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Car reviews - Toyota - Prius - i-Tech 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Massively improvements, especially dynamics, with significant economy and emissions gains from larger engine, big-car luxury features on i-Tech
Room for improvement
Firm ride, expensive i-Tech, remote steering feel, uninvolving dynamics

5 Nov 2009

IN much the same way that the Mini came to symbolise the 1960s, the Toyota Prius is the car that defines the decade we are about to exit.

With a green heart on its sleeve and a big spring in its upwardly mobile step, the buyer profile – like the Prius itself – has been all about seeing to be – as well as actually – making a difference.

These days even your local council – let alone the Leonardo Di Caprios and Susan Sarandons of this world – are making their own public statement with the little Toyota hybrid.

Whatever it takes to get people thinking about the environment is essential, of course, so good on you Toyota. But it hasn’t really mattered that almost every other car drive better, even many costing half as much.

That’s because the Prius transcends the parameters that normally make or break a car-buying transaction. It is synonymous with hybrids and so that is vital and all others are pretenders.

Now there’s a new one that is an improvement in every single way – except for the price – to make it a much more even car.

However, prices soar by $2500 for the base car and a scarcely believable $6500 over the corresponding i-Tech, as tested here.

So is simply being a Prius enough anymore when you’re spending either Golf GTI or Audi A4 1.8T Multitronic money on one?

With the drivetrain more than 90 per cent new, Toyota certainly does, pointing to massive efficiency gains, new high-tech features, and the utilisation of an aluminium bonnet, hatch and front anti-roll bar, plus super high-strength steel pillar and roof reinforcements, for a stronger overall car.

New sure looks less homely than old, with its Nissan 370Z-style zig-zag headlights, faddish vertical fog-light housings, more pronounced wedge line, and sleeker overall silhouette. It’s the old Golf evolution trick, and it works.

The stylists seem to have been far busier inside, somehow mixing the electronic futurism of the previous models with the straightforward layout of its more conventional Toyota siblings.

What can we say? The old mouse fur velour-like stuff is partly banished (don’t look up though!) for lots of high-tech finishes such as the matt metallic inserts and grainy trim dotted around the place – although the i-Tech’s perforated leather seats look and feel like they’re made from Band Aid material.

Much of the Prius’ distinctive appearance can be attributed to the gentle aerodynamically honed arc of the roofline, and this pays dividends inside, in that entry is easy and front headroom is generous.

On the flipside the coupe-like roofline means rear entry isn’t so good for taller people, whose craniums are likely to be scraping the ceiling when sat on the back seat.

Legroom isn’t bad, though cushion comfort and backrest angle are OK and while ventilation outlets are absent, there is enough space for the Prius to serve as a five-seater short-haul proposition or a sufficiently roomy four-seater for adults.

But we have mixed feelings about the front seats.

Ample adjustment, with plenty of fore and aft legroom, and proper driver’s lumbar support are plus points, as is the reach-and-rake steering column. But the flat seat cushion becomes downright painful within a couple of hours.

Ventilation is excellent, and vision out is mostly sufficient from all angles except for the rear quarter angle.

While reversing is aided by a rear camera and the lower part of the bisected back glass, the horizontal bar is annoying, and the acutely angled upper section has a useless wiper that seems to mostly sweep the roof section.

The scaffolding-style front pillars and low dash add a panoramic feel in forward vision.

The upper section of the fascia continues the Yaris-like binnacle containing a large digital speedo, fuel gauge and gear selector displays, but now adds the famous Prius energy monitoring and consumption diagrams previously housed in the lower touch screen that had climate control, audio and satellite navigation functions.

A novelty is the digital display’s visual replication of the circular buttons found on the steering wheel spokes, appearing over the fuel and economy gauges momentarily when used by the driver – totally unnecessary but all very cool. So is the ovoid steering wheel, which looks like baby Stewie’s head on Family Guy.

The upper display seems busy, but the presentation is successful if a tad overwhelming at first.

That’s all part of the Prius’ traditional brave-new-world appeal. However, take the time to learn what everything is for and all quickly falls into place.

Compared with the old car, the techno-grain finishes are intriguing to look at, while the contrasting hues are easy on the eye. Don’t tap them though: they feel tinny. Lucky this is an eco car, albeit a pricey one.

The middle and lower dash areas are the very model of simplicity, and not least because beneath two conventional volume and tuning knobs are 14 clearly labelled audio and sat-nav buttons.

And below those are the separate climate controls that look like they’re out of every upper-spec Toyota produced over the last 10 years.

Hemming in driver and front passenger, the ‘flying buttress’ centre console slopes down at an oddly high angle, Porsche 928-style, melding into the horizontal lower area.

It’s all a bit jet fighter pilot, especially the natty joystick auto gear selector and push-button power button that brings the dash to life with a few arcade-style beeps and sounds.

But here’s something queer: why does Toyota fit an automatic ‘Park’ button but persist with the archaic foot-operated park brake? It totally jars.

Hiding in the console beneath the driver’s elbow (which rests naturally on a sliding armrest) is a deep bin with a cupholder, an audio auxiliary jack and a power outlet.

Further storage slots include the rather exposed sub-console area (which sees the return of the sole piece of mouse trim), and upper and lower deck gloveboxes.

