The fourth generation of the hybridists’ hybrid is here.
Day one: The Prius is waiting for me when I get home. You couldn’t miss it, sitting outside and scowling at other cars. There’s no easy way to say it; this is an alarming looking car. The front isn’t too bad, what with all its dramatic, triangular detailing and its low, pointy nose but then this section doesn’t seem to match up properly with the tall windscreen and from thereon it all goes a bit mental, what with the swooping roof leading into a blacked out rear pillar like something Citroen might think about, and the doors with two kinds of scallop in them. Then we reach the back end where the roof inexplicably develops fangs and the back lights seem to have melted. It’s as if Toyota got all huffy about people saying their cars looked boring and completely over-reacted in a petulant, slightly crazed way that they’re going to regret in the morning. I want to applaud them for their bravery, but only in the same way I might applaud someone lowering their bollocks into a blender. Really, I’m thinking they must be mad or stupid or both. Anyway, I’ve got to go somewhere and the good thing about the Prius is that if you’re in it, you can’t see the outside. You can also admire the interior, which is much nicer than the outside, and enjoy the smooth, quiet way in which the whole thing moves down the road.
Later I go to see a mate. His teenage son comes in from looking at the Prius and announces that he likes the way it looks. So maybe it’s just me being an old fart.
Day two: Crawling in almost total silence around London’s life sapping North Circular ringroad this morning I noticed that the man in the next lane was enthusiastically taking pictures of the Prius. Either he was spamming his own Instagram account with pictures entitled ‘urrgh luk at this horible car!!!!!’ or he quite liked it. I don’t know. Possibly the latter. He was driving a Mini Countryman so there’s some evidence that his eyes don’t work properly. Anyway, the Prius turns out to be a good car in which to tackle bad traffic. It’s comfortable. The massive windscreen makes it very light inside. It’s extremely refined. There are no gears to worry about and it has that instant torque you get from electric motors which is always nice. Aside from getting papped by a Specsavers dodger in a fat Mini, it’s an unusually relaxing journey.
Day three: At today’s New York motor show Toyota announced a plug-in version of the Prius. It has a more aggressive front end and back lights that don’t seem to be dribbling down the bumper. As a result, it’s much less upsetting to look at. On the inside, you can have it with a massive, Tesla-ish, portrait aspect touchscreen. This is all very nice, but the interior of the normal car is perfectly decent. The plastics are much better than in previous models and there are some nice details, like the little Prius branded tabs that move the vents. Conversely, there are a couple of things that are a bit odd. Firstly, the heated seat switches are hidden at the bottom of the dash, behind the ‘floating’ centre stack so you have to lean forward to operate your own arse warmer and, because there’s a bit of dash in the way, you’re completely denied the hot day delight of setting your passenger’s heater to maximum when they’re not looking. The second bit of strangeness is within the very nice and very glossy TFT screen that makes up the instrument panel where, in a complete clash of technologies, they’ve installed the same rinky-dink LED digital clock fitted to every Toyota since 1978. It’s so dated and so out of place it must be there as part of some knowingly ironic in-joke. Still, the rest of the interior is fine. And I suppose in 20 years time when all the TFT trickery has gone on the blink, at least you’ll still be able to tell the time. No, hang on a sec. I used to have an ancient Lexus LS400 and that cacky clock was the only thing on the entire car that didn’t work properly. Bah!
Day four: The old Prius had a funny, hollow feeling to it, as if they’d made it out of very thin materials to offset the weight of the batteries. The old Prius also used to make a bit of a strange droning noise when you clogged it as the CVT gearbox let the engine whinny up to high revs and then hold itself there. Both things made it feel a bit cheap and nasty. The new car does not feel like this. It comes across as sturdier and more expensive. If you really lean on it, there’s a bit of mooing from the petrol engine, but it’s quieter and less unpleasant. Also, the ride is quite good. Around town, it’s a very relaxing way to get about. It just goes and stops and does what’s needed without demanding much from the driver apart from the occasional bit of steering and braking and the other things that come as part of not having an accident.
