The 2016 Toyota Prius is the fourth generation of the model synonymous with hybrid motoring, and after 18 years of existence it can now be considered a little bit fun.
Well, maybe it would be pertinent to clarify that it might be fun, as we only spent a very short amount of time in the petrol-electric new-generation Toyota Prius at Fuji Speedway in Japan.
And we didn’t get to go on the actual track; only the mini track within the grounds of Fuji Speedway.
So, what can we tell you about the new Prius after a sum of about 10 minutes behind the wheel under strict conditions in the Land of the Rising Sun? Quite a bit, thankfully, and the most important part is that the fourth-gen version is a lot better than the old one - a statement we can confidently make because Toyota had the third-gen model on test, too.
Let’s start with the power unit – that’s what Toyota calls the hybrid drive system, which consists of a revised 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol engine and either nickel-metal hydride or lithium-ion batteries, depending on where you live. The battery specification is yet to be confirmed for Australia.
The engine is rated at 72kW and 142Nm, while the electric motor offers up 53kW of power. And because fuel economy is arguably more important to Prius buyers than power, the new model’s 18 per cent improvement from 3.9 litres per 100 kilometres to 3.2L/100km will likely impress.
Furthermore, the new powertrain is designed to rely more upon the batteries at higher speeds. According to Toyota the batteries used to sign off from drive duty at 70km/h, whereas in the fourth-generation vehicle, the electric motor can control things up to 110km/h, depending on how the throttle is being used and the topography of the terrain.
Toyota’s engineers have adjusted the drive mode settings in the new Prius, with three to choose: Normal, Eco and Power. The Eco mode is claimed to have throttle response similar to the third-gen model in its standard drive mode, while the Power mode is, er, more about offering the impression that you’ve got more power available. It isn’t quick, but there’s less of the pitching from nose to tail of the previous model under hard throttle application. But it’s not supposed to be quick, really.
While the conditions we were testing the Prius models under were hardly what you could consider “real world”, the consumption readout on each of the cars indicated what could translate to real-world fuel economy benefits. In the third-gen Prius the dash readout was 7.4 litres per 100 kilometres; in the new model, it was 5.4L/100km.
It feels more settled in fourth-generation guise at both high and low speeds. The single-gear, multi-axis transaxle gearbox allows easier, more comfortable progress, and Toyota has done a lot to disassociate the droning nature of the hybrid drivetrain from the occupants in the cabin. It is much, much quieter.
The ride comfort wasn’t dramatically better in the new Prius, despite the fact it has adopted a more sophisticated double wishbone rear suspension in lieu of the existing torsion beam rear-end. It was slightly better judged in terms of body control over the artificial bumpy section, though we would have to get it in to a real-world situation to give a proper judgement of the characteristics of the ride quality.
That said, that new suspension – and the new platform, which has lower centre of gravity and torsional stiffness improvements of about 60 per cent – allows the new Prius to corner with more precision and control than its predecessor.
Through a safety cone slalom and a number of moderate corners, the differences were easily noticeable. The new version tackles corners with more bite and aggression and less body roll, while the steering is notably more responsive, particularly for quick direction changes and mid-corner adjustments.
It lives up to Toyota’s claim that it wants this car, among all of its future offerings, to provide “obedient response”. In fact, this is the first time this writer can remember actually thinking, “this is fun” in a Prius.
While this test wasn’t a test of a driver's grit and intestinal fortitude, it was clear that this new Prius offered better braking response and pedal feel than its predecessor. That’ll be a handy plus in day-to-day traffic, I’d suggest.
Perhaps the biggest changes, though, have come inside the Prius’ cabin. It is a lot better. Like, a lot.
At first glance – in some specifications – the white highlights are reminiscent of the defunct Holden Volt (RIP), but the quality of the finishes and the available space on offer is a damn sight better than that plug-in hybrid sedan. Sure, those white plastics are a bit of a love or hate proposition (there are black plastics on some models, though Australian spec is yet to be confirmed), but there’s a much higher quality impression inside the fourth-generation Prius than in the existing model.
The dashboard has a nice look and feel to it, including soft plastics on some sections, and those materials extend to the doors where the old model was hard plastic all around.
There’s a nicely designed steering wheel with white tabs, and some of the vehicles at the launch had a brilliant head-up display and neat looking speedo dials.
But while the layout looks smart and a lot more airy than before (now without that old bridge-style, space-stealing gear selector), it is a bit intrusive on the passenger’s side. Tall occupants will need to watch their knees.
There have been big improvements to the storage on offer, with bigger door pockets and better cup holders up front. The boot is now bigger as well, with a capacity of 502 litres – up 56L on the previous model, and bigger than the likes of the Mazda 6.
Rear seat space is improved thanks to some extra leg-room, a feat that has been achieved without a change to the car’s overall wheelbase (2700mm), although the back seat is tight for taller people, particularly the outboard seats.
Toyota describes the new-gen Prius as “a beautiful car for a beautiful Earth”. We will let you make up your own mind about the beauty bit, but we can assure you the fourth-generation Toyota Prius is the best example yet. We can’t wait to see how it’s priced and packaged when it arrives in Australia in the first quarter of 2016.
Click the Photos tab above for more images of the 2016 Toyota Prius.