Last week, I took (what should have been) a short drive to the Bundy Hill Off Road Park to drive a Toyota Prius that had been converted into a rally car by a group of Toyota engineers. Due to my own stupidity, I only had time to do a couple recon laps and four timed laps (one of which was the fastest of the day if you must know) but it was worth it. Now I know what it’s like to try to try to flick a Prius into a corner and hang the rear end out. How many people can say that?
The car started life as a standard Prius, and despite the cool wrap, the roll cage and the big racing buckets, still basically looks like one. The area where the dash used to be is covered in a thick fabric, but the dinky little blue plastic gear selector protrudes through it, reminding you that this is going to be more of an exercise in maintaining momentum than anything else.
The powertrain is stock, and the rear, electric drive wheels operate like they do on the stock car, providing a tiny boost of power under 64 km/h. The team says they’re trying to figure out a way to make them run all the time for rally duty, since they’d be forced to run in a class for four-wheel-drive, naturally aspirated cars, the American Rally Association calls it NW4WD.
The most significant modifications were made to the suspension. Driver/crew chief Kyle Steinkamp led development of the new Sienna’s suspension, and he’s doing the same for the new Tundra. His deep knowledge of the Toyota suspension parts bin allowed the team to piece together a setup that works on gravel. The front suspension is derived from a RAV4-TRD, and the rear gets parts from the Avalon-TRD and RAV4.
By the time I arrived, the course was deeply rutted, enough to let me carry some speed into corners without worrying too much about blowing through them. It also allowed me to take note of how the Prius soaked up the big ruts when I did inevitably carry too much speed and plowed through them. I can’t say for sure how it would hold up over the course of an ARA campaign, but I can say that the system kept the car from getting upset by bumps without being too wallowy. It was stable but wasn’t reluctant to change direction.
The rest of the modifications are pretty standard rally stuff: roll cage, skid-plates, LED lighting, roof scoop, pin stands, and plexiglass.
This is the third rally car this group — a club comprised of Toyota employees from the company’s North American R&D Headquarters in Michigan — has built. Their first was a Matrix, then there was the Corrolla IM, and now they have the Prius, which is built to NA4WD spec but not actually allowed to compete. The ARA doesn’t have safety protocols in place for cars with hybrid or electric batteries, but the body allowed the Prius to run as an exhibition entry at last fall’s Olympus Rally anyway. BMX pro Jamie Bestwick handled driving and according to Toyota, turned stage times that would have been competitive in NA4WD.
Considering its humble beginnings, the car is impressive. Building a rally machine from a showroom car that isn’t a Subaru can be a pain in the arse. Having factory expertise and parts access certainly helps a ton, but it’s still far from a fully-backed operation. From my very limited time in the car, I feel like it it’d be a hoot on stage. (Speaking of factory operations, Toyota should absolutely bring a GR Corolla to the states and take on Subaru in ARA. I can’t guarantee that the effort would be a profit maker, but I can’t say for sure that it won’t.)
I’ve been kind of lurking around amateur rally for a long time. David and I crewed for some friends at Snow Drift last winter. They won their class, which provided another little push toward the turbo engine swap that will put them in another class next time they enter a rally.
I’ve been watching that come together over the past few weeks and thinking that maybe it’s time to see if rally is something I could do myself. I’m already anxious about all the projects I don’t have time to get to, maybe what I need is to add another, more expensive project with a competitive angle?
I’ve driven a lot of really fast cars on a lot of really incredible tracks, but the Prius was more instinctual. In a sense, it was more fun than any media-program track drive I’ve done. I walked away wanting to do more sliding, more jumping, and more counter-steering. I’m currently deep in Project Car Hell, but once I see the light at the end of tunnel, a rally car might be what plunges me all the way back in.