The oddly styled fourth-generation Toyota Prius fails to make much of an impression.
The 2016 Toyota Prius is a very accomplished hybrid vehicle. It does all the things that it promises to do, and it does them well, yet it has lost its edge as the technological halo of the world’s largest automotive manufacturer.
Back when the first Toyota Prius went on sale in the late 1990s, the automotive world stood up and took notice. Here was the first mass-produced hybrid vehicle with incredibly good fuel economy (for its time); the second-generation model followed in 2003 and by the time the third generation came about in 2009, the Prius had established itself as the undisputed king of the environmentally-friendly vehicle brigade.
The benefits of having a Prius did wonders to Toyota’s brand credibility and it became the car that every celebrity and neo-hipster wanted to be seen in.
But it was always more than just about saving fuel and reducing emissions for the Japanese hybrid. The Toyota Prius was the technological halo car for the Big T. It was Toyota’s way of saying, ‘look what we can do’.
When the third-generation Prius came out in 2009, the i-Tech model could park itself, follow the car in front using its advanced (for the time) cruise control system, display useful information in a head-up display as well as give a warning when a potential accident was imminent. These active safety technologies, at the time, were at the very pinnacle of what was available on mass-produced vehicles, features that were not readily available even in luxury cars costing twice the price. It was a truly advanced car for its time and price.
So it was with that sense of expectation that we jumped inside the new 2016 Toyota Prius, the fourth-generation model.
The 1.8-litre petrol engine, which Toyota claims has the best thermal efficiency (energy conservation with limited loss from heat) for any petrol engine in the world at 40 per cent, produces 72kW of power and 142Nm of torque.
The electric motor pitches in a further 53kW and 163Nm of torque, which means the new Prius is almost on par with the previous generation in terms of power output.
In pictures the new Prius looks worse than it is. In person, the rear end is rather quirky, but you can grow to like it, while the front is just utterly peculiar. In separation, both the front and rear work as a new Prius, but in unison they seem somewhat at odds. It’s almost as though they were styled by two separate designers that never met each other.
Putting its looks aside, the Prius has a lot to live up to, and with a starting price of $34,990 plus on-road costs, it's now $2500 more than it was before.
Our first impressions are that the fourth-generation Prius seems more like a substantial mid-life facelift than an all-new car. It lacks the wow-factor that the Prius is meant to have and using essentially the same engine and battery systems as its predecessor doesn’t really help its cause.
The decision to stick with nickel-metal hydride batteries over lithium-ion as well as maintaining the same pure EV range - 1.5 to 2 kilometres - of the old car seems overly conservative. It has been seven years since the third-generation came out and times have moved on, but it appears the Prius hasn’t.
Toyota itself, seemingly aware of this dilemma, likens the Prius to Nissan-brand ambassador Usain Bolt, by noting that when Bolt goes out to do a 100m sprint, he is not going to beat his record by seconds, but potentially by milliseconds. It’s an odd attitude, one that suggests the Prius has hit its peak and technological saturation point and Toyota is not ready yet to make the transition to full electric vehicles.
To give credit where credit is due, fuel usage has gone down from 3.9L litres per 100 kilometres to 3.4L/100km (best we could manage was 5.4L/100km) thanks to host of reasons including better thermal efficiency, aerodynamics, and hybrid software and hardware.
The updated battery carries the same level of energy as before but is now 10 per cent smaller and is capable of absorbing 28 per cent more energy in the same amount of time as the previous car, allowing for faster charging while on the go. It has been moved to sit under the rear seats.
It’s the first car to be built on a new global architecture from Toyota, which has resulted in a lower centre of gravity (-24mm), improved torsional rigidity (+60 per cent) and the use of laser screw welding. It makes use of a proper double wishbone rear suspension rather than a torsion beam for better dynamics.
The new Prius can manage to remain in EV mode now at speeds of up to 105km/h, where the previous one would give up at about 75km/h. However, it will not engage EV mode past 40km/h once on the go, and we found it would revert to the petrol engine with a light push of the accelerator.
On the road the Toyota Prius is a vastly improved car compared to its predecessor. It no longer rolls from one corner to the next and point-to-point its chassis is very sharp and settled. It almost begs to be given more power.
The ride felt stiffer than we were perhaps expecting. Not uncomfortable, just harder riding than a Prius probably should be (though the new Prius is meant to be more fun to drive, or so we are told). The difference between the standard car, which rides on 15-inch wheels, and the i-Tech which gains 17-inch wheels (and subsequently no spare as it doesn’t fit in the boot) wasn’t all that noticeable.
Acceleration is as swift as one would expect from a Prius, but it’s certainly not quick. The CVT transmission and the hybrid drivetrain do not provide an experience that is as refined or as punchy as a Corolla, but the linear power delivery is an improvement over the old.
It’s certainly very quiet though, much more so than the model it replaces. It has also all but lost the hybrid noises that accompanied the previous car. Something that fans may miss.
The front and rear seats are much better, with more headroom and better comfort, while the interior is vastly improved with two 4.0-inch colour screens for information display and a 7.0-inch screen for infotainment. There’s an element of Holden Volt-like whiteness to it, and the surfaces that matter are nice to touch.
While comfort is improved, the rear can feel a tad cramped, but it will still comfortably fit two adults. We found the excessive orange JBL (sound system) badging on the speaker covers a bit over the top, particularly as they unnecessarily reflect in the windscreen on a sunny day.
The 10-speaker JBL system aside, there are a host of new standard features on the base model that make the Prius a very attractive offering. These include pre-collision safety system, lane departure warning, auto high-beam lights, active cruise control (all the way to 0km/h), a colour head-up display, electro-chromatic rear-view mirror, Qi wireless phone charger (available for phones that support inductive charging – not iPhones unless you have a Qi case) and moving guidelines on the rear-view camera display.
For whatever justifiable reason, the base model Prius misses out on satellite navigation. So while it has a gorgeous head-up display and can charge your phone wirelessly, it doesn’t have something as basic as navigation – even though it has seemingly the same screen and infotainment system as the $9000 pricier i-Tech which gets navigation. It’s a very odd omission on such a technologically advanced car.
The additional coin for the i-Tech gains larger wheels, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, leather-accented interior with front seat heating, digital radio and sat-nav. With a great deal of the technologies that were previously i-Tech only now on the base model, if the cheaper variant had sat-nav, the i-Tech would appear an unworthy upgrade.
Our four-hour drive of the 2016 Toyota Prius proved that the latest iteration of the Prius is the best yet. This is the best hybrid vehicle for the money on sale today, there is no doubt about it.
It provides significantly more equipment than the previous model, has a top-notch interior for the money, is far more willing to have a little fun on a twisty stretch of road and having stuck with its tried and proven drivetrain, it will likely drive for eternity without any reliability issues. Not to mention it will only cost you $140 to service (first six scheduled services).
But for what the Prius was always meant to be, it does nothing new. It doesn’t push the boundaries of what is possible. Why not a plug-in variant? Why not increase the EV range? Why remove satellite navigation from the base spec? All questions that the Prius has no answer to.
The Latin term Prius means something that is ‘coming before’. Toyota chose it almost 20 years ago because the Prius was launched well before automotive environmental awareness became a mainstream issue. It many ways, the Prius has served its purpose and helped start a revolution that its maker is struggling to keep on top of.
It’s now that we look truly to the future, which is where the hydrogen fuel-cell powered Toyota Mirai comes in, a name that literally translates into “the future”, and it’s a bright one.