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Electric Car Guide
Model/Engine size: T Spirit / 1.8 litre
Fuel: Petrol plus electric motor
Fuel consumption combined: 70.6 mpg
Green Car Guide rating: 9/10
The new, third generation Toyota Prius hybrid has even lower emissions than the previous car - either 89 or 92g/km CO2 depending on the model - but the key question has to be, is it any better to drive?
Ask the average motorist to name a green car, and the chances are that they'll probably come up with the Prius. This is testament to the huge success that the Prius has been in marketing terms for Toyota. However the second generation model was still seen as slightly quirky rather than mainstream.
Toyota is hoping that the third generation version irons out the areas of weakness in the previous model. Green Car Guide has always celebrated the fact that the Prius has been the most efficient car in its class by a huge margin - however it fell short of other rivals when it came down to the driving experience, so we were hoping that this area in particular would be addressed with the new model. We've driven the new Prius before, but we wanted more time with it.
Let's start with the basic concept. If Toyota's marketing has worked, it's expected that most people will know that the Prius is a hybrid car. This means it has a petrol engine, plus an electric motor powered by a battery. The petrol engine propels the car most of the time. However at low speeds and low engine loads the electric motor alone can be used to power the car. This means zero emissions.
Then there is the situation where the petrol engine can draw on the electric motor to add extra power, such as when accelerating, so the petrol engine and motor both work together. This results in a total of 134bhp being available - compared to just 98bhp from the petrol engine alone.
When decelerating, the car has regenerative braking, so any energy that would normally be wasted is instead captured and put back into the battery.
This concept is no different to the previous, second generation Prius. However the whole system has been optimised, resulting in considerably improved efficiencies.
Interestingly, just at the time when many other manufacturers are 'downsizing' their engines, the new Prius - the green car icon remember - actually gains a larger engine. The old 1.5 litre petrol unit is replaced with a 1.8 litre engine. This addresses one of the shortcomings of the old car - the lack of power at higher speeds. However as well as resulting in more power, it also results in better economy. Surprised? Well the smaller engine had to be worked too hard at higher speeds, and the economy suffered as a result. The new engine can spin at lower revs on long runs and so is more efficient - Toyota claims this makes it 10% more economical at motorway speeds.
The battery and electric motor technology has also been improved, meaning that the car can use this source of power for more of the time.
Not only has the drivetrain technology been optimised, but so too have the aerodynamics. The third generation Prius boasts a drag coefficient of just 0.25. This means that the more efficient engine has less work to do, as the revised bodyshell passes through the air even more cleanly.
These improved efficiencies can result in an amazing 72.4mpg, and emissions of just 89g/km CO2. These really are incredible figures for a car of this size - after all it's a large five-seater hatchback with a good-sized boot. However there are slight variations depending on the model you choose. The larger 17-inch alloy wheels and tyres, as on the top-spec T Spirit models, reduce fuel consumption to 70.6mpg and increase emissions to 92g/km CO2. According to the official figures, the combined and urban mpg are both exactly the same with either model (thanks to the hybrid system).
It also looks good. Although the styling is very much evolutionary rather than revolutionary, it does look more sculptured, and it has a wider stance, especially when specified with the 17-inch alloy wheels on the top-of-the-range models (as fitted to our test car). The base model gets 15-inch wheels with wheel covers, which makes the wheels look very weedy - like a manufacturer's typical 'eco-special'.
You also end up with the 15-inch wheels if you specify solar panels on the top-spec car (the solar-powered sunroof powers the air con while the car is parked, but it also adds to the weight). It seems strange that if you want a top-spec car, Toyota makes you drive round with wheels that look as though you have the lowest spec car.
So the burning question - is the new Prius any better to drive? Thankfully the answer is yes. A key factor why the new car is better to drive is the fact that, in addition to the larger engine, it now has three drive settings. Eco mode is what drivers are supposed to use. This manages the engine so that under normal driving it accelerates slowly - but economically.
However there is now a Power mode. This results in a considerable change in the responsiveness of the car. The Prius now accelerates like an eager hatchback - helped of course by its new, larger engine. For everyday driving, this will be the mode that enables you to safely accelerate out of junctions and overtake other cars. However the economy will suffer - on our test, the fuel consumption dropped from 60mpg+ in Eco mode to mid-40's in Power mode.
There is also EV mode. This means that the car is powered solely by its electric motor, meaning zero emissions, and virtual silence. However the battery needs to be well-charged to enable you to select this mode, and although Toyota claims a 2km range at speeds of up to 31mph on electric power only, we feel it is unlikely that most owners would achieve this in real-life - we certainly didn't.
Of course if you want a Prius you have no choice but to also have its CVT transmission (Toyota is calling it an automatic). If you don't like changing gear, you'll probably like CVT transmission, but it's not to everyone's tastes. When accelerating in the old car you were often left with a feeling of high revs, lots of noise, and no improved progress. This is still the case to a certain extent with the new car, especially if you're trying to get somewhere in a hurry, however overall it now seems to transmit the power more directly.
