When the first-generation Toyota Prius launched back in 1997, there were more than a few industry pundits who thought the whole hybrid thing was a fad. And like most fads, they thought it wouldn’t last.
Humble pie is what those same pundits are eating these days, and more than a few helpings of the stuff.
It boggles the mind when you realise that Toyota’s global sales of hybrid vehicles passed the four million mark in May 2012 – and that 2.6 million of those were for the Toyota Prius.
You have to admire Toyota’s tenaciousness because it was slow-going for the first 10 years – the time it took for Toyota to sell the first million hybrids. But popularity for the petrol/electric hybrid has steadily gained traction.
Demand for Toyota’s hybrid vehicles continues to accelerate, accounting for a sizeable 15 per cent of the company’s total global sales.
That’s helped by the Toyota Prius spawning a family of vehicles that now includes the seven-seat Prius V and smaller Prius C - all powered by similar versions of Toyota’s hybrid synergy drive system.
However, despite the inclusion of even more hybrids under the Lexus umbrella with the CT200h hatch joining the range, the now iconic Toyota Prius remains the dominant seller in the hybrid business – at least for now.
The third- and current-generation Toyota Prius was launched in 2009 with a raft of refinements and styling changes over the second-generation Prius.
We tested the updated version of the Prius that was released in March 2012 with more features, more refinement and fresh styling.
It’s still unmistakably Prius, but with a focus on maintaining a contemporary look as well as a measureable improvement in the way the car rides and handles.
The fully-loaded and top-of-the-line Toyota Prius i-Tech picks up a host of new standard kit that included solar moonroof, eight-way power driver’s seat, 17-inch alloy wheels, seven-inch VGA colour screen with satellite navigation, digital radio and leather trim.
That’s on top of the standard-fit inventory, which includes keyless entry and engine start, touch tracer controls on the steering wheel, and head-up display.
And that’s without adding another cent to the previous price tag of $45,990 (before on-road costs).
Even the entry-level Toyota Prius, with a reduced price of $33,990 (before on-road costs), gained a 6.1-inch screen with reversing camera, daytime running lamps, power retractable mirrors and the power-saving JBL Green-edge audio system with eight-speakers as standard.
This is an above-average sound system that delivers volume and clarity at the same time. It also streams music from your iPhone faster than any other vehicle we have tested this year.
The styling changes are subtle at best and amount to a lower and wider front grille appearance and new design rear-combination lamps.
The new-look Toyota Prius is 20mm longer than its predecessor, though the wheelbase and the car’s excellent aerodynamic efficiency (0.25 Cd) are unchanged.
Step inside the latest Prius and there’s an improved version of the familiar futuristic cockpit.
The newly designed leather seats offer loads more support and are wonderfully comfortable.
New-look dark plastics with metal-look accents give a premium feel to the trim (though there are few soft plastics used) and the start/stop button is now a softly energised blue.
The fighter-plane-style joystick is as ‘cool’ as ever and the latest Prius adds a separate cupholder up front and a sharper image resolution in the above dash-mounted information display.
Although categorised in the small passenger car segment, the Toyota Prius is surprisingly roomy.
There’s a comfortable amount of rear leg and headroom as well as plenty of width between driver and front passenger.
The boot is also larger than one might expect with a wide aperture and large hidden storage space under the cargo floor.
For ease of carrying extra-long goods such as skis or surfboards, the rear sets fold dead flat.
But we’ve never really had a problem with the design of the Toyota Prius – inside or out; it was more the relatively dull driving experience that disappointed.
Thankfully, that’s changed too.
The Prius body has been stiffened via additional spot-welds and strengthening, and the affect on the car’s ride and handling is dramatic.
Gone is the pronounced body roll on turn-in; the Toyota Prius now sits flatter through corners, prompting this reviewer to reach for the ‘Power’ button a lot more often than I probably should have .
You can still feel the weight of Prius’s 45kg (Ni-MH) battery pack, but it’s still relatively well balanced during cornering.
It hasn’t suddenly morphed into a wickedly quick hot hatch, or anything quite so dramatic, but at least you can now have a bit of fun in the Prius rather than having to draft the school bus before being able to pass it.
There’s also more feel in the steering, too, as a direct result of more rigidity in the steering column. It’s quicker to respond to steering inputs and there’s more weight from the straight-ahead position.
The stiffer body has also allowed for a softer suspension tune so the Toyota Prius absorbs bumps and potholes with a decent level of compliance.
However, there’s still the issue of the low-rolling resistance tyres favoured by Prius. Rolling over speed bumps and similar size obstacles produces a dull-thud reaction from these tyres – an unavoidable effect of a thicker tyre wall than standard design tyres.
There’s no power increase for the latest Prius – it’s still the same 100kW output from the 1.8-litre petrol engine/electric motor hybrid system.
With three drive modes to choose from (Eco, Power and EV) and the default setting fixed on Eco, you need a heavy right foot when pulling away from busy intersections - otherwise it’s a fairly sedate driving experience in this fuel-saving mode.
Switching over to the ‘Power’ mode instantly heightens throttle response for a more satisfying driving experience. The only drawbacks are increased engine noise from high revs and increased fuel consumption.
However, after several days of driving the Prius exclusively on the Power mode, our average fuel consumption metre showed 5.5 litres per 100 kilometres. That’s well above the Prius’ official combined consumption figure of 3.9L/100km, but for reasons underlined.
We also tried out the electric only ‘EV’ mode while driving around the local shopping mall in search of a parking spot.
Provided there’s enough charge in the battery pack the Toyota Prius can operate up to speeds of 50km/h for a distance of between one and two kilometres.
It’s quite a novelty to be silently cruising around an underground car park without making so much as a whisper and without consuming so much as a millilitre of petrol.
No additional safety equipment has been added to the updated model, but then with seven airbags, stability and traction control, dynamic radar cruise control and a pre-crash safety system (on i-Tech model only) that will provide additional braking power if the system senses a collision, passenger safety is well and truly covered on board the Prius.
Granted, the Toyota Prius isn’t for everyone. But with proven hybrid technology, loads of high-end features and an enjoyable if not novel driving experience, it does more than get the ‘green’ vote.