2008 Toyota Prius

I had already got some broad ideas for an introduction for this article. It started with an apology to all those other motorists on the M1 during my journey, having forced them to view my wonder-wheels and in doing so considering me to be one of the smug, self-satisfied, hype believing misled eco warrior wannabes.

You see, I love cars. I love sports cars even more but equally I don’t like being lied to. Climate change, carbon emissions and all that jargon is a controversial subject and one which no-one can conclusively prove. There are as many reports negating the human impact on the environment as there are doom mongers who say the end of the world is nigh just because I’m driving to work in a morning and I like my heating on at night.

The marketing for the Eco-friendly hybrid alternatives has been somewhat lame. Aimed at a stereotypical road-going train spotter who likes wearing cream trousers and knitted jumpers, the eco-cars have a functional design to match the target audience.

Enter the Prius.

Toyota Prius

Toyota Prius

To look at, you could be forgiven for thinking it was one of the lower end Korean car manufacturers’ best attempt at a cheap family hatchback. I mean, really – could it be any more bland an uninspiring? To look like this, with no real shape or design influence one could only assume it has been done deliberately.

This is the revised model and looks marginally better than the original Prius, with the very latest model looking better still. Looking at it individually it looks ‘OK’ – it certainly isn’t offensive, but it doesn’t stand out. You are an absolute man of anonymity in this car. Add to this the silent running engine and you feel invisible too as you wait whilst another person ambles across your path not realising that the car is actually in motion.

At the petrol station over the weekend, I pulled up next to a BMW M5 and in comparison my little Prius looked seriously cheap and very, very tacky. A different league, granted, but you’ll never win over well-heeled businessmen with this box that’s for sure.

Regardless, my recent business trip meant my choice was either a Passat, or a Prius. After the age old comedy line to the assistant who has probably heard it a hundred times as to whether the car will send me headlong into a field of its own accord, I chose the Passat. But all night, I couldn’t help but wonder what a Prius might be like to drive. A hybrid – electric car. An interesting prospect. Petrol heads pre judge them, yet Eco’s and Hollywood love them. I’m of an open mind and curiosity got the better of me.

The next morning I swapped my choice and here she is… all silver and….dull.

The Toyota Prius

The Toyota Prius

But there much more to this car than its looks. The last time I had instructions on how to get a car moving was 15 years ago when I started driving. Yet here I am again, this time with a bit of scrap paper in hand telling me what to do next. Shove the plastic fob into hole. Press brake. Press Start. A few bits of whirring, then electric pops and bangs. Nothing else. Hmmmm… Embarassingly I opened the door to see if I could hear any sound of engine/electric noise. Nope. Has it really started? Strange business this electric stuff. I checked my scrap of paper again. “Check dashboard”. It dutifully tells me that the car is now ‘ready’, so apparently we’re ready. Tap the gear stick over to Drive, punch the ‘hand’brake with your left foot(!) and we are off!

The first thing that you realise is that this car ain’t normal and this makes it truly fascinating. But a little frustrating. Either way never before has my journey home, stuck solid in Friday traffic being so entertaining!

Inside
In the cabin nothing is where it should be. I would imagine this is deliberate to remind the driver that they are in something special and ‘futuristic’. The Speedo is right out below the window, along with the fuel gauge. Nothing else of interest is up front, all functions are on the centre screen. More on this in a moment.

Toyota Prius Interior

Toyota Prius Interior

The driving position isn’t great to say they have so much room available. The steering wheel is down around my knees, but the driving seat is elevated, feeling more like a people carrier. It is very odd. The plastic on the dashboard looks cheap – and there is a lot of it. The design is like something you’d imagine from a future production car but watered down with some of today’s naff budget material. Maybe if it was all shiny smooth white gloss or something we’d have a real future box on our hands!

The readouts do not tell you any of the typical stuff your used to in a car. Thermostat? Nah. Oil pressure? Nope. Gear selection? None of that here. Your in ‘drive’ – that means ‘go forward’ and that’s all you need to know. The unconventional design of the engine is truly interesting marvel of engineering. There are no gears, just some fancy wizardry best described with planets, orbits and some electrical brains controlling it all.

What about that centre screen then? First up, the bad news – its too far away. To press the climate button, or any other button to the left of the screen, you have to stretch. And See that typical radio below the screