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Car reviews - Toyota - Prius - range

Our Opinion

We like
Sips fuel, very quiet and comfortable, spacious, low ownership costs
Room for improvement
Expensive, less fluid styling than predecessor, still not a sparkling performer, foot-operated park brake

Toyota logo8 Mar 2016

By NEIL DOWLING

THERE are significant financial and time benefits in creating a common vehicle architecture that requires relatively small tweaks to adapt to numerous models.

It’s the new buzzword in saving money but, until recently, seemingly ignored by the world’s biggest vehicle manufacturer.

Now the Toyota New Global Architecture platform appears for the first time in the 2016 Prius and promises, according to the car-maker, to reinstate fun into driving. Toyota quietly admits the previous Prius was not a driver’s car and wasn’t especially responsive.

It says the new one is better. And it is. Better than the old one but still shy of non-hybrid, similarly priced rivals.

The clincher isn’t only the price which, starting at $34,990 plus on-road costs is not cheap against – say – a Volkswagen Golf 92TSI automatic at $24,990.

For those who knew the outgoing model, the new one is sharper, feels more confident on the ride and has a superior level of ride comfort and driving feel.

For newcomers, it’s comfortable but not something you could call a precision car through the corners and it still suffers from an elastic-band accelerator pedal that never truly feels like its talking to the engine.

There are considerable changes under the bonnet but on paper, not much looks different. The 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol engine is an adaptation of the Corolla mill but gets valve and timing altered to become a low-pressure Atkinson Cycle unit renown for economy.

Its power output is a modest 72kW at 5200rpm and 142Nm of torque at 3600rpm, outwardly unchanged from the previous year though containing lots of friction-cheating tricks that are responsible for the lower fuel thirst.

But the electric motor – it has two but really only one contributes to motive force while the other is the generator and starter motor – making for a total system output of 90kW, up from 73kW.

It is sufficient to allow the Prius to travel at up to 105km/h on electric juice alone, depending on available battery power.

The hybrid unit is a comprehensive arrangement with the ability to work as a petrol engine, a petrol-plus-electric powerplant or just an electric motor. The car decides what works best though the driver can override its decision.

Its party trick is the 3.4 litres per 100 kilometres average fuel economy.

However good the Volkswagen Golf may be, it can’t match that.

What makes Toyota talk up the performance and responsiveness is attributed to the more rigid body, a new double-wishbone rear suspension, tuned electric-assist steering assembly and lighter and smaller battery and motor components.

Which surprisingly makes the car 10 kilograms heavier than before. Go figure.

But the fact is the Prius is a more engaging drive than its predecessor. It is the steering that makes the first impression, now with actual feel that creates a relationship between the driver’s hands and the road. The old model was very indistinct in this regard.

Acceleration is a bit more instant, almost void of the blancmange accelerator pedal feel and the confidence-sapping lag between the pedal and the front wheels.

But there is still a softness around the Prius’ perimeter. The ride is comfortable and the controls less vague, but still insulated. It won’t be a problem for city and suburban drivers, in fact it may make the ride even more tranquil. But it will disappoint buyers who want a sporty edge.

There are three driving modes – Eco which is perfect for city and congested roads but awfully anaesthetised Normal, which is about as normal as a Prius gets and the more energetic Sport that has a pleasant kick.

The car is also impressively quiet. Run this through a crowded city – ours was Sydney and few get as crowded as that – and ambient annoyances are well muted.

Road surfaces battered by years of traffic and a poor maintenance schedule were almost ignored by the new suspension and not once did the Prius show signs of letting some nasty road bumps intrude into the cabin.

On the open road, away from the city and suburbs, the freeways allowed the electric motor and the petrol engine to interplay, drawing the best from each when the geography allowed.

It has a tight turning circle for city parking bays and, at 4540mm long – only 60mm longer than the old model – is still compact enough to fit tight spaces and newer home garages.

At the end of the day, through all road types and traffic situations, the Prius returned an average of 5.0L/100km and showed that it had exclusively used the electric motor for 48 per cent of the four-hour drive.

The figures show that the hybrid concept still works. But then it always did.

The problem lies with the Prius’ price. Even the entry level variant, simply called Prius, at $34,990 is an expensive small car – albeit one with a lot of green-edged environmental kudos.

The upmarket i-Tech variant is about $8000 more and that represents a serious commitment to cutting emissions, reducing the fuel load and seeking a peaceful electric-only ride.

But Toyota is committed. The Prius will be followed up in two years with the new-generation Prius C city-car and the seven-seater Prius V. There is a chance the upcoming CH-R SUV may also be offered with a hybrid powerplant, bringing to five the Toyota hybrid offerings in Australia, including the nation’s top-selling Camry version.

Then there are nine hybrid models with the Lexus label and even one on Toyota’s truck division, Hino.

It may be unstoppable.

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