I've spent the greater part of the last five years with nothing good to say about the Toyota Prius, in a way it represented the fear of every passionate car lover. The beginning of the end of traditional cars which cared little about the environment.
In my defence, I was right, as 2009 comes to an end every car manufacturer is now focusing on fuel economy even for their high performance cars. Porsche are doing diesel, Lamborghini, which at one stage produced the most polluting car on the planet, is now talking green and even Ferrari has become obsessed.
Words by Alborz Fallah Pics by Mike Geisel
Whilst Toyota had the foresight to see that fuel efficient electric or part electric (hybrid) cars were the future, American manufacturers decided it was better to concentrate on such things as Hummers and the bigger is better ideology. It worked, for a while. GM even decided to crush all the electric cars it built at one stage.
Whilst Toyota is now the biggest manufacturer in the world and marching ahead, Hummer got sold to the Chinese and parent company General Motors recently filed for bankruptcy and is currently going through a restructuring plan.
If there was ever any moment in history where electric car supporters can say to GM, I told you so, this is it.
I liken the Toyota Prius to Apple computers. At first they were frowned upon and only adopted by those odd people that just had to be different. The mass resisted. They stuck to what they knew.
More than a decade later and the Prius has won over even its biggest critics. It had even convinced me for a brief moment to consider driving one.
So there it was, a dark-silver third generation Toyota Prius I-Tech. A car which I'd been dreading to drive for months. I was afraid of one scenario and one scenario only, that I was actually going to like it.
Originally the car came to CarAdvice Brisbane office's for one week. I drove it around discretely, trying really hard to find every tiny fault. Day one went well, I went to bed believing I was still right, the Prius is pointless.
By day three I was starting to get annoyed, as the Prius was parallel parking it self and my girlfriend was cheering it on inside, she began telling me just how great it is and how we must buy one, as hard as I tried, I couldn't argue with her.
Here is the thing. The Toyota Prius is one of those cars that was never originally cool. Like that kid at school that could solve the complicated math puzzles, no one really liked him but secretly we knew it was because we all wished we could do it too.
How would you like a car that can park itself, essentially drive it self, use bugger all fuel, put out less pollution than almost any other car, have plenty of room, be comfortable, have a great stereo and just about do everything as you'd expect it to? And how would you like that for around $55,000?
Part of the week long test was to drive the Prius from Brisbane to Warwick, about 150km away. On the journey there I decided to play with the active radar cruise control and set it to 110km/h.
You may not believe it, but from that point forward for the entire 1 hour and 45 minute journey, I didn't touch the accelerator or the brake pedal.
What the Prius does is not new, the Europeans (and Toyota's luxury arm Lexus) have had active radar cruise control for some time, but not for a car in this price range. What the Prius can do can almost seem science fiction to those that haven't experienced it.
You simply set your cruising speed at the speed limit and the Prius will do the rest, if there is a car in front, it will match its speed, brake for you, slow down and speed up again with traffic. Even if the car in front suddenly brakes, the Prius will respond by braking accordingly and also warning the driver.
For the entire week it never once misbehaved, there were hour long periods were all I had to do was steer. If you drop below 40km/h it simply beeps at you to pay attention then turns cruise control off. I wonder how much longer it will take for a car to be able to simply follow the car in front, even in start-stop traffic.
So, as far as I am concerned the Prius can essentially drive itself. It can also park it self, be it a reverse park or a parallel park, yet another feature becoming more common in cars. As gimmicky as it sounds a car that can park it self can be somewhat handy. You simply line it up, press the button and away it goes. You still have to control the brakes but it will do all the steering for you.
Another excellent feature is the solar panel roof which powers the car's ventilation system when turned off. Although well implemented, it's not a new concept. You simply hold down the A/C button on the key fob and it will start circulating cold air through the cabin whilst the car is still turned off. So by the time you get in, the temperature is bearable. A God send in Queensland summer.
Additionally, there is a head up display which projects the speed onto the front windscreen, the car's computer can pretty much tell you exactly what the car is doing, how much fuel its using, how much battery power and even provide a nice diagram to help you understand how to best save fuel by altering your driving style.
You can stick the Prius in EV mode and it will do its best to just use the electric engine, a great idea for city traffic, you then have economy mode which tends to change the response of the accelerator so you don't use too much fuel and if you do find yourself in challenging hilly terrain you can always switch to power mode and make the most of the 1.8-litre petrol engine.
Toyota claims fuel economy figures of around 3.9L/100km, a figure which I could not replicate. During the one week test the best figure was 4.2L/100km which is still great. No doubt the boys at BMW are falling off their chair trying to send me figures on the Mini Cooper D which as I tested myself, can in fact achieve 3.9L/100km.
The Prius to me is no longer a car created just to save fuel, it's actually a great all around package, if it happens to save fuel at the same time, great.
The other thought is the cost to the environment in the production and recycling of hybrid cars. Toyota says that even in the factory where the Prius is made every bit of consideration is taken to save energy everywhere possible.
Battery production has become far more efficient now that Toyota and Lexus are offering or planning to offer hybrid variants in all models. You should expect the battery to last around 500,000km and as a few cab drivers have found in Australia, that's no myth.
What you really should know is that the Prius' strength is in the city with loads of stop-start traffic. If you do a lot of highway driving don't expect excellent fuel economy, however if you do spend a considerable amount of time sitting in traffic or driving around town, you'll be amazed how little fuel it uses. That's mainly a result of its electric motors doing most of the work.
When I was in New York a few weeks ago, it became rather obvious that almost all new cabs were either a Prius or some other kind of hybrid car (Toyota Kluger hybrids or Ford Ranger hybrids notably). There in the city that never sleeps, the Prius makes perfect sense. Traffic crawls at the best of times and you'd be making the most out of your electric engine.
My week with the Prius had come to an end. Apart from supercars there has been very few occasions where I've felt a sense of attachment to a car, specially one as computerised and "soul-less" as a Prius, but alas, it had to go home and there was that momentary sense of not wanting to give it back.
Somehow through the ether Toyota must have felt my pain, as only a few days later the idea came through that I should take the very same Prius for a three-month long-term loan. An idea which I quickly embraced.
For the next three months I'm going to spend my time driving around in a car which I once thought as the anti-christ, my aim is to achieve the 3.9L/100km official figure and also report on how it is to live with a hybrid Toyota for three months.
Expect a report every two weeks.
- Engine: 1,797cc DOHC four-cylinder (16 valve)
- Power: 100kW (petrol) / 73kW (electric)
- Torque: 142Nm (petrol) / 207Nm (electric)
- Induction: Multi-point / NiMH
- Transmission: Continuously Variable
- Driven Wheels: Front
- Brakes: Discs with ABS, EBA & EBD
- Top Speed: 180km/h (Claimed)
- 0-100km/h: 10.9 seconds (As Tested)
- CO2 Emissions: 89g/km
- Fuel Consumption: 3.9L/100km (ADR)
- Fuel Consumption: 4.2L/100km (As Tested)
- Fuel Tank Capacity: 45L
- Fuel Type: 95-98 RON Premium Unleaded Petrol
- Euro NCAP Rating: Five-Star (ANCAP rating TBC)
- Airbags: Front, Side, Curtain & Driver’s Knee
- Safety: ESC with Traction Control
- Spare Wheel: Space Saver
- Suspension: Strut (F) / Torsion Beam (R)
- Cargo Capacity: 446 / 1,120 litres
- Tow Capacity: N/A
- Turning Circle: 10.4m
- Warranty: Three-Year / 100,000 kilometre
- Weight: 1,420kg (Tare)
- Wheels: Alloy 15 x 6.0-inch