Since launching just over 20 years ago in Japan, Toyota has sold over 6.5 million Priuses globally – it's a staggering number given its quirky looks and its economy bent.
And unlike some manufacturers that have taken to integrating hybrid technology within existing model lines, Toyota has kept the Prius as a standalone model to capitalise on those consumers that want to be seen to be green.
This latest version of the Prius moved to Toyota's TNGA platform (Toyota New Global Architecture). It's a modular vehicle architecture that allows Toyota to integrate hybrid components across a variety of vehicles, with a relative cap on the research and development costs associated with creating a new platform for each set of models.
As you can imagine, this strategy works well when the platform that's being shared is a good one, but it's a bit of a disaster if it's a dud.
Thankfully in Toyota's case, TNGA blends the right mix of space and hybrid integration with a strong focus on ride comfort.
Kicking off from $36,590 (plus on-road costs), the new 2020 Toyota Prius is powered by a 1.8-litre naturally aspirated petrol engine that produces 72kW of power and 142Nm of torque. Toyota claims this engine has the best thermal efficiency of any petrol engine on the market.
Mated to a CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission), the electric motor produces 53kW of power and 163Nm of torque. Combined, the system produces 90kW of power and stores energy in a Nickel-Metal Hydride (Ni-MH) battery package.
Riding on 15-inch alloy wheels (with an aero cover), one of the benefits of the entry-level models is a space-saver spare tyre. The added functionality comes at the cost of cargo capacity (reducing from 501L to 457L) with the top-specification i-Tech model ditching the space-saver spare tyre for a tyre repair kit. Despite this, 457L is still a generous cargo space, made even better with the large hatch opening.
Inside the cabin, it's a pretty austere setting. It's black, on black, on black. While it may sound good in theory, it looks a bit barren and isn't helped by equally plain cloth seats.
With that said, it's a functional place to be seated with all controls within easy reach and clearly visible from the driver's seat.
Central to the cabin is a 7.0-inch colour infotainment display that features a touchscreen and shortcut controls flanking either side. While it's a big step forward from Toyota's previous-generation infotainment system, this one misses out on Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which is being retrofitted to other new models in Toyota's range free of charge.
Voice-recognition functionality has improved, but it's still a far cry from the best in the industry. It's often clumsy and requires specific command inputs, as opposed to general commands, to activate certain controls. But, it does allow the driver to forward commands to advanced recognition smartphone features such as Siri.
Leg and head room in the first and second rows are excellent. There is a surprising amount of knee room available in the second row for passengers to stretch out, while the two outboard seats feature ISOFIX anchorage points. There's also a centre armrest.
There's USB connectivity, along with Qi wireless phone charging in the first row, but you'll only find a 12V power outlet in the second row – USB charging points for passengers would have been nice.
Located ahead of the driver in a cluster atop the dashboard, the trip computer features critical vehicle information, along with a litany of useful economy information. It ends up becoming a game to try and squeeze your fuel use down as far as it will go.
Fuel economy in this car is an interesting point, because Toyota claims that it uses just 3.4 litres of fuel per 100km on the combined cycle.
Most of the time when we test vehicles, we exceed recommended fuel-use figures because our split of driving may be skewed to city driving that week, or as a number of people roll through the car, driving habits change.
With the Prius, on the other hand, it almost perfectly matched the claimed fuel economy. It's an incredibly low figure, and one that you'll struggle to hit even in the most efficient diesels on the market.
It does make you wonder whether there's any bias attached to the way you drive. An energy meter that sits beneath the speedometer in the head-up display shifts from economy to 'power' the harder you press the throttle. It encourages you to drive gentler to keep the meter in the happy zone.
An analogy that explains why hybrids provide improved efficiency includes a heavy box on carpet. Let me explain. If you have a heavy cardboard box on carpet and you need to shift it from one spot to the other by pushing it, it's always difficult to get moving, but once it's moving it's far easier to keep moving.
That's because static friction is the force that resists the initial movement on a flat surface. We require more energy to get the system moving before it can move at a constant velocity with less force.
The same applies to cars – get the system moving (i.e. overcome the static friction of a stationary tyre on the road) and then it becomes easier to keep it moving.
Hybrids come into play here, because instead of using an internal combustion engine to create the force required to move the car initially, an electric system is used for the initial movement before the internal combustion engine kicks in.
The kicker, so to speak, is that energy stored within the hybrid battery system is gained for 'free'. It's generated when the vehicle decelerates, and instead of that energy being lost as heat within the braking system, it's stored in batteries for later use.
This energy then gets the car moving, before the internal combustion engine takes over. There are many caveats to this efficiency equation – such as the added weight of battery systems and hybrid components, but when the hybrid drivetrain is paired with an efficient internal combustion engine (like it is in the Prius), you're able to achieve impressive fuel economy figures.
On the road, the Prius is one of the best riding cars on the market, let alone this segment. Sitting on 65-profile rubber that measures 195mm wide at each corner, the Prius uses independent front and rear suspension, with the rear suspension using a double-wishbone system with trailing arms, coil springs, gas dampers and a ball-jointed stabiliser bar.
It copes equally well with speed humps as it does corrugations and potholes. Toyota has managed to strike the right balance between comfort and bump compliance, even on constant undulations, which can often upset softly sprung cars.
If you plant the throttle from a standing start, the Prius moves from 0–100km/h in around 11 seconds. It won't set any world records, but the system offers flexibility for efficient driving with enough reserve for sudden torque requests.
Toyota has perfected brake pedal feel as much as is possible with a hybrid. An initial application of the brake pedal begins a regeneration mode to capture energy for the battery system, while a longer and further push of the pedal activates the friction brakes.
The transition between regeneration mode and activation of the friction brakes is where most other hybrid vehicles struggle, but the Prius lands in the right spot to retain brake pedal feel, but also create a functional sweet spot for the two systems to coexist.
Outside of this braking quirk, driving a Prius is just like driving any other car. You'll often find the petrol engine switching off, allowing the electric motor to drive the system, while at other times it will whirr in the background charging the hybrid's battery system.
This is the key to the Prius's success – it's no different to any other car to drive. It's why over six million people have put their money behind the model globally.
Toyota now offers a five-year warranty with the Prius, with capped-price servicing. The Prius requires servicing every six months or 10,000km with a capped price of $140 per service. Over a three-year period that comes in at $840.
The Toyota Prius lives on as one of the quirkiest-looking cars on the market, but it delivers efficiency, an excellent ride, and a commendable set of features. The six-month service intervals are a little frustrating, but outside of that it's a car that really doesn't put a foot wrong.