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First Oz drive: Prius chases mainstream sales

On the up: The latest Prius makes improvements in areas such as acceleration, emissions, fuel consumption, handling and braking.

Toyota’s clean and green Prius gets serious with a growth spurt and dollar cut

Toyota logo17 Oct 2003

TOYOTA Australia has lowered the retail price, increased features and tailored an optional package to appeal to prestige-car customers with its second generation petrol-electric Prius hybrid car launched this week.

On sale from November 12, the Prius II has been redesigned as a hatchback and will be repositioned to broaden its appeal outside government fleets and private institutions looking to make a statement with their green credentials.

About 475 cars have been sold since the Prius sedan was introduced to Australia in October 2001, 80 per cent of which have gone to government or NGOs and the remainder to well-lined individuals with an environmental bent.

Things are about to change. The recommended retail price will be lowered $3000 to start from $36,990 and an increased sales and marketing push behind Prius II will concentrate on average Australian families and, with an $8100 i-Tech pack, customers who lean towards prestige brands such as Volkswagen, Peugeot and BMW.

"This product is no longer a science experiment but a mainstream car," said Toyota Australia divisional general manager - marketing, Scott Grant.

"We see our success with the next generation product as being able to cross the chasm in terms of moving from the technocrats and the early adopters of technology and (go) more into the mainstream private marketplace." Mr Grant said Prius sales should now more than double to 50 units per month, with an even split between fleet and private customers.

"We don’t think we’ll lose any of our penetration in terms of governments, fleets and so forth but purely through the growth of volume to the private market we expect to get a 50/50 sales mix into the future," he said.

Supporting this quest are Prius II’s pleasing aesthetics, hatchback practicalities, performance improvements and increased specification over the previous generation.

Continuing equipment includes dual airbags, anti-lock brakes and climate control air-conditioning, with new features running to cruise control, traction control, brake assist, stereo-mounted steering controls, a six-speaker stereo, 60/40 split-fold rear seat, push-button start, new storage facilities, automatic headlamps and front foglamps.

The i-Tech package adds satellite navigation, front side airbags, curtain airbags, stability control, keyless entry, a premium six-CD nine-speaker stereo and Bluetooth mobile phone compatibility.

From whichever angle one studies it, Prius remains an expensive proposition for a small car. Yet the latest incarnation makes important improvements in areas such as acceleration, emissions, fuel consumption, handling and braking.

As before, a purpose-built 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine shares propulsion duties with a small electric motor and, among various power-related tasks, drives the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission.

Maximum power with the petrol engine increases 4kW to 57kW at 5000rpm (peak torque remains 115Nm, though at a lower 4000rpm) and electric motor output increases to 50kW (up 17kW) between 1200-1540rpm and 400Nm (up 50Nm) from 0-1200rpm. The motor now operates on up to 500 volts.

Despite kerb weight climbing 45kg, claimed standing-start acceleration times show the Prius II reaching 100km/h in 10.9 seconds (making it 2.5 seconds quicker than the previous model) and crossing the quarter mile in 17.6 seconds, 1.4 seconds earlier than before.

The vehicle is said to meet California’s forthcoming Advanced Technology Partial Zero Emission Vehicle regulations – it spurts out around half the pollutants of a four-cylinder Camry – and fuel consumption drops a claimed 15 per cent to an outstanding 4.4L/100km combined. The car runs on normal unleaded petrol.

The front strut/rear torsion suspension has been revised to improve handling characteristics, 15-inch wheels replace 14s, traction control integrated with the electric motor makes its debut and the elaborate braking system is now electronically controlled.

Interesting innovations include an EV Drive Mode that can propel the vehicle without petrol engine interference. The air-conditioning can also now keep running when the petrol engine shuts down at standstill or when coasting.

The Gen II Prius remains similar to the Corolla in overall dimensions, although like its predecessor has much higher levels of interior room. The fine detail shows increases in all departments – overall length climbs 135mm to 4445mm, the wheelbase 150mm to 2700mm, overall width 30mm to 1725mm and overall height 5mm to 1490mm.

Weight-saving measures to curb the kerb weight include aluminium used on the bonnet, hatch, brake callipers and front and rear bumpers.

The coefficient of drag has been reduced from 0.29 to 0.26Cd, keeping it a step behind the radical Honda Insight coupe (0.25Cd) but nonetheless making the Prius one of the world’s slipperiest production vehicles.

No claims are being made about potential NCAP crash test ratings, although design and structural improvements augur well for the vehicle. Pedestrian protection has also improved.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

LIKE the first generation, Prius II can be driven like a normal car and drivers familiar with, or not phased by, features like a start button and foot-operated park brake should have no problem with the more technical details onboard.

There is more to marvel at this time around, in particular the featherweight gearlever (again including an engine braking setting) on the dash, which requires no more effort than a finger waggle to engage into drive.

There’s also an EV button that prevents the engine from firing and instead allows the electric motor to power the vehicle until it senses a largish throttle opening – or until the batteries run low. Perfect for lovers who need to slink off home in the wee small hours without alerting the neighbours.

The egg-shaped steering wheel is also new, designed this way to provide a clear line of sight to the instrument panel but, as we soon found, proving more beneficial in the additional legroom it creates. The instruments remain in digital form mounted high on the dashboard, although their positioning in the centre-right (as opposed to dead centre) makes them much easier to view at a glance.

Things get a little out of hand on the steering wheel proper, which on the i-Tech version has buttons for climate control on/off, fan speed, front demist, rear demist, air recirculation, stereo volume, channel selector, telephone and some other things we couldn’t quite comprehend in our first drive. Did we mention the cruise control stalk on there as well? The tiller can be altered for height, as can the ultra-soft driver’s seat, however more seat support is needed, the curved rear spoiler impedes vision of traffic following behind (although the extended glass section on the tailgate is a welcome inclusion for parking assistance) and the upmarket version should at least offer leather trim, lumbar support, electric seat movement and a sunroof. The cabin is also in urgent need of softer plastics.

All controls on the revised dashboard are mounted high for simple access and create no operational concerns.

The touch-screen on the centre stack provides large, legible fuel-focussed trip details and information on other important issues such as stereo, climate and sat-nav directions. The one problem here is that direct sunlight renders it almost useless – and also shows up finger marks.

The rear seat compartment still has the full complement of three-point seatbelts and enough room for two adults, or three children, across the rear seat.

This time around a centre-rear head restraint makes it in, two large console-mounted cupholders are provided (indeed, storage and cup placing needs throughout are now exceptional), the 60/40 split-fold rear bench increases load options and three child seat anchorage points are positioned in the ideal position on the rear seatback. Problems? The arched roofline compromises headroom for adults.

The 456-litre luggage compartment has a high floor that limits stacking space and under the floor sits a space-saver spare wheel. Luggage tie-down points, a retractable cargo blind and an under-floor storage area are provided.

A short drive through Canberra also highlighted some other important details, including smarter acceleration than the previous Prius, greater refinement at higher speeds, a little less lean during directional changes and a rather intrusive (non-switchable) traction watchdog.

A comfortable ride, predictable steering, good braking feel and power are still there – and so too, of course, is the excellent fuel consumption. We averaged 5.1L/100km over our urban tour.

The Prius is still no powerhouse but it has never been a burden to drive – and its reduced price, smarter looks, more practical interior and increased equipment make it more appealing than ever.

Enough for the mainstream? That seems incredible. As the media waved goodbye to Prius and plunged into the familiar urban traffic pattern of empty diesel-belching buses and large cars with a solitary passengers, it was easy to conlcude a serious change in attitude was a long distance away.

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