager, it’s still a little way off the pace of more athletic propositions (including those that aren’t packing the heavy hybrid tech that the Prius hauls with it).
Safety & Technology
“The Australian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) has not tested the Prius.” - WhichCar
A full suite of airbags, a reversing camera, autonomous emergency braking and active cruise control list among the impressive standard safety kit that comes with the Prius. Lane departure warning and ultra-bright daytime-running lights are also on hand, making the Prius a sensible family car contender.
The step up to the Prius i-Tech bags you things like rear cross-traffic alert, and blind spot warning. A digital radio also comes with the i-Tech, along with satellite navigation and larger tyres offering better grip.
At the time of writing, the Toyota Prius remains untested by the Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP).
Though many contenders have come about since the original Prius debuted ever so long ago, Toyota’s hybrid saloon still remains the go-to hybrid for so many around the world. While previous iterations focused on economy and ecology to the detriment of everything else, the latest Prius seems to have the balance set just right, with plenty of creature comforts and visual flair to add appeal to what is still one of the most economical cars on the market to run.
The Prius of today bears little resemblance to the car that started the hybrid trend, and it’s the better for it. Rather than doggedly following the mould it created in the 90s, the Prius sets the pace, and remains one of the best hybrid options for city-dwellers the world over. There exist better options for those who want economy over long-distance driving (a turbodiesel, perhaps), but for urban day-to-day driving, few can hold a candle to the Toyota Prius.
WhichCar - 4.0/5.0 - “The Toyota Prius cuts fuel bills almost in half compared with many other small cars, by teaming a petrol engine with an electric motor. It has distinctive styling, with sharp angles and a sleek silhouette. Effective crash avoidance features enhance a comprehensive safety package. This new Prius feels much better to drive than its predecessor.”
CarsGuide - 4.0/5.0 - “Iconic. What’s not to like?”
Motoring - 73/100- “Hybrid hero returns for round four, leaner and more luxurious than ever.”
Drive - 7.0/10 - “The Prius has been given a new lease of life. It is more competent, more rounded and is a genuine eco-car in its own right, even though it is no longer the ground-breaker it once was.”
Gizmodo Australia - 4.0/5.0 - “If you're buying a car with the intention on mainly driving within the city, then the new Toyota Prius is just about your most efficient choice possible. In stop-start driving, and the kind of commuting that plenty of city-bound Australians do, the Prius acquits itself well when it comes to fuel efficiency, the smoothness of its driving, and the creature comforts inside the cabin. It might not be especially pretty, but it's definitely striking in how distinctive it is — it's absolutely the recognisable Prius shape.”
Practical Motoring - 8.0/10 - “The Prius is now one of many hybrids, including several from Toyota, so it has been re-positioned as the most eco-friendly and technically-advanced car in its segment. And it is, more or less.”