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We are living through challenging times, especially when it comes to the environment. Governments are putting pressure on so many companies to reduce their carbon footprint & none more so than car manufacturers. You can’t invent solutions overnight but all the car makers are trying their best to produce more environmentally friendly vehicles, it is costing billions of pounds for research at a time when we are enduring the worst financial crisis in our history. However, one car maker did ‘steal a march’ on the competition & introduced a hybrid in 1997 which can still be purchased today.
WHAT IS A HYBRID?
In this particular case it is a car that has a conventional petrol engine as well as a separate battery that can power it electronically. You start the car on battery power & drive at slow speeds emitting no emissions, once the battery power becomes low or you need more power; the engine kicks in to allow you to finish your journey. You don’t have to plug this car into the mains to recharge the battery, it does it itself through a series of clever systems.
The results is a very low emissions vehicle, at present it is one of the lowest with an engine fitted & thus saves the owner a fortune on fuel bills & road excise duty as owning one of these vehicles exempts you from paying road tax. Oh, & you get to travel around the City of London without paying the congestion charge too.
HISTORY OF THE TOYOTA PRIUS
Work started in 1994 & the original Prius was introduced in 1997 & two years later in the UK. It was years ahead of its time & due to the enormous cost of producing the special battery that powers the car, Toyota subsidised the cost to allow the public to buy the car at an affordable price. It never sold in great numbers, however when the second version was introduced (and the subject of this review) with many improvements, the time must have been right as the Prius started to sell in serious numbers. We all became more aware of the environmental concerns & the car answered a lot of the critic’s questions. The ‘Hollywood set’ bought them & all of a sudden sales rocketed.
A newer version has just been introduced & makes even more significant improvements on the previous version. Of course when a good idea is introduced it can take a while before other manufacturers follow as they want to assess the market carefully. Honda introduced their hybrid a couple of years after Toyota but never had the same success, now many other car makers are developing their versions so hybrids will become more popular.
Are they the answer to our problems? Are these cars any good in the real world?
THE TOYOTA PRIUS
I was fortunate enough to drive two separate models in different circumstances over the period of three
Pictures of Toyota Prius Hybrid 1.5 VVT-i
Toyota Prius Hybrid 1.5 VVT-i simple dash display
days a couple of months ago. One was driven around a city for two days & one on a longer journey for an afternoon & this gave me a good idea how these cars perform in the real world. At present the Prius is one of the most technically advanced cars in the world & a lot of its features are different from other cars.
The Prius (the Mk 2 version) is not a big car; it’s slightly smaller than an old style Ford Mondeo or Vauxhall Vectra. It’s a five door hatchback that seats five people & it looks a bit odd. Its shape is deliberate to minimise wind deflection & thus make it more efficient, it is also a very lightweight car & shows when you start to look at it in detail. It’s made in Japan, so build quality is top notch & first impressions are good, nice paintwork, good finish, even gaps around the panels all inspire confidence. Because the rear window lies quite flat & may make reversing difficult, Toyota designed a small window below the rear window to aid reversing. Between the two windows is a small spoiler which I have to say looks & feels a bit flimsy.
Toyota do not supply a conventional key with the Prius, you get a small fob with an emergency key built inside it, there are two buttons for locking & unlocking the doors. Open the doors which are quite light in construction & sit inside & you are amazed on how roomy it is inside. This is a genuine five seater car with ample space for five adults; there is no gear lever or handbrake between the seats, just a big comfy arm rest.
The dash has a very minimalistic look about it, no heater controls, a radio CD but very few controls to operate it & just a little gear knob sticking out of the dash. What dominates the dash is a large blank screen which is the energy monitor when the vehicle is started & doubles up as the heating controls, radio display & info screen.
Where is the speedo I hear you asking? Well, ahead of the driver’s line of vision below the windscreen is a small display featuring a digital speedo reading, fuel gauge, gear selector gauge & some warning lamps. You don’t get a rev counter or temperature gauge.
The car has numerous cubby holes, the large central armrest opens up to reveal a large lined box with a lined sliding tray for coins, pens etc. It also has two cup holders that open up & a drawer at the front to hold larger objects. There is a generous glove box & door bins so space is not at a premium.
Boot space is excellent & ample for a family’s needs; there is no parcel shelf at the back only a roller cover which is satisfactory. The rear seats fold down to enlarge luggage space in the boot.
Equipment levels are quite good, the Prius comes with climate control, a decent radio/CD, air bags, electric mirrors, windows & central locking. It also comes with 60.000 mile / 3 year warranty but the hybrid system is covered for 100.000 miles & 8 years, such is the confidence Toyota have in the system.
Although the Prius has a conventional battery under the bonnet to start the car, operate the lights & wipers as normal, there is another special battery under the rear seat that drives the car. It is so important that the cooling vents on the side of the rear seat are not blocked which would cause the special battery to overheat. Not good!
