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Toyota Prius vs Mazda 3 vs Volkswagen Golf 2009 review

That's the lure of hybrids and the reason why cars such as Toyota's Prius is so attractive to green-tinged and fuel-conscious buyers. But are they the be-all and end-all of personal transport?

Let's have a look at the new Prius hybrid compared with automatic versions of the Volkswagen Golf diesel and a Mazda3 Maxx with its petrol engine.

The entry-level Prius is the most expensive at $39,990 but the Golf 103TDI with its DSG auto transmission isn't that far behind at $35,690. The automatic model of the Mazda3 Maxx is the cheapest at $27,050. (Prices do not include on-road costs).

Toyota claims fuel consumption lows of 3.9 litres/100km but I never saw anything like that in predominantly city and suburban driving, so I'm using my test average of 4.5 l/100km.

To even things up, I'm also using my test results for practically the same five-day city/suburban cycle for the Golf and Mazda3 which are 5.2 l/100km and 9.7 l/100km respectively.

It still looks good for the Prius but there are some small-print items that need to be accounted. For example, Toyota prefers the Prius to use premium petrol that adds about 5c a litre (to $1.20/litre) to the fuel bill.

The Golf runs diesel ($1.25/litre) and the Mazda3 drinks standard unleaded ($1.15/litre). Drive 15,000km a year and the Prius costs $810 in fuel; the Golf is $975; and the Mazda3 is a hefty — well apparently — $1673.

If you're worried about CO2 emissions, I'll let you know that using the fuel economy figures above, the Prius will emit 1.6 tonnes of CO2 a year; the Golf exhales 2.1 tonnes; and the Mazda3 dumps 3.4 tonnes.

(In perspective, a hectare of trees will absorb about 8 tonnes of CO2 a year so plant out and theoretically you'll easily offset these three.) Forget the fact that the Prius costs nearly $13,000 more to buy than the Mazda3 and you would pick the Prius from this lot as the car to minimise your annual fuel bill.

But take purchase prices into account and the numbers crunch over to show the Prius is costing $2.72 per kilometre over a fixed 12-month, 15,000km period. By comparison, the Golf is costing $2.45 a kilometre and the Mazda3 gets that down to $1.91.

Of course, the fixed 15,000km period is hypothetical. However, it indicates that by paying more for a car to save fuel, you're not saving — you're losing. This calculation dismisses the fact that the Prius is a wonderful piece of engineering. It will suit people who have green intentions and have the money to back up their convictions.

It is a clever, well-built car that while short on performance gives owners a wonderful buzz that they're driving a slice of the near future. The Golf is also a great drive, full of German quality — significantly improved on this latest Generation VI model — and function. But the Mazda3 seems to grab the broadest attention, as its sales figures confirm.

$7,999 - $21,888

Based on 23 car listings in the last 6 months

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