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Buying a car these days is a tawdry business. First, you have to choose what's right for your family, then you have to think about what your neighbours are going to say, then you have to work out what graffiti the Save The Planet brigade might spray on its side and, after that, you've got to figure out how much it's going to cost now that Gordon Brown has made the newer, cleaner cars more expensive to tax and the older, more pollutant ones cheaper.
Buy a four-by-four and you will be lambasted by all and sundry for having the most useless vehicle on the road and everyone will simply think you're a footballer's wife on the school run. Buy an estate car and every girl you eye up on the road will automatically assume you are either married or you're a photocopier salesman. Executive saloons with diesel engines identify you as a boring middle-manager working for Tesco and a souped-up sports car with Barryboy fat exhaust immediately identifies you as a twat. Or a seventeen year old with acne. It's your choice.
Honestly, the coolest car to buy today is an MPV, a people-carrier. Yes, you read that right. A modern people carrier is the ultimate car, whether you buy the small or large version. As a rep on the road you have loads of room to put your wares in and you can turn the car into a luxury mobile office. As a lad, you can chuck your surfing gear on the roof or your bike in the back, load up all eight of your mates (if you're lucky enough to have that many, and you surely will with an MPV) and go wherever the hell you like, all in mod-con style. If you're an overactive procreator, there's plenty of room for your children and women that you eye up on the street will automatically assume you are virile and that you have panache. And, in most of them, the back seats conveniently fold down in to a bed…
There is, however, an alternative. It's called the hybrid, and it's the modern way forward for the automotive industry that's keeping Greenpeace off their backs. Well, it sort of is for Toyota, anyway. By the end of this decade, all Toyotas will be available with a hybrid solution; by the end of this year, their Lexus division will be selling all of their high-spec models, including the massive LS460 luxo-barge, with hybrid options.
King of Toyota's hybrid brigade, however, is the innovative Prius, a car that has been around for a few years now and is the car to be seen in if you're a celebrity. Honestly, everyone of them has a Prius these days, including Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio. Even Paul Daniels has one.
At first glance, the Prius is nothing special. It's a little bland to look at and you'd be forgiven for thinking it had recently popped out of a jelly mould. It's as innocuous to look at as its name is to remember, but beneath the dull exterior lies a bit of a surprise, especially if you go for the fully-loaded T-Spirit model.
Despite this being a relatively mid-sized hatchback there is a surprising amount of room when you climb inside the car. The seats are surprisingly comfortable and, if you spec the car out with the leather interior at an extra £1'330, they give the feel of driving something a lot more luxurious than an urban hatchback. The driver's seat is fully adjustable and is complemented by the equally flexible steering wheel, meaning you are guaranteed to find the ideal driving position for your everyday needs. All the controls are accessible from steering wheel mounted buttons or nearby stalks and the large, clear digital display provides you with all the information you need when driving.
Comfort is enhanced further by a full climate control system that lets both driver and passenger set their required temperature and the air conditioning system guarantees that you won't get sweaty in even the hottest of conditions. A nine-speaker six-CD JBL stereo system provides deep-bass sounds that guarantee your Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue compilations will be an aural delight for you. The T-Spirit model comes complete with a full-colour satellite navigation system guaranteed to get you to your destination and a parking camera that shows everything behind you on the centre-console screen when you're reversing. If you're feeling really flash, why not use the assisted parking system? Put the car into reverse and navigate the green box on the screen into the gap you wish to park the car in and then sit back and let the Prius do all the hard work. It's a must for the wife. No, really, it is! Have you seen her try to park my Jeep?
In essence, at this point, you might be wondering what is so special about this Prius? Compared to other top-model hatchbacks it's a little expensive, but only by a thousand pounds or two and the level of luxury and equipment you get more than outweighs the extra few quid you're paying. It's when you begin to drive the Prius that you notice things are a little different.
First of all, turning the key is a thing of the past. Put your key card into the ignition and then push the Start/Stop button. You'll notice that nothing happens - or, at least, you think nothing's happened. The gear lever is a little column switch that has three options - forward, reverse, and 'brake'. In other automatics, this last bit is known as 'park', so why Toyota feel the need to confuse us further I have no idea. The gear system is a variable transmission rather than a complete auto, which means that you don't notice the gear change as you would in other cars. The variable transmission, however, is necessary because of the little Toyota's unique engine.
