What is it?
You can credit the Toyota Prius for the popularity and mass acceptance of hybrids today. It’s the car that opened the automotive world to the possibilities of supplementing a combustion engine with an electric motor, nearly two decades ago. And in as much time, the Prius has sold over 3.5 million units worldwide! But green and well-meaning as the first three generations of the car were, the Prius name is also synonymous with a dull driving experience and non-descript looks. And that’s where this fourth-gen Prius comes in. For the very first time, the phrase ‘fun-to-drive’ found mention in the engineering brief for the car. And one more thing is dead sure; ‘bland’ is not an adjective you’d use to describe the way it looks.
You’ll look at the new Prius alright; amused and bewildered perhaps, but you will look at it. There is a link to older Prius’ in this car’s fastback silhouette but Toyota’s designers have clearly not held back with styling as they did in the past. Almost concept car-like in appearance, the latest Prius is a radical amalgam of sharp surfaces and soft elements. The new Prius’ droopy nose is characterised by a sharp ‘V’ on the bonnet and complex multi-edge headlights. You also won’t miss the prominent ridge that originates at the rear doors continues rearwards and wraps around the car’s tail, splitting the rear windshield in the process. The large, protruding and vertically oriented tail-lights are a talking point in their own right; their LEDs give the Prius a distinctive light signature. Whether or not you take a liking to the said look, you are unlikely to be sold on the India car’s 15-inch wheels. Prius’ in other markets can be had with 17-inchers that just do so much for the design.
Unique as the Prius’ look is, it’s still about form following function here. And the function is to cut through the air as cleanly as possible. The Prius is among the slipperiest cars in production today, with a supercar-rivalling 0.24 coefficient of drag.
Interestingly, the new Prius places its electric motor battery under the rear seat rather than in the boot, and as a result the luggage bay is large and useable. And the Prius gets a full-size spare wheel too.
What’s it like on the inside?
As with the exteriors, Toyota has gone for more emotive forms in the Prius’ cabin. The multi-layered dashboard with its white surfaces, finished in soft-touch plastics, and contrast-green side air con vent surrounds is a break from the norm. Sitting high up on the dash centre, the centrally-mounted instrumentation screens (there are two) are your biggest pointer of sitting in a car with a difference. Easy to read and customisable for layout (you can opt to see fewer details), the screens display a whole host of information including state of charge, instantaneous economy and eco tips for most efficient driving. The centre piece, quite literally, is the Prius’ 7.0-inch touchscreen that sits on a floating console. The screen is pleasant to use but sadly there’s no satnav, Android Auto or Apple CarPlay. However, a cool feature on the screen is a graphic that shows the source of propulsion in real time. Drivers can do without having to look at the screens thanks to the heads-up display that is standard on the car. Heated front seats, a wireless charging bay for Qi-enabled smartphones and a reverse camera are other features onboard.
Layered dashboard looks interesting. White surfaces make cabin feel airier.
Leather seats are also standard and what comes as a pleasant surprise is just how comfortable the seats are. Cushioning is supple, with the shapely front seats offering good comfort even over long drives. Even the rear seats are more than pleasant and offer a fair amount of space. If there’s something to bring up, it’s the stubby dash-mounted gear lever. The joystick-like selector takes time getting used to.
What’s it like to drive?
The Prius uses Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive that in this application comprises a 98hp, 1.8-litre petrol engine – that runs the efficient Atkinson cycle – and a 53kW (72hp) electric motor that draws power from a 6.5Ah nickel-metal hydride battery. Do note, the latest Prius is also available with a superior lithium-ion battery but the higher cost is sure to have ruled it out for India. The combined output of the hybrid system is 122hp.
Getting going in a Prius is an occasion, or actually a non-occasion. Provided there’s enough juice in the battery, the Prius will come to life in full-electric mode giving you the opportunity to make a noise and emission-free getaway. The Prius can run in full-electric mode, and on battery power alone, at speeds up to 50kph but you’ll have to be gentle with throttle inputs to manage so; the combustion engine wakes up when the system senses that more power is needed, or simply when the battery needs charging. Full-electric mode is perfectly useable in city traffic and there’s ample power on call to keep pace with traffic. When the engine does kick in, you can feel the additional power at your disposal. With both engine and motor at work, the Prius does manage to feel brisk enough. What is good is that the CVT gearbox doesn’t spoil the experience as it does on the Camry Hybrid, with far less of that irritating ‘rubber band’ effect. But outright performance is anyway not the focus here, fuel economy is. The Prius boasts an ARAI-tested fuel economy of 26.27kpl, though the car’s onboard computer showed a figure closer to 18kpl on our drive that included city streets and smooth moving highway stretches. Think about it, only a few small cars deliver that sort of efficiency.
The new Prius doesn’t wince at the sight of corners. It’s reasonably fun to drive.
Also impressive is the Prius’ overall level of refinement. The petrol engine runs quietly for the most part and only sounds strained when you really extend it, while much of the other sounds from outside stay where they belong.
The new Prius is the first car to be built on Toyota’s new modular TNGA platform that will eventually underpin everything from compact sportscars to SUVs. And if the Prius’ generally impressive driving manners are a sign of things to come, there’s a lot to expect from future Toyotas. Yes, this is a Prius that you can actually have some fun behind the wheel of. It does roll considerably in the corners but the steering feels nicely weighted and offers pretty good feel, and there is good grip on offer too. Even brake pedal feel (the Prius uses regenerative braking) is much improved. And though squeaky, the low rolling resistance tyres also hold on quite gamely. Make no mistake though. The new Prius is not a sporty car. But rather than feeling like an appliance as old Prius models did, this one feels like a nice-to-drive mainstream car. For one, it’s a whole lot nicer to drive than Toyota’s own Camry Hybrid.
Where the new Prius is also a marked improvement over the old car is in ride comfort. This is the first Prius to use double wishbones at the rear in place of the former torsion beam setup. Ride quality is pliant over the rough stuff and the experience is up there with some more premium cars.
Should I buy one?
The new Prius is nice to drive now and even nice to be seated in, but who exactly is it intended for? Not to generalise but the Prius is a car for those who feel the cheaper and more powerful Camry Hybrid and Honda Accord Hybrid are too mainstream. The Prius, then, is not a car for the eco-conscious ones who wish to blend in, but is one for those who want the world to know they are doing their bit for the environment. This fourth-gen Prius’ extroverted styling sure gets the message across loud and clear, but there is a catch – the Prius is expensive. Brought into India as a full import, the Prius has been priced at Rs 38.96 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi) which makes it a few lakh costlier than the Camry Hybrid and Accord Hybrid, and effectively negates any savings in running costs. In effect, a deep will to save the world isn’t enough. You’ll need deep pockets too to seriously consider the Prius.