How can a new car that costs and weighs more, is less powerful and is, shall we say, boldly styled actually be better than the model it replaces?
The new Toyota Prius breaks the mould by proving that these conventional measures of automotive advancement don’t necessarily maketh the car.
Arguably the most important Prius detail is its official combined fuel figure, and Toyota has managed to whittle a full half litre off the third-generation model’s figure to result in a very impressive 3.4L/100km.
This lab-tested figure is really only useful as a basis for comparison, but the Prius is currently only bettered by more expensive plug-in hybrids or range-limited pure electric vehicles. And before you ask, Toyota’s stance on the idea of a plug-in Prius is that the hybrid market still isn’t ready to deliver the sales required to justify it.
Unlike the smaller Prius C and seven-seat Prius V that scored mid-life facelifts in 2015, this Prius is an all-new design. Arriving 18 years after the first model shocked the world with its alternative fuel source, this new version forms the fourth-generation of the five door hatch that has become THE global byword for hybrid tech on wheels.
Sitting in the middle of the Prius hybrid range and among Toyota’s ever-expanding range of petrol-electric regular models, the new generation forms a technological showcase for what will eventually trickle down through Toyota’s passenger car range.
This glimpse of the Toyota future begins with its all new chassis, with the TNGA (Toyota New Global Architecture) platform set to underpin everything from the next Yaris to an eventual replacement for the Tarago people mover. Think of it as the Toyota equivalent of the VW MQB or Mazda SkyActiv scalable architectures.
The new steering feels less like the radio’s volume knob and more like it’s actually connected to the road.
The TNGA body uses more high-strength steel and stronger welds to give it a better strength/weight ratio for safety, but also brings new suspension front and rear. Up the back, this means a surprising upgrade from the Prius’s torsion beam setup of the past to a more expensive double wishbone setup. This design is more commonly associated with racing cars, and is a clear sign of race-mad Toyota boss Akio Toyoda’s influence.
We’ll let you make up your own mind on the exterior styling, but the new body is slightly larger than before, with 60mm added to the length, 15mm in width and rides on the same small-hatch standard 2700mm wheelbase.
The extra length has helped lower the already excellent aerodynamic coefficient of drag from 0.25 to 0.24. Weight however, is up slightly over the previous model with the 1375kg base model gaining 5kg and the 1420kg i-Tech top spec adding 20kg.
Almost as new as the bits you can see is the petrol-electric drivetrain. Toyota boasts that the heavily-revised 1.8-litre petrol engine is now the most thermally efficient on the market, with 40 per cent of the heat it produces resulting in driving force.
On the electric side, new drive and generator motors are housed within a new multi-shaft transaxle continuously variable automatic transmission. The whole unit is smaller, lighter and 20 per cent more effective at sending power to the wheels than before. Most importantly, it allows the electrical system to cut in earlier and more often to save fuel.
Australian Prii (official plural of Prius) make do with a smaller nickel-metal hydride hybrid battery than the previous model, but miss out on the lithium-ion unit available in Japan and the US due to supply limitations. The Australian unit is smaller than before and absorbs 28 percent more regenerative charge over a given amount of time. The previous model’s eight-year battery warranty also applies.
Combined power output does drop from 100kW to 90 with the new model, but the new system has been designed to better suit people’s driving patterns by delivering only the power that is needed and conserving what isn’t.
Toyota isn’t known for ground-breaking interior designs, but the Prius builds on the fresh look recent arrivals like the Fortuner and HiLux and adds dashes of metallic white trim. This may seem a direct reference to the Holden Volt’s Apple-esque dash detailing, and you’ll still find several rectangular switches that look out of place among organic shapes, but the Prius has the wildest Toyota interior this side of an FJ Cruiser.
A seven-inch multimedia screen takes pride of place, but another welcome addition is the Qi (pron. Chee) wireless phone charging pad beneath it. This may seem like witchcraft, but a Qi-enabled phone will charge faster than via USB.
Other interior highlights include a new thick-rimmed steering wheel wrapped in grippy, good-quality leather and a 55mm lower seating position that makes you feel more like you’re sitting in the car than on it.
Driver visibility has improved thanks to a lower bonnet, reshaped door mirrors and a thinner wing bisecting the rear window, but the latter’s intrusion is still annoying.
Back seat space is still on par with the likes of a Corolla, and recesses in the headlining leave good headroom despite the aero-focused sloping roofline. As before there are two ISOFIX child seat mounts.
Rear passengers still don’t get adjustable air vents, but the climate control system integrates with seatbelt sensors to conserve energy by directing airflow only to seats that are occupied.
There are plenty of storage spaces front and rear, with a total of four cupholders and four bottle holders.
The new hybrid battery is now mounted under the back seat instead of under the cargo floor, which has helped boost boot space by at least 11 litres to 457 in the base model. This is stretched to a full 502 litres in the i-Tech, which drops the base model’s space saver spare for an inflation kit.
All this advancement comes at a price, with the base Prius climbing $2500 to $34,990. It does come well equipped for a base grade, with a heads-up display, reversing camera, active cruise control, lane departure and guidance, plus LED headlights with auto high beam. It also comes with a collision alert system, but a proper AEB setup is still not available and nor are parking sensors at either end.
The $42,990 i-Tech top spec is actually $1000 cheaper than before, and can be picked from the base model by its larger 17-inch alloys. On the inside it gets satnav, digital radio, leather seats, eight-way adjustable driver’s seat, front seat heaters, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alerts. The i-Tech loses the previous model’s solar-panel integrated sunroof and auto parking system.
As always, the first thing that hits you when climbing aboard a Prius after a conventionally-powered car is the near silence of its electric drivetrain when the petrol side is inactive. Only dash lights confirm that the car is indeed on, and the stubby dash-mounted gear selector that’s always been a Prius hallmark is more like an electrical switch than something that engages drive.
What does feel more mechanical is the steering, with the new-generation electric power assistance feeling less like the radio’s volume control knob and more like it’s actually connected to the rubber that meets the road.
This steering feel improves with speed, giving the driver a much better impression of how much grip is available. It’s still a little numb on centre, but loads up nicely through corners and feels more connected as you wind on lock.
The new hybrid transmission harmonises the petrol and electric drive sources more smoothly, and even under heavy throttle the continuously variable transmission sends little buzz into the cabin. You can tell what sort of auto it is, but it’s much better than the previous unit.
Even though it’s a smidge heavier and less powerful than before, performance feels about the same. Toyota claims a 0-100km/h figure of 10.6 seconds, which puts it about on par with a small 2.0-litre petrol hatch. The Prius delivers a claimed fuel consumption figure about 40 per cent better, however.
We saw an average of 4.5 L/100km on the dash display without trying after a few hundred urban and rural kilometres, which is an excellent real-world figure in anyone’s books.
After lengthy uphill drives with heaps of throttle we couldn’t manage to drain the battery charge, so it’ll be hard to find yourself in a situation where you’re left with petrol power alone.
Threading some of Sydney’s best winding roads at speed, the Prius handled far better than expected. Body roll is well contained, and the all-independent suspension deals well with mid-corner bumps.
A car with this sort of power-to-weight ratio and a CVT auto will never be properly fun to drive, but its greater limits and better feel are welcome when hurrying it along.
More importantly, it will still waft along at highway speeds serenely.