You could draw the conclusion in this world that there are two types of people – those who understand the Toyota Prius, and those who don’t.
It’s easy to see why you may not understand a car like this. For instance, buying the 2016 Toyota Prius i-Tech will set you back $43,990 plus on-road costs, and for that you could well buy any number of other practical cars that use not very much fuel.
But the difference between the people who have that mentality and the people who want it ‘because it’s a Prius’ is very different. There’s a state of mind that Prius buyers arguably have that potentially no other purchaser possesses.
There are plenty of cases that can be put forward as to why it doesn’t make sense. The small car with a smaller price tag – and therefore big savings on fuel you were never going to use anyway – is the most obvious one, but you could even get a family-friendly Toyota Camry Hybrid for less cash, even though it uses a bit more fuel by Toyota’s reckoning.
Fuel use is a big part of the equation, of course, with the petrol-electric fourth-generation Prius hybrid model using a claimed 3.4 litres per 100 kilometres. And as such, it’s the most efficient non-pluggable car on the market.
That’s the counterargument that potential Prius buyers will come back to over and over again. They’ll say they don’t need to plug in to be economical. And that they aren’t sufferers of range anxiety because they can go anywhere they want without worrying about charging up.
It’s a strong argument.
It becomes even stronger when you consider the real-world fuel use you can expect in the Prius. We saw 4.6L/100km, and that included some hard driving because, as Toyota Motor Corporation head Akio Toyoda has said in the past, all Toyota models need to be exciting to drive.
And it is exciting to drive… well, more exciting than any Prius that has come before it.
The steering is more precise and offers better weighting, and while the tyres aren’t super grippy sports numbers (they’re Bridgestone Turanza 17s with narrow 215/45) and that means there can be some front-end grip problems when you’re pushing it hard, it handles decently for what it is.
The ride verges on firm over sharper-edged bumps around town, but the payoff is that it feels secure on the blacktop through corners. It isn't unbearable in terms of ride comfort, but the amount of road noise over coarse-chip surfaces could be frustrating if you encounter that type of road covering on a regular basis - and at highway speeds there's way, way too much wind noise for a vehicle that has been designed to be highly aerodynamic.
The petrol-electric drivetrain consists of a 1.8-litre four-cylinder – which has been majorly re-engineered, but still works with a nickel-metal hydride battery pack instead of a more up-to-date lithium-ion system – teams with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) automatic.
The petrol engine produces 72kW of power and 142Nm of torque, while the electric motor churns out 53kW and 163Nm. According to Toyota, the combined power output is 90kW, though there is no combined torque figure available.
The drivetrain has been re-jigged so as to make for smoother power delivery compared to the previous generation, and it is relatively refined aside from the engine buzz that is generated as you accelerate.
It’ll more happily saunter around town in electric mode, too, as the drivetrain has been worked to make use of the batteries more, and at higher speeds (it can drive in EV mode at up to 105km/h).
Indeed, you can see just how much you’re relying upon the batteries through the driver information screen, and on an urban loop we were surprised it was relied upon the batteries about two-thirds of the time.
The drivetrain offers good low-range torque as a result, and it’ll accelerate away from a standstill with a decent amount of zip. The drivetrain settles nicely under light throttle, though anytime you push harder it gets buzzy.
But perhaps the most annoying aspect of the drive experience in the beeping noise that emanates through the cabin when you're reversing the car. Myself and other testers all agreed that it is frustrating - you know you've chosen reverse, and it's not like it's letting people outside the car know you're backing up, potentially silently. Gosh! Thankfully owners can alter the in-cabin reverse alert to a single beep by visiting a dealer.
The top-spec Prius i-Tech has safety bits including blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, leather-accented seats and digital radio reception.
You also get satellite navigation in the top-spec version, where the entry model misses out on that – which is a bit of a joke, considering it's a $35K car. And no Prius has Apple CarPlay or Android Auto smartphone connectivity.
That said, all Prius models come with a pre-collision warning system, lane departure alert with steering input, automatic high-beam headlights and adaptive cruise control. And every Prius has seven airbags (dual front, front side, full-length curtain and driver's knee coverage) and while no local crash score has been announced, it recently received a five-star Euro NCAP score.
Every Prius comes with a touchscreen media system, rear-view camera with moving guidelines, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, Qi wireless phone charging and a colour head-up display.
So you can’t say that you aren’t getting value for money. And with the new model being a lot larger than it was previously, you are literally getting more car for your money, too.
The interior is a comfortable and roomy space, with the white plastics lifting the ambience of the new-generation Prius’ cabin to levels that the old model certainly fell short of. There’s plenty of storage on offer, including decent cupholders and caddies in the centre console, and reasonably large door pockets with bottle holders.
The cabin offers enough room for five adults, with good leg and shoulder room in the second row – but back-seat occupants who are taller may find headroom a little tight. Those in the rear of the i-Tech get a powerpoint to charge their devices, and there are ISOFIX child seat anchor points, but no rear air-vents (the vents up front are neat, though, with little Prius-branded vent toggles).
The boot in the i-Tech model is 501 litres, easily enough for a few suitcases or a pram, and if you flip the seats down there’s space for a pushbike. Because it’s the top model, there’s no spare wheel – the lower version has a spare, which eats into luggage space (457L).
Cost of ownership is obviously a big consideration for Prius buyers, and Toyota offers a very affordable service program. It must be maintained every six months or 10,000km, whichever occurs first, at a cost of just $140 per visit. As for warranty, the Prius comes with a three-year/100,000km program, and the hybrid battery is covered for eight years/160,000km.
Look, whether you understand the 2016 Toyota Prius or not, you have to at least respect the fact it offers excellent usable efficiency, an improved and new technology. It’s a decent car – one that is more practical than before, and better to drive than before, too.
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