Car reviews - Toyota - Prius
Chassis, steering, handling, performance, economy, smoothness, ease, cabin space, standard features, practicality, value
Room for improvement
Design, unappealing instrumentation detailing, no rear face-level air vents, obstructed rear-seat access for taller people
18 Jul 2016
Price and equipment
INSIDE the spacious new Toyota Prius, nobody can hear onlookers scream.
With apologies to the writers of the film Alien, the design is that divisive, especially in the base version tested here, with its tiny alloys and those, umm, aesthetically challenging wheel covers.
Of course, on the other hand, styling is subjective, and Toyota ought to be congratulated for not churning out yet another clone-mobile that blends into the crowd. Additionally, since the Prius immediately catches the eye, even from a distance it says something about how much you might care about the planet and the environment. Great for eco cred.
Whatever your view, while the Prius remains an original, those early versions were not driving enthusiasts’ cars by any stretch, due to light but lifeless steering, vague handling, a choppy ride and too much road noise. It truly wasn’t easy being green in this hybrid Toyota.
The fourth-gen version, though, promises something else entirely.
Debuting the box-fresh Toyota New Generation Architecture (TNGA) that will underpin a host of future models including the C-HR small SUV and 2018 Corolla, the latest Prius boasts some impressive stats.
World-beating wind-cheating aerodynamics (0.24Cd), incredible combined average fuel economy for a series parallel hybrid (3.4L/100km), a 60 per cent increase in body torsional rigidity over the Mk3 model, a significantly lower centre of gravity due to a relocation of the battery pack from beneath the boot floor to under the back cushion, and a related boost in boot space to a handy 457 litres. Also helping serve the latter is a shift from a torsion beam to a double wishbone suspension set-up.
Our base version isn’t too shabbily equipped at $34,990 plus on-road costs.
Along with the unattractive alloy wheel covers, the entry variant scores adaptive cruise control with auto braking, autonomous emergency braking, lane-departure warning with a steering wheel intervention, automatic high beams, auto-levelling bi-LED headlights with LED daytime running lights, a reversing camera, seven airbags, emergency brake signal, a head-up display, a 10-speaker audio system, a wireless phone charger and a space-saver spare.
Sat-nav, leather, power/heated seats, and attractive wheels call for the i-Tech, which is a tenner under $43K.
If you look back at the last three Prius dash panels, there’s a recurring theme – centralised digital instruments near the base of the windscreen, with a symmetrical console below. Glassy, airy, and ashamedly futuristic, yet in a familiar and even dated New Millennium Toyota way, it’s come to define the series as surely as that hunched silhouette.
Nothing’s changed for 2016, except the hollow cheapness of the previous two iterations gives way to more appealingly presented trim, in contrasting materials that happily do lift the ambience. We’re still unsure of the Storm Trooper-esque/GM Volt shiny white plastics, but they liven things up inside.
Anyway, this is a cabin that works, save for the aero-driven sloping rear roofline that might snag even average-height adults’ heads as they try to tuck under and inside. That’s ironic, because the Prius has exceptional front legroom, along with more headroom than before, thanks to lower seating. Cushion and backrest comfort is fine in all four outboard positions, though the rear middle is a squeeze.
Additionally, the driving position is first class, aided by a neat auto selector (still with a ‘B’ regenerative energy braking function), sufficient all-round vision (including an ‘80s Honda CRX-style bisected back window), excellent ventilation, heaps of storage and a lovely little steering wheel.
And don’t be intimidated by the plethora of information and displays on offer.
Use the wheel-mounted toggles to scroll through some useful, nearly always interesting, and occasionally daft data and learn the central touchscreen to make the most of the multimedia system. The point is, it’s all multi-configurable and meant to be personalised.
There are some misses among all the hits, however.
