Toyota’s halo hybrid Prius has been comprehensively re-engineered and returns to its pioneering roots. Richard Gooding delves under the sharper styling and finds both impressive frugality and improved dynamics
The Toyota Prius’ place in automotive history cannot be underestimated: it invented the mass-market hybrid vehicle which now proliferates car ranges the world over.
First introduced in 1997 – four years after its idea was initially born – it has undergone three generational changes, with the latest fourth‑generation car launched in September 2015.
The first-generation was a game-changer in the truest sense of the word, but as the years have rolled by, other car makers have developed their own hybrid technologies and the Prius became less of a trailblazer.
However, the new-for-2016 model promises both sharper styling and driving dynamics as well as staying true to what forms the core of the Prius brand – economy and an eco-friendly conscience.
The latest Prius is built on the Japanese company’s ‘Toyota New Global Architecture’ (TNGA) modular platform, which allows for a lower centre of gravity and increased structural rigidity.
Aerodynamics play an important part in the fourth‑generation car’s make-up, too, and help contribute to arguably the car’s most controversial feature: its looks.
Priuses have always been a little ‘daring’ in their styling flourishes, but the latest car is perhaps the most divisive. Taking cues from Toyota’s Mirai hydrogen fuel cell car, the new Prius has both links to previous models as well as new design features of its own.
A shark-like front end gives way to an almost floating roof, which leads down to the split-level rear window, a long-standing Prius design cue. It’s a striking looker that’s for sure, but Toyota seems to have succeeded in designing the new car with nods to the old.
Two of the qualities previous Prius generations have enjoyed are parsimony and low emissions, and on these fronts the new Prius once again excels.
Emissions of certain models such as our test Business Edition car are as low as 70g/km CO2, with the most polluting versions of Toyota’s halo hybrid emitting only 6g/km more.
To achieve these headline figures, certain versions can be ‘downgraded’ with 15-inch wheels – again, like our £24,690 test model – which although good for economy make the car look a little top heavy.
The figures aren’t to be sniffed at, though: the Prius is one of only two non-plug-in cars – the other being its Yaris Hybrid stablemate – which can fanfare such impressive emission values.
Toyota quotes official combined cycle fuel economy of 94.1mpg. In the real-world however, we achieved an average of 63.7 although we saw 75.8mpg on one occasion and an ultimate high of 89.1 over our 334-mile test.
The new Prius’ efficiency expands to its ground-up repackaging, too. Revisions to the hybrid powertrain and engine have improved efficiency, reduced weight and sharpened performance.
Changes to the outgoing car’s engine have resulted in a 40 per cent thermal efficiency, which Toyota claims is a world-best performance for a petrol engine.
Selected hybrid components are now lighter and smaller, and have been moved for more efficient packaging. This has improved the low centre of gravity in the process, and therefore aided handling, too.
According to Toyota, the new smaller nickel-metal battery lasts longer, has improved charging performance, and is more energy dense.
It has been placed under the rear seats for improved cabin space and doesn’t intrude into the rear luggage area at all, making the new Prius an even more practical proposition.
The new Prius range spans 10 models in four trim levels, ranging from the £23,295 Active to the £27,050 Excel. The Business Edition sits in the middle of the new family, and, as you’d expect for a car aimed at fleet users, comes well-specified.
Standard equipment includes external LED lighting from and rear; dual-zone climate control; colour head-up and dual 4.2-inch multi-information displays; heated front seats (with power lumbar adjustment on the driver’s side); auto lights; keyless go; and Toyota’s ‘Touch 2 with Go’ seven-inch touchscreen system with DAB, CD, satellite navigation, Bluetooth/USB and online connectivity, as well as a rear view camera.
The new car’s cabin is a relaxing place to be: white gloss plastic dominates the lower half of the dashboard, with the buttons around the central are backlit through the glass, giving them a very technological appearance. A central bank of displays – which include the very helpful Hybrid System Indicator – are crisp, clear, and bright.
Calm and composed
The relaxing cabin demeanour permeates through to the way the new Prius drives. The car has a calm and composed feel, and as you’d expect from generations of honing, is very quiet on the move, no doubt aided by the optional smaller wheels.
The 15-inch rims themselves are more rigid than before which results in less tyre resonance and therefore less road noise. As in our long-term Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, two gearbox selections are available: ‘D’ and ‘B’.
‘D’ can be used like a conventional automatic, whereas ‘B’ employs the same principles, but adds a level of regenerative/engine braking to feed more energy back into the car’s battery.
The car itself meanwhile can be run in three selectable drive modes: ‘Normal’, ‘Eco’, and ‘Power’. We ran the new Prius in ‘Eco’ mode for most of the duration of our test, which limits the air-conditioning functionality, as well as generation smoother torque to the accelerator pedal.
A further all‑electric ‘EV’ mode runs the car on electricity only, and is best-suited to low-speed urban areas. But, unlike previous Prius models, the new drivetrain doesn’t introduce the 97bhp petrol engine too early at low speeds – it’s now much easier to drive at urban limits using the 71bhp electric motor alone. Combined system output is 121bhp/90kW.
It’s easy to tell when the car is doing what, too: the Hybrid System Indicator works like a ‘rev counter’/chargemeter does on other hybrids. Marked with ‘Charge’, ‘EV’, and ‘Power’ sections, you can see which area the ‘power’ bar is in at any given time.
When running in all-electric mode, the ‘EV’ car indicator is illuminated in green. It’s a foolproof system that works well, and along with the plethora of other information displays – eco diary, fuel costs savings table, and economy over pre-determined distances – is very cleverly and thoroughly thought out.
The D-segment billing is much more justified this time around, the car being commodious and comfortable. At times, the high belt-line and sloping rear roof even made it feel like a coupé, and although the new Prius is no enthusiasts’ machine, it’s a sharper drive than before. There’s a more surefooted feeling on the road, less roll through corners, and a pliant, accommodating ride.
A whole host of safety features are now standard including pre-collision, traction control, rear cross traffic alert, lane departure warning and blind spot monitor systems, as well as adaptive cruise control.
A five-year/100,000-mile pan‑European warranty is standard, while major servicing intervals are set at 10,000-mile periods.
While the original Prius was arguably ahead of the time for which it was introduced, the new Prius is a car set for the 21st century, but with a renewed focus on what made the original so groundbreaking.
Genuine technological developments and evolution have seen it once again set ecological benchmarks, but also become more accessible to drive
It’s a careful balancing act, but one which Toyota has succeeded at well.
Over 3.5 million examples of Toyota’s most notable hybrid have been sold since 1997, and while it’s not chasing volume sales, the latest car deserves to add a significant number to that already impressive tally.