The Toyota Prius is loved and loathed in equal measure. To some, it is a mere gimmick that does as much to harm the environment as it does to protect it. Others believe it represents the future of motoring, boldly forging a path that other cars simply aren't equipped to follow.
Whatever your opinion, it's difficult to deny the Prius has always been a technological tour de force, but has the latest iteration evolved sufficiently to silence the brand's critics? We think so.
Toyota hasn't been sitting on its laurels since the last Prius. Almost every major component inside the 2008, generation II Prius has been overhauled, rejigged or replaced, although in many cases these replacements aren't what you might expect. The 1.5-litre engine from the previous model has been ditched for a larger, more powerful 1.8-litre unit, which delivers 98bhp and 142Nm of torque. You might assume it guzzles more fuel, but its frugal Atkinson cycle combustion process actually uses less petrol -- particularly on the open road where it doesn't need to work as hard as a smaller engine to achieve the same speed.
Toyota has also overhauled its famed Hybrid Synergy Drive system. It now consists of a lighter, more powerful electrical engine, which is capable of driving the vehicle all on its own; working alongside the petrol engine to boost acceleration; or acting as a high-output generator that recovers kinetic energy and charges the battery when braking. Total power is increased by 24 per cent to 134bhp, and it certainly feels it. The new Prius strides from 0-60mph in 10.4 seconds -- half a second quicker than its predecessor. You shouldn't make the mistake of assuming it handles well -- that's not what this car is about -- but under most circumstances, it delivers a driving experience on a par with its non-hybrid rivals.
Toyota has worked magic on the car's emissions and fuel consumption. The company's official figures say the Prius achieves 72.4mpg on a combined cycle, but if driven frugally on flowing roads, you can expect to figures closer to the 100mpg mark. Over a 20km stretch averaging around 70kph, the Prius' onboard computer told us it was using just 3.3 litres of fuel per 100km -- the equivalent of 85mpg. Carbon emissions are just as miserly – the Prius now dumps just 89g/km of CO2. As this is significantly below the 100g/km threshold, the car is exempt from road tax and London's congestion charge.
The latest Prius is 70Kg heavier than its predecessor, and this is largely down to the amount of new technology inside. It sports a brand new head unit with a 7-inch touch-sensitive display that gives access to audio, satellite navigation and vehicle control features. But while the audio portion of the system has potential, it has big flaws. Tracks can be ripped from a CD to a 40Gb hard drive, though 30GB of that is reserved for satellite mapping data.
From those ripped albums, users can create custom playlists spanning tracks from multiple albums. That is a feature we've not seen in any previous in-car audio system, but it's ruined by one one major problem -- the system (in our test car, at least) wasn't capable of recognising proper track names. Every track, regardless of its title on the CD, was labelled as Track 'X', where the 'X' represented its track number on the CD. We're mystified as to why this was the case, particularly as a Gracenote logo was in evidence, normally indicating the head unit is capable of recognising CD track data, but Toyota told us that this is normall. Songs can be renamed manually, but the process is tedious – renaming an entire album, for example, could take upwards of ten minutes.
The Prius is the first commercially-available vehicle with an optional solar roof. Press the A/C button on the keyfob and it'll start an electric fan blowing air through the cabin. According to Toyota, it has the capacity to reduce cabin temperature from 80 to 45 degrees C, while reducing the need to run the petrol-guzzling air conditioning system once you've returned to the car. We're not so convinced. The solar cells only have enough juice to run for three minutes at a time, and even if it could run for longer, we're not sure how blowing hot air into an already baking cabin helps matters. In any case, it's not a feature that is as necessary in the UK as elsewhere in the world. Spend your £1,450 elsewhere.
The 2nd-generation Prius wowed us with its Intelligent Park Assist (IPA) -- a feature that allowed the car to automatically manoeuvre itself into a space, but it's somehow less compelling this time around. The feature comes as standard on the top-end T Spirit model, but is an option in the entry and mid-level T3 and T4 variants (for more details on all these models, see the www.toyota.co.uk). To use it, you simply pull alongside a vehicle, engage reverse gear, and tap to identify your space on the image displayed by the reverse parking camera.
If IPA believes it can fit in your chosen gap, it asks you to gently reduce your brake pressure as it automatically turns the steering wheel to the appropriate positions in order to complete the maneuverer. It's as impressive as it is pointless. Those who are already capable of parking will never use it, and those who struggle with parking are just as likely to struggle with IPA's clumsy interface.
The bottom line
The previous Prius was something of a gimmick -- a car politicians and actors could use to boost their public standing or flatter their own consciences. Whichever way you looked at it, there were plenty of alternative cars that were either more fuel efficient, greener, or both.
The new Prius, however, is the real deal. If driven correctly, its fuel economy remains impressive, and the fact it emits such little CO2 is a stunning achievement. It's also worth noting that despite its eco credentials, it still manages to convey the feeling that it's a proper car -- something the previous model struggled with. Rival manufacturers should take note, Toyota has set the bar high with this one.
Click the thumbnails above to see more pictures from our road test.
Prius 2010 stats
- Model tested: Toyota Prius T Spirit
- Top speed: 112mph
- Acceleration: 0-60mph: 10.4s
- Price: £21,210