This is a hybrid, which means it has both a 1.5 litre petrol engine and an electric engine, known as the Hybrid Synergy Drive. In layman's terms, this means that while the car is at idle, or moving around town at speeds below 28 miles per hour, the petrol engine isn't running at all. Instead, you're driving around on a battery-powered unit, which is cleverly recharged via the braking system each time you slow down. Accelerate hard or go above 28mph and the petrol engine kicks in to give you that extra power to go faster. The transition from electric to petrol power is almost seamless. You hear the engine kick in, but there's no awkward interruption to your driving nor jerky gear change as it happens thanks to the variable transmission, and as soon as you reduce speed or start to slow down the petrol powerplant cuts out and the car returns to the battery option.
It's incredibly clever, a little bit quirky and undeniably cool. Toyota estimate that this system cuts fuel consumption by 40% and they state on their website that the car will return an average of 65.7 miles to the gallon on a combined cycle. Depending on your independent motoring magazine of choice, however, some of these figures are disputed.
On the motorway, at an average speed of 70mph, I saw the car return just shy of 40mpg; not bad by any medium-sized car's standards. Around town, however, the story is very different. Working my way through London's congested streets the engine barely came in to play, which had the computer estimating an average fuel consumption of 99.9 mpg. I think that's because it couldn't equate above 100, but we'll never know. Either way, the car ran for ever without needing to stop at a petrol station, something that's a bit of a habit for me in my everyday four-litre Jeep.
You have the option of displaying on the centre screen a graphic that shows exactly what engine is running, where the power is going, and whether you're being green and economical or not. It's highly entertaining and very informative but I wouldn't recommend using it for very long - I lost count of how many old grannies I nearly ran over as I concentrated hard on the screen and not letting the petrol engine cut in. Equally, the poor old grannies couldn't hear me coming because, when it's running on batteries, the Prius makes no sound whatsoever. It's sort of like K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider when he was running in Silent Mode.
Driving the Prius is equally satisfying. This is no Formula One car and nobody's ever going to ask you if you think you're Lewis Hamilton, but it's perky enough to keep up with the Jones's on an average run. The 1.5 litre petrol engine is solid enough and quiet enough that it isn't intrusive even when you're breaking the speed limit and it's 0-60 dash is reached in a somewhat respectable ten seconds. It doesn't handle too bad, either, and the ride is firm enough to prevent seasickness whilst comfortable enough to remind you that you aren't driving a teeth-jarring Subaru Imprezza. Coupled with the standard-fit fly-by-wire throttle, ABS Braking system, Brake Assist, Electronic Brake Force Distribution, Electronic Traction Control and Vehicle Stability Control Plus, Toyota have made sure that this car shouldn't be too easy to crash unless you literally do drive it like a dork. If you do manage to crash it, however, the four airbags and front and rear air curtains, along with electronic sensing pre-tensioned seatbelts, side impact beams on all doors, head impact protection structure in the roof and door pillars and energy absorbing crumple zones front and rear mean that the car will look an unsightly mess if you accidentally bump it up a kerb, but at least you will be safe and will be able to walk away unharmed, save for the cut on your finger where you dropped your mobile phone.
And just in case you do decide to use a mobile phone, the T-Spirit comes complete with full bluetooth compatibility to ensure that you never have to pick your phone up at any time while driving.
It's so good, you can see why even the Z-list celebs are replacing their Bentleys with Toyota Priuses. Not only is it exceptional value, but on top of that you don't have to pay Red Ken's Congestion Charge and your annual road tax is only £15 a year. What more can you ask for?
I love this car, and I really didn't think I would. It's great, it's good value considering the options and safety on it, and even for the top model fully loaded it will cost you a smidge under £22'500. And that's before you've bartered with your dealer. If you drive into London daily it'll save you almost £2'000 a year and that, alone, means you should consider it over VW's Golf and other such competitors.
This, then, is a great car. Affordable, luxurious, roomy, well-equipped and bloody cheap to run. It even seems to keep the environmentalists quiet, too. But will it really save the planet?
Well, no. You see, there's still a big problem when it comes to the hybrid system. If it's hot outside and you want the air conditioning on, then the engine has to be running - even if the car is standing still. The system will keep trying to switch the engine off to save the planet and your fuel bill, but the generator quickly drains the battery so the car has to start itself up again. It's not an inconvenience from a driver's perspective, but it's not exactly environmentally friendly and, as we keep getting told the planet's getting hotter each day, it's unlikely that you're ever going to want to switch the air con off. And then there's the battery factory in Arizona that makes the special batteries this system needs. A ten-square-mile radius around the factory has been desecrated, rendered totally lifeless thanks to the poisonous acids that escape from the industrial plant.
The Prius is an excellent car. The Hybrid system is the best available on the market and it'll be a Godsend when it eventually works its way into all the other cars in the Toyota/Lexus range. It'll save you oodles of money and it'll have you living like a movie star.
But the planet's still going to warm up and there's not a lot the little Prius can do to stop it.