DRIVING THE PRIUS
This is not easy the first time you enter the car, first you take the key fob & place it in the slot provided on the dash. At night the slot is lit up to make life easy. Once inserted, you press the starter button next to it & keep your foot on the brake, the energy monitor & instrument display lights up. One thing at this stage is missing, there is no engine noise, no hum, no hiss, nothing, just silence as you are on battery power. Just so that you know everything is OK, the word ‘ready’ pops up on the instrument display in red. You then take the little spring loaded gear lever & engage ‘D’, you only have few options here anyway, ‘R’ reverse, ‘N’ neutral, ‘B’ (more about that later) & ‘P’ Park on the switch above the lever. As you engage drive the park switch automatically disengages & the car lurches forward slightly as the parking brake is still on.
If you’re lucky you’ll find the parking brake & release it, it took me five minutes to find it. Although the Prius is an automatic it has what looks like a clutch pedal, but it actual fact it’s the parking brake! You put on the parking brake by pressing the pedal to the floor & it stays there, little wonder I couldn’t find it in the dark! You press it again to release it. Once released we are moving & everything is eerily silent, all you hear is the tyres going over the road surface. No noises like the old battery powered milk floats, no creaks, squeaks or rattles, nothing.
Once the speed reached 10-15mph, depending on how much power is in the battery the engine kicks in, you can just hear it. There is no conventional starter motor; it just starts when it’s ready.
As you don’t have the same problems as a normal electric car, such as lack of power & the worry of running out of power, you just drive the Prius as normal.
Performance is brisk considering you only have a small 1500cc engine but remember the car is as lightweight as possible which does help. Stop at traffic lights for any longer than usual & the engine switches off, at first you panic as you think its cut out but in fact the engine may have shut down but your back on battery power. When you are ready to move off you remain on battery power until the engine is required & it kicks in again.
The automatic gearbox (there is no manual option) is not a conventional auto box but a CVT gearbox, that stands for constant variable transmission. You won’t feel it changing gears so driving it is very smooth indeed & ideal for this particular vehicle.
Instead of using the ‘D’ for drive selection on the gearbox, Toyota recommend you use the ‘B’ selection. In ‘B’ it will drive as per normal but every time you take your foot off the throttle the battery will get a charge, this is called regenerative braking. In reality it’s like slowing down with the handbrake slightly on, but it is charging your main battery each time you slow down. The main battery will also charge as you drive the car, with constant braking & slowing down it didn’t take long for my Prius to get its battery charged up in town, but with less braking on the motorway it did take considerably longer to charge. Progress can be viewed on the central energy monitor display.
Brakes are excellent, the power steering is electronically controlled & although a little too light for my tastes, it doesn’t take long to get used to. The car handles like any other modern car & it rides quite smoothly too. In fact the whole driving experience is just a normal car except for the low speed battery powered parts. You do get a habit of watching the energy monitor all the time just to make sure the battery is getting a full charge. Press a couple of buttons & the energy monitors changes to a bar graph & displays your average & current fuel consumption.
Now the disappointing part, driving the car was fun despite the stigma attached to these types of vehicles. It is well designed & according to the Prius technician I spoke to, they never have reliability issues with them. However, town driving recorded 44mpg which I thought was quite good, a 60 mile blast down a motorway in a hurry only recorded 42mpg. If I had driven it with a little less enthusiasm, I dare say it would have touched 50 mpg, but still no where near Toyota’s overall figure of over 65mpg.
Considering these cars cost £18k just before the model was replaced last August can anyone justify paying this rather high price for a car that only recorded the same figures as my trusty little Toyota Yaris 1.3 which cost a mere fraction of that?
If you’re concerned about the environment, then I would say it’s a fair price to pay, but there are many cars that are much cheaper that will achieve better fuel consumption without being so complex.
This leads to the next problem, the general public are wary of the technical complexities of the Prius & reluctant to buy one second-hand. Only in time when more manufacturers start producing them will this reluctance to buy older ones change. As it stands today, I’m not convinced the future is hybrids, I think it is a short term fix for a long term problem. However, the Prius it still remains one hell of technical achievement.
See attached pictures of interior, dash display & engine bay
I knew about the toyota's break issues for half a decade (seriously). I'm surprise they just noticed (they recalled half a million cars lately). Anyway, fantastic review. Anan
RICHADA 17.01.2010 22:49
This (the latest, more powerful version) is another car that I have really been looking forward to trying, the technology just fascinates me. HOWEVER and it's a big one, your comments on the real life fuel consumption reflect everything that I've heard about it - on a run it's no more economical than my four wheel drive Diesel Subaru, it's a damned site less quick, or useful when the going gets tough (as it has here recently) too. Richard.
paulpry118 11.12.2009 22:27
We have contemplated getting one of these and took a test drive but have decided we are probably going to leave it for another couple of years