Road Test: Toyota Prius hybrid

June 22, 2010 Off By Chris Hinton

Toyota Prius - external shotWhen I think of hybrid cars, it’s the Toyota Prius that comes to mind. It seemed to be the first hybrid to break into the general public’s conciousness on its European launch (2000) and, I think, is the best known petrol-electric hybrid in the UK today. I took a test-drive of a Prius three years ago, but recently had a week long road test of the latest incarnation. So what’s it like?
Since the Prius is a hybrid my primary concern was how fuel efficient it is. As with when I tested Honda’s Insight, I decided not to bee too careful with the Prius. I wanted to know how well it fared under normal driving conditions rather than me constantly trying to eke as much mileage out of it as possible. Well, normal town driving brought a fuel efficiency of 58 miles per gallon and I was immediately impressed. Longer distances, using cruise control, brought the efficiency up to 65 miles per gallon on my test journeys.
So the penny pincher in me is already thinking about the potential fuel savings on top of my normal car, but efficiency at the cost of comfort is no use at all, so how does the Prius fare here?

Toyota Prius - comfortable driving position

The Prius' driving position and on-wheel controls make for a comfy drive

Really well, actually. I found the seats comfortable even on long drives, and the suspension did its job of smoothing out the bumps well. I wondered if there would be any lurching as the drive switched between using the electric motor and the petrol engine. There was a very slight change in the feel of the car that indicated when the engine had been engaged, but it was hardly noticeable. My test passenger didn’t notice the changeover at all.
I was genuinely surprised at the acceleration available to the Prius. I think that was because it’s main draw is supposed to be economy, but the 1.8l engine and electric motor made short work of overtaking. You’re never going to win Le Mans 24 hr in a Prius, obviously, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s a sluggish eco-motor either. Previous versions had a 1.5l engine, and while adding a larger one may seem counter-intuitive, Toyota say it actually helps the car cruise more efficiently at motorway speeds.
The Prius’ looks have often come in for a bit of criticism, but I don’t see what the problem is. If you’re considering a Prius you’re not really looking for a sportscar, but an economical family/business car. With that in mind the Prius looks pretty good – it’s different from the majority of other cars on the road, and was described by several of the people I showed it to as “striking”. There was a lovely moment when I drove through the town centre and a little boy had to ask his dad, “What’s that?”. The Prius’ curvilinear design certainly seems to turn heads, and apparently helps with the aerodynamics too.
One small touch that I really liked is the splash of blue in the Toyota badge. It stood out quite nicely on the white model I had, and shows how even the smallest of things can make a difference.
Is there anything to dislike about the Prius then? Well, and I think this is a common problem in this type of vehicle, putting your foot down results in the engine revving right up leaving the wheels to catch up. It feels a little like you’re slipping the clutch, except that you don’t have a clutch to slip. This only became annoying when I specifically paid attention to it, though, and that wasn’t often. The 1.8l engine and electric assist also meant on the occasions I did want to overtake or accelerate rapidly I was usually up to my target speed very quickly… at which point I could ease off and the engine would settle back into its usual quiet state.
My only other gripe would be that the steering was a bit too light for my liking. That makes it easier to turn the steering wheel, but also meant it felt a little disconnected from the road wheels. I quickly got used to it, though, and found returning to my own car like trying to steer a tank at first!
Right, that’s the (few) things I didn’t enjoy, so let’s get right down to the bit that excites the geek in me… gadgets. The whole petrol/electric hybrid system is geeky enough, but there are plenty of additional technical toys to play with.
The Prius features a head-up display as standard, allowing you to keep an eye on your speed or efficiency of driving without looking down at the dashboard. I absolutely loved this, and even though the passenger can’t see it I kept telling them where the speedometer was in relation to what we could see out of the windscreen. Speaking of the dashboard; if you lightly touch the controls on the steering wheel you see a diagram on the dash telling you what you’re pressing. You really have to experience it to get the full effect but it means you’re not staring at your steering wheel to make sure you press the right thing. You’re still looking at the dashboard, but that’s much closer to the windscreen than the steering wheel is.
Pruis - reversing assist

Intelligent Parking Assist - scary, but it really works!

One feature that amazed and scared me in equal measure is the Intelligent Parking Assist. Press the parking assist button, drive slowly, and the Prius will detect any usable parking spaces for you. It will then give you instructions as to how to position the car. Great, but the really clever/scary bit comes when you select reverse gear. You see an image from the reversing camera, and an overlay of where the Prius thinks the parking space is. You can adjust this, but once you confirm the space is there you can take your hands off the wheel and the car will park for you. You still control braking (which is a comfort) but it’s very, very odd to see the wheel turning of its own accord. I used this several times, and it works, but I really was scared by it… what if I hit another car? Well, I didn’t. I do think you’re probably quicker just parking yourself, but if you’re rubbish at parallel parking like me, this will be handy for grabbing that last parking spot.
Add in a manually selectable electric-only (EV) mode, excellent sound system that connects to bluetooth capable media players, and smart entry system that only requires you to have the key with you, and the Prius is very well equipped on the gadget front.
The Prius is an excellent family and business car. It is comfortable, roomy, efficient and, for the geek in you, gadget laden. It’s quick when it needs to be, and very quiet the majority of the time. In other words, it’s a great all-rounder and, if efficiency and comfort are your thing, a great option to consider.
At time of writing the Prius costs £19,505 – £22,610 and is available from or your local dealer.