In addition to giving the third generation Prius the power it needs, Toyota has also been busy improving the steering and suspension. It's still not a precise car around corners but the steering has better weight and the car feels less wallowy. It's still a fair way off having the driving dynamics of class-leaders in this area such as the Ford Focus.
One strange weakness is that although the car is certainly very comfortable on motorways, it doesn't feel particularly stable at high speeds. And of course the Prius is front-wheel drive, which again may not be to everyone's liking.
If you've never driven a Prius before then on your first encounter with the interior you'll find it very high-tech. The entire dashboard is very different from the average hatchback. For second generation Prius owners who loved the detailed miles-per-gallon readouts and graphical history of their economical driving, together with the ability to view which bit of the drivetrain was doing what at any particular time, the new car can do all that. But the information has moved smaller and in a slightly different format in a high-level display which replaces the central screen found in the previous model, and it's not the clearest information to read. The central screen remains but is reserved for other information such as that of the SatNav.
All models now also have a head-up display - a digital readout projected onto the windscreen in front of you showing your speed (you can switch it off if you find it distracting). In fact this is the only instrument that appears in front of the driver - you have to take your eyes away from straight ahead to look at the 'busy' instruments, and we're not great fans of this layout.
We're also not keen on the handbrake that sits to the left of the brake pedal and which is operated by your foot - especially in conjunction with neutral being difficult to pin down on the gear selector.
The gear selector still features the 'B' setting - for engine-Braking - this is a position into which you have to physically move the gear lever to provide some drag to slow the car when going downhill in order to avoid the car's tendency to 'coast'.
The quality of the interior is good, perhaps with the exception of the two glove compartment covers, which feel rather cheap. The driving position also feels like it could be improved, as the steering wheel always feels a bit big and too close for comfort.
If we described all the technology of this car it's likely that you'd be asleep well before we'd finished. However it's worthy of mention that Toyota has persisted with 'old-fashioned' nickel metal hydride battery technology rather than adopt the newer lithium-ion cells as the company believes that the old technology is more reliable.
In fact the previous generation Prius has proved to be very reliable overall and has come out on top in many customer satisfaction surveys.
So what about price? The Prius is available in three specifications: T3, T4 and the range-topping T-Spirit. Each is well-equipped, the base T3 coming as standard with the new head-up display, seven airbags, climate control and keyless go. It has the smaller 15" wheels, which strangely are actually alloys with wheel trims on top.
Toyota has kept two out of the three models at the same price as the old car, with the range starting at £18,370 for the T3.
The mid-spec T4 trim adds larger 17-inch wheels, cruise control, Bluetooth and an eight-speaker sound system, for £1,620 more.
For £2,840 more than the base model you get the range-topping T-Spirit that adds sat nav, park assist and a hard disc music storage system.
There is the option of a leather interior for £1,395, and the solar sunroof for £1,450 - but remember that you lose the 17-inch alloys if you want the sunroof.
Summary and Review
The new Prius improves on the best bits of the previous model. It also addresses most of the weaknesses of the old car. It's comfortable, quiet, reliable, and especially with the 17-inch alloy wheels, it looks good. And it comes with the sort of technology that you would only have found on spacecraft a few years ago.
We would suggest that the Prius offers good value for a car that is so ahead of the competition in the areas of economy, emissions and technology - whilst also being a good-sized five-seater hatchback.
It achieves a Green Car Guide rating of 9/10, which is excellent; ultimately it's let down by a few issues that spoil it from being a driver's car, top of the list being the CVT transmission. However this shouldn't stop motorists who want a good-sized, comfortable and economical car. And it won't make much difference in North America, where the Prius is a huge sales hit.
Perhaps most interestingly, Toyota has found a way to beat the system. It has achieved amazingly low official emissions for this size of vehicle, at 89g/km CO2 for some models. So you can benefit from free road tax, and company car drivers will pay the lowest 10% for Benefit-in-Kind company car tax. The Prius also remains congestion charge exempt.
However we think it's likely that once they're using the car, many drivers will keep the Prius in Power mode and get the performance and responsiveness that only a car in a higher tax bracket can deliver. Surely this is the holy grail for all cars. It has a button to enjoy low tax, and once you've achieved that, there's another button to enjoy power. How long will it be before other manufacturers - and the government - catch on...?
Car details and fuel economy data
Fuel consumption extra urban: 74.3 mpg
Fuel consumption urban: 70.6 mpg
CO2 emissions: 92 g/km
Green rating: VED band A - £0
Weight: 1370 Kg
Company car tax liability (2009/10): 10%
Price: £21,230 (From £18,390 to £21,230)
Insurance group: 6
Power: 97 bhp (petrol) 80 bhp (electric) system 134 bhp
Max speed: 112 mph
0-62mph: 10.4 seconds
- Paul Clarke