There are also a couple of places to hide stuff under the cargo floor, which is set a little lower than in previous Priuses probably because the Ni-MH batteries are significantly smaller than before. Total volume is up 30 litres to 445L. Flatten the split/fold rear backrests and you get a useable area to transport bulky items.

There is no spare wheel, though, in the flagship model, just an emergency ‘tire puncture kit’ in the well under the floor. This seems like a fair compromise in a car designed to be as eco as possible.

We applaud the pre-crash safety system that uses millimetre wave radar to alert the driver, provide additional braking assistance and activate the seatbelt pre-tensioners if there is a high possibility of a collision – and we’re sure glad we didn’t have to test that for you!

Left in the warm spring sun, the i-Tech’s solar cell powered auto-ventilation system is another welcome addition, as is the simple radar cruise control (which slows down and then accelerates the Prius from certain speeds).

No qualms about the touch-screen satellite navigation or Bluetooth connectivity systems either, and we like the way the screen tilts up and back for loading and unloading discs.

But the head-up display device seems unnecessary when the main speedometer is also set up high within the driver’s eye line, and we could not get the automatic parking system to work satisfactorily. VW’s version is much better. But, folks, it’s easier to learn how to parallel park a car than master this dodgy system.

It’s not like the disconnected-feeling steering is too heavy or weighty anyway – which segues us nicely to the thing we most had hoped would improve in the latest Prius.

Toyota says improving the ride and handling were priorities for the Prius to appeal to more young people, and in may ways it has succeeded.

Gone is the heavy, lifeless feel of the chassis, where every corner seem to bring on an unwelcome mix of completely feel-free steering, lurching and undisciplined body roll and a hard ride.

Now the steering – though completely and utterly lifeless – at least has consistency and weight, while the front-wheel drive chassis (derived from the current Corolla and RAV4, rather than being a Prius-only item, for reduced building costs) can now handle an enthusiastic turn at much higher speeds. You can even zip around a smooth surface with a flat, poised attitude.

Yes, the stability and traction warnings will bong if you hurry through a 90-degree left or right hander, with the Toyota leaning wider and wider the faster you try, and the whole car still feels far heavier than a medium-sized hatch ought to, but at least there isn’t that crushing deadweight stagger that so defined the old Prius.

The ride, too, has come along in bounds if not leaps, with better rough-road absorbency and far less of that wincing thud over bigger bumps. While you wouldn’t exactly call it supple, the Prius is now happier on far more surfaces.

Performance improves drastically too, thanks to a 300cc larger and more powerful (by 21 per cent), yet more economical (by 11.3 per cent) 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol engine married to an electronic constantly variable transmission (CVT).

On 95 RON premium unleaded it delivers 73kW of power at 5200rpm and 142Nm of torque at 4000rpm (up from 56kW/110Nm), for a total system output of 100kW when you factor in the electric motor and improved nickel-metal hydride battery pack that lives in the floor behind the back-seat area.

Left in Drive and with a gentle throttle, the Prius pulls forward silently up 50km/h and two kilometres in EV (Electric Vehicle) mode, and then the petrol unit kicks in absolutely seamlessly. Floor it from standstill to hit the stated 10.4 second 0-100km/h sprint time and you are burning fossil fuels from the outset.

Unless you press the ‘PWR’ power setting button besides the transmission area, you will likely be disappointed by the Prius lethargy, since that smooth drivetrain seems to take ages to gain momentum. And since you are conscious of not mashing the pedal to preserve our precious resources etc, it is frustrating.

But, as a testament to Toyota’s efforts to make its series-parallel full hybrid system seem completely second nature, the car will bolt forward much like a regular 1.8-litre midsizer when you summon the extra oomph, so at least the Prius III gives you the option of performance or parsimony.

Between EV and PWR there is the ECO middle ground, in which throttle mapping prioritises fuel economy and the air-conditioning is strictly controlled.

World-leading aerodynamics (0.24Cd) help the Prius purr along on the open road, and the i-Tech’s radar cruise control really helped the quiet and relaxed tourer feel at home at the freeway speeds that are traditionally a hybrid’s weak spot.

Frugality also benefits. Over nearly 500km of highway and city driving over one week with the air-conditioning on, two people on board, plenty of peak-hour crawling and some performance testing in ‘PWR’ thrown in, we averaged 4.8L/100km. In other words, we did not try to break any economy records.

Toyota’s 3.9L/100km average claim, therefore, does not seem too fantastical, but it is the amazing 89 grams per kilometre carbon dioxide rating (a 35 per cent fall) that puts the Prius in a class of its own, especially when you also factor in the correspondingly low NOX emissions that rival eco diesels cannot hope to achieve.

Factor in a 50kg or so weight gain and the gutsier yet more tee-totalling Prius III is an impressive piece of engineering.

The latest Toyota hybrid envelops doubters in admiration for what it is now able to do.

No other car is remotely similar in the overall package, and right now no other make or model – including favourites like the Golf or Mini – can touch it for sheer classlessness.

In the past, in previous model Priuses, we could not help but shake our heads at the smugness of some of the drivers who seemed to care more about image than the turgid dynamic reality of what they were piloting.

No more. Price rises and all, the Prius III is a much, much better car, and hopefully that’s a pointer to an improved decade ahead as well.

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