Toyota has built a new Prius that it says is not only incredibly efficient with the way it uses petrol, but is also fun to drive. It's not exactly a balls-to-the-wall race car, but it is fun -- in its own way -- especially if you like challenging yourself to save fuel.
What Is It?
The 2016 Toyota Prius is a four-door, five-seat petrol-electric hybrid hatchback, drawing heavily from the heritage of the first car, which really brought the hybrid concept into reality and onto the road for most car enthusiasts. Toyota is planning a plug-in hybrid Prius for later this year or early next year, too, but this particular current release suits anyone that wants to sip fuel while driving on city road and highway alike -- it takes petrol and turns it very effectively into motion.
The Prius' propulsion system is what's referred to as a series hybrid, where the engine mostly runs purely to provide electricity generation to the large drive battery, which then powers the electric motor that drive the car's wheels. The new model, though, has its battery and electric motor and efficient Atkinson cycle petrol engine all significantly improved since the previous version, and that means the $34,990 Prius is one of the most efficient petrol vehicles on Australian roads this year.
But Toyota also says the new Prius is fun to drive, as well as being suitable for the environmentally conscious buyer.. On the up-spec i-Tech that means larger wheels and lower-profile tyres, and the car has Eco, Normal and Power driving modes that give different throttle response -- the steering is also adjustable to add or subtract a bit of electronic weight to its feel. It's no Ferrari or Lamborghini, but it's just meant to be a little more connected and alive than the previous model.
It certainly looks fun, for a certain definition of fun. The car's body shape is reminiscent of the original, but its lines are far more moulded and smooth, and it looks more aerodynamic. Inside, the seats -- more flat and comfortable than bolstered and sporty -- have a relatively high seating position, and the tall windows give the new Prius plenty of visibility for parking and city driving. The central dashboard is joined by one in front of the wheel, too, giving driving data alongside radio (digital plus AM/FM) or Bluetooth music from a connected smartphone.
What's It Good At?
The new Toyota Prius is very, very efficient with how it uses its petrol engine. Part of that is the fact that the engine itself is the latest Atkinson cycle design, and that means it has just about the highest thermal efficiency -- the least energy lost to waste heat -- of any engine on the road. The other part is that the drive battery, which continually discharges through motion and recharges through regenerative braking and the petrol engine's generation, stores enough charge that the engine doesn't need to run constantly or even regularly.
That regenerative braking, too, is one of those hidden advantages of driving an electric or hybrid electric car that has to be experienced to be believed. When you change the way you drive to incorporate the slight -- which can be boosted in the 'B' driving mode -- regenerative braking, which really only requires looking further ahead and anticipating traffic and intersections, you can achieve fantastic fuel economy.
That fuel economy doesn't even really change if you push the car harder, though. In my testing it was only the difference between a few tenths of a litre per hundred kilometres when testing smooth, economical driving versus the regular accelerate-towards-red-traffic-lights driving that most Australians seem so good at. So it'll perform exceptionally if you're going to drive it with a light foot, but it won't complain too much if you don't.
The up-spec Toyota Prius i-Tech, which adds features like a rear vision camera, parking sensors and a suite of safety hardware including pre-collision braking and active cruise control, also inherits an excellent sound system. It's not the kind of thing you expect in an otherwise quite staid and proper car, but the i-Tech's 10-speaker sound system has a hell of a lot of audio power behind it and can make your streamed Bluetooth music -- I listened to a lot of Apple's excellent Beats One internet radio -- sound great.
What's It Not Good At?
Even in its Power mode, the new Prius isn't a car that you can drive like you've stolen it. The electric motor always means power delivery is relatively smooth -- there aren't any gears to shift when you're spinning an impeller -- but when the engine kicks in to provide extra power, it can seem unrefined. It's not made to be driven like a sports car; it's much more at home in Eco mode and being operated with mechaical sympathy.
Toyota's in-car entertainment system is perfectly serviceable, but it lacks the refinement of European competitors and Toyota's own luxury brand Lexus' particular brand of entertainment system. Any new car should have some version of Apple CarPlay and, or, Google's Android Auto, and Toyota's AppLink system is only part of the way there. It's definitely fine for everyday use, but it doesn't have the smooth graphics and higher-resolution display of other marques.
It's also quite expensive for what it is. When Toyota's own Corolla and Camry have hybrid power of their own, the Prius has to set itself apart as an especially high-tech vehicle. It is high tech, and it is efficient, but it comes at a slightly diminished return versus Newer turbodiesels from Korean, Japanese and European brands alike also threaten it for fuel efficiency, especially on longer highway trips.
While the up-spec i-Tech beats out the base Prius in every other way, it's worth making note of the fact that because it has larger 17-inch wheels and tyres, it doesn't have a full-size spare tyre in the boot, and there's no space saver either. Instead, you get an emergency inflation kit and patch -- which is only going to get you to the nearest service station or tyre shop, which is its intention but which is also a disappointment versus a proper long-distance backup.
Should You Buy It?
If you're buying a car with the intention on mainly driving within the city, then the new Toyota Prius is just about your most efficient choice possible. In stop-start driving, and the kind of commuting that plenty of city-bound Australians do, the Prius acquits itself well when it comes to fuel efficiency, the smoothness of its driving, and the creature comforts inside the cabin. It might not be especially pretty, but it's definitely striking in how distinctive it is -- it's absolutely the recognisable Prius shape.
Those creature comforts, too, are forth mentioning. The Prius has always been built around that central display panel that proudly displays your battery levels, your driving efficiency and the car's entertainment system, but the up-spec i-Tech takes that a step further. Having built-in wireless charging is a genuine boon to anyone with a recent Samsung Android phone or any other Qi-compatible device, too -- the position in the lower centre of the dash makes it useful for Google Maps by anyone that doesn't want to use the in-car nav.
When you buy a car like the new Prius, there's the obvious expectation that you'll drive it very carefully and cautiously, conserving fuel and battery energy wherever possible. And that's how it best performs -- smooth, far-sighted driving returns incredibly efficient fuel consumption results. It's not an incredibly fun car to drive -- although it has its limited appeal in Power mode -- but it's a huge improvement on the disconnect of the original model at the same time.
I picked the 2016 Toyota Prius up with a full tank of petrol, and after a busy week of driving in, around and across Sydney -- visiting the north-west, commuting from the inner west, with a couple of trips to the Shire and northern beaches for good measure -- I dropped it back just as the digital fuel gauge dropped by a single eighth of that tank. In my week with it, I used one quarter of the fuel that the not-exactly-terrible EcoBoost Ford Mustang did. That's the biggest example I can share of how significant the Prius is for fuel-conscious drivers.