Day five: We’re on our way home from seeing some friends across town when my wife announces that she doesn’t like this car. ‘I feel like I’m in an Uber,’ she grumbles. I contemplate completing the experience by popping Magic on the radio and then missing the turning for our street. But she does have a point. In London at least, a Prius is a taxi. I was in Los Angeles recently and the same seems to be true there. Toyota don’t even shy away from this any more because you can order the new Prius with a ‘taxi pack’ which includes fake leather seats, a boot liner and rubber floor mats. You have to make it smell like sick and synthetic daffodils on your own. On the one hand, the cab thing isn’t brilliant for the image amongst private buyers. On the other hand, it’s a pretty towering tribute to the way Toyota has made a very complicated piece of petro-lectrical technology work seamlessly well and with the kind of reliability that allows it to be ragged around city streets seven days a week without going wrong. Think about that for a sec and it’s really impressive. Oh sorry, was that your turning there? It’s quite hard to see on this tiny smart phone screen which I’ve got clipped to the dashboard by the door.
Day six: I was going to take the Prius for a proper, dab-of-oppo drive in the countryside but really, what’s the point? I can’t imagine it would be amazing fun on a swishing B-road. That’s not what it was designed for and not what anyone is going to do with it. In its natural habitat, which is trundling around the city, it does its job. Rather well actually, since a big part of its job is being economical and it seems pathologically incapable of doing much less than 60mpg.
Yesterday we were in the Prius when my wife suddenly said, ‘What’s got into you?’ Oh God, I thought, she’s going to bring up that thing about why I refuse to get matching bath towels. But no, she was puzzled as to why I didn’t go round a dithering driver ahead but happily let them bimble across our way. ‘Normally you’d have been round him in a second,’ she observed quizzically. I hadn’t the guts to say it’s because the Prius has this display that scores your driving, I’d just got 96 out of 100 and I was buggered if I was going to ruin my stats for one mash of the throttle. So that’s why this car seems so economical. It’s turned the dreary business of fuel saving into a competitive sport. Clever.
Day seven: I’m still troubled by the styling of this car. I want to like it because there are some bits that I quite enjoy, like the blacked out rear pillar and that scooped out bit in the rear wings, but as a whole I just can’t get on with it at all. Maybe it’s just too futuristic for my tiny mind. To check this, I emailed a proper car designer expecting that he’d explain how clever and technically complicated it was and that I was wrong. Oh dear me no. He hates it even more than me and delivers an eloquent rant accusing it of looking like two designs stuck together and suggesting that the C-pillar assembly looks like it was ‘cobbled together in someone’s garage’. He also says the beltline is ‘all wrong’ making the sides look too thick, the roof has a ‘peak’ which makes it look taller when it’s meant to be sleeker, the sill design forces your eye down which accentuates the pointy nose and the tall, slabby back end, the side sculpting is soft but then gets really boxy at the back, the A-pillar extension line is ‘weird’ and the wheels are too small. Also, he points out that the lower rear window line ‘wanders all over the surface below it’ and the fact they’ve nonetheless managed to achieve a really nice fit between these two ill-matched shapes just demonstrates how skilled Toyota is at building cars but not at styling them. So there we go.
Day eight: A brisk, early morning run to Sussex bringing a chance to sling the Prius into a couple of roundabouts just to see what happens. The steering has a funny quick bit in the rack just off centre which I presume was put there to make it seem more dynamic. It does turn in with some vigour but the more you get all helmsmannish the more you also realise the wheel doesn’t really feel connected to the tyres, although there are other ways to discover that the front tyres will quickly lose their grip if you keep driving like a tit. None of this really matters. It’s better to sit back and relax, swooshing along in a calm and smooth way rather than trying to drive it like there’s a wasp in your trousers.
Goodbye: If you’re into cars you’re not meant to like the Prius. You see it all the time on car forums and in comments sections, all those rants about how it’s an eco car, a hand wringing hypocrites chariot or a clueless lead-hoof Uber-ists work tool. Which, when it comes to this new Prius, seems a bit unfair. As a piece of cleverness and indeed as a gadget, it’s an admirable piece of work. It has one job, which is to be a very economical and spacious urban workhorse. And in that score, it does a job and does it well. It’s not very exciting, but then nor is the average diesel hatchback and at least the Prius is quiet and won’t pump blobs of cancer into our children’s faces when the third owner pulls off the DPF. As a way of getting around the city, the Prius is calming and completely untaxing. It’s like driving, but less so. And sometimes there’s nothing wrong with that. You can see why minicabbers love ‘em. They’ll like this new one even more because in every respect it seems a lot better than the old model. As a device that’s fit for purpose, it’s pretty much bob on. It’s a good piece of engineering in a horrible piece of design.
The car talked about here is a Toyota Prius Business Edition Plus. It has a 1.8-litre petrol engine making 97 horsepower and an electric motor making 71 horsepower, although the quoted maximum ‘system output’ is 121bhp. It can go from 0 to 62 in 10.6 seconds and on to 112mph. This version costs £25,995.