17.6.2009 Toyota Prius Mk3 review
Forget the arguments about which hybrid was first to market, the best-seller by far is the Toyota Prius and, in its latest iteration, Iain Robertson still believes that it is the best of the bunch.
Upward spiralling fuel costs (in case you had not noticed) and the economic crash have focused motorists’ attention on green issues like never before. Even the car scrappage scheme, of which quite a lot of our on-screen readers have taken advantage, has had the effect of directing buyers towards smaller, greener models. While I have not been alone in championing the development of hybrid car technology, for the first time since the arrival of the first UK hybrid, the Honda Insight coupe (an example of which I ran satisfyingly as a long-term test car for almost a year), I am now certain that car buyers are now largely aware of, and have accepted the benefits of, petrol-electric technology.
Toyota has now put on sale its long-awaited replacement for its best-selling hybrid, the third or ‘next’ generation Prius. The new model retains the name and advances the technology, paving the way for more intriguing developments in the not too distant future. I shall not apologise for being a hybrid (and Prius) fan. It has been my contention for the past few years that some form of electric drive would be perfect for town (no noise, no pollution), while a moderately punchy petrol engine, aided by the extra torque of an electric power unit, would satisfy open road users. Hybrid technology achieves that aim.
It is a bit like cooking with soy sauce – the hybrid element extends the available range of possibilities. While the outgoing model was perfectly okay, the new version resolves a few of the original’s issues and widens the profile somewhat. For a start, its electric-only range has been extended significantly and overall efficiency of the lean-burn petrol engine has also been improved.
Now using the Atkinson Cycle, which enables all four elements of a conventional four-stroke engine – intake, compression, power and exhaust – to take place within one turn of the crankshaft, rather than two, fuel economy is enhanced significantly. In truth, this is more like a Miller-type engine and is actually technology that dates back to 1882 and the dawn of the motorcar. However, the benefits in reducing exhaust emissions are substantial. As a result, the 1.8-litre Prius unit features a nominal compression ratio of 13.0:1, while its power output is a moderate 98bhp, which allied to the 80bhp of the electric motor (the actual combined figure is 134bhp) results in a 0-60mph acceleration time of just over 10.0 seconds, the car sailing on to a top speed of 112mph.
Although there is now a larger alloy wheel option, raising the diameter from 15-inches to 17-inches, this is more for aesthetic than practical reasons, as the Official Combined fuel economy figure does take a dip from 72.4mpg to 70.6mpg, when the bigger wheels are specified. If you are unsatisfied by such ‘losses’, then stick with the less pretty option. However, a similar story exists for the CO2 figures, which work out at 89g/km on 15s, while the larger wheels return 92g/km. Mind you, it is such a negligible difference and, as all versions qualify for both zero VED (tax disc) and zero Congestion Charge, most owners will scarcely notice in any case, if you want your Prius to look better, go for the bigger option!
Driving the car on a good mix of roads in Sweden, I can tell you that the handling has been crisped-up somewhat and, rather than the tippy-toe impression provided by the previous Prius, the new car does feel far more secure on-road than before. The turn-in for corners is sharper and more balanced, a factor that is helped by the markedly better weight distribution around the car. Although still tied to the Nickel-Metal Hydride type of battery packs (Toyota feels that alternatives are still not viable from either safety or durability aspects), reduced dimensions and greater capacity do result, which go some way towards explaining the slightly longer mileage potential in EV (Electric Vehicle) mode.
The new Prius operates in EV mode (using just the electric motor) when pulling away and at speeds of less than 44mph, with the petrol engine only kicking in under acceleration. Drivers can now also select the EV mode for distances of up to 1.2 miles at low speeds when there is sufficient charge. Two new modes, ECO and Power, also allow drivers to choose the acceleration response, either to benefit fuel economy or increase the car’s response with the effect of draining fuel resources more quickly.
Interior space has never been an issue in the Prius and it still offers seats for up to five people, with a large and easily accessible boot. Comfort levels are good and the innumerable electric features, such as the air-con system (with an optional pre-cool device that uses sensors built into the roof to cool a hot interior in a parked Prius) and power steering, neither of which require the petrol engine to drive their respective pumps, somehow seem much more integrated than before. A large ‘touch-screen’ screen that doubles as the stereo, sat-nav and live engine status read-outs, provides plenty of information for the driver and occupants.
Overall, while Toyota has not (yet) managed to extend the EV mode to enable a thirty mile commute that a plug-in class of hybrid would provide, the feeling of driver smugness that arrives with the car remains undiminished! While more developments of the Prius and its battery technology are likely to take place in the near future, with this latest generation hybrid, Toyota’s place as the hybrid market-leader remains secure. All the more so as the new Prius comes in at the same starting price as the outgoing model.
Model tested: Toyota Prius hybrid
Body-styles: 5-door hatchback
Engines: 11.8 (Ph4)
Trim grades: T3, T4, T-Spirit
Prices: from £18,370
In the showroom: Now for 1st August launch
Review star rating: 5+ STARS
Warranty: Three years, 60,000 miles
Iain Robertson © Next Green Car.com 2009
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