Firstly, more than once, we scraped the bottom edge of an opening or closing front door on the footpath. The seat trim is unattractive sheeny stuff that feels slippery and cheap prodding something to raise or lower the audio volume button is fiddly (we prefer a knob) the digital speed readout is set within a fussy pattern that looks like it’s out of a 1986 Corolla Seca and why waste so much console architecture on a wireless phone charger that requires additional hardware for most devices, when a chord and provided USB outlet does the job?Limited headroom aside, the rear seat area is about on a par with most small cars, with provided overhead grab handles, map pockets, and cupholders, but no face-level vents. However, the dash’s outlets – complete with ‘Prius’ branding – can be adjusted to reach back there.
Being a hatch, there is a long, wide, if shallow-ish luggage area, and of course the rear backrest splits and folds to increase that significantly. The cargo blind is of the flimsy retractable type, rather than the noise-cutting cardboard variety.
Note: there’s a vent for the newly repositioned nickel-metal hydride battery pack under the back seat. Be careful not to inadvertently cover that, or the batteries might overheat and so not work as efficiently.
Engine and transmission
So what’s different here then? Toyota uses a heavily revised version of the previous 1.8-litre VVT-i Atkinson cycle petrol engine, with improved combustion, reduced friction, and an exhaust system overhaul, to help improve fuel consumption – surely any Prius’ raison d’être.
And this one did prove to be the most economical we’ve yet experienced, dipping below an indicated 6.0L/100km whilst driven quite hard. Conversely, performance also benefits.
On its own the 1.8 atmo delivers 72kW of power and 142Nm of torque, but that’s academic, because there is an all-new transaxle with two electric motors that are always ready to add to that. Combined with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that isn’t as droney as most unless you’re forever mashing the throttle, outputs jump to 90kW and 163Nm respectively.
The result is tyre-chirping off-the-line acceleration, building consistently in a strong and linear manner up the rev range, to define this Toyota as a surprisingly rapid performer. This is particularly so around town, where the electric motors help provide instant punch for the in and out combat of heavy traffic. The Prius feels born for such conditions.
The Japanese say there’s a 60 per cent increase in pure-electric drive, but that only lasts for a couple of kilometres before the internal combustion engine kicks in. Out in a rural setting, you’re more likely to appreciate the Prius’ slick and hushed aero-enhanced cruising abilities, with the CVT only flaring noticeably when needed for fast overtaking. That there is a decent amount of oomph for that dispels the myth that hybrids only work well around town.
Ride and handling
Here’s where the Prius has really progressed. And further even than we had dared to hope.
The first thing owners of older versions might notice is how much more natural and weighty (in a good way) the steering is. Armed with a quicker rack ratio (13.2:1 or 13.4:1 for the i-Tech compared to 14.6:1 previously), it turns into corners more decisively, feels way more connected, and imparts a solidity and refinement alien to previous series iterations.
Just as impressively, the suspension seems much more grown up in the way it soaks up bumps, isolating the occupants from bad stuff in a way that would never happen before. Driven hard on the same demanding route that some premium European hatches have failed to master, the Toyota handled the test with flying colours, displaying newfound poise and control. The absence of rack rattle, suspension thump, and tyre drone is especially good news.
Some road noise does enter the cabin at highway speeds, but otherwise the quiet and competent Prius points to very promising dynamics in future Toyotas with the same TNGA architecture.
Safety and servicing
No ANCAP rating was available at the time of publication.
The Toyota new-car warranty is three years or 100,000 kilometres, whichever comes first. It is covered by capped-price servicing, at a maximum of $140 per service.
The Prius’ HV (hybrid) battery extended warranty coverage is eight years or 160,000km.
Never mind the styling. Savour the new fourth-gen Prius’ newfound athleticism, with steering, handling, ride and refinement attributes to make it by far the best hybrid Toyota has sold in Australia.
Compared to many Euro turbo-diesels, the Japanese eco warrior also scores highly for running costs and standard features, while not conceding any ground to safety.
The Prius has matured and grown up beautifully – if you can see past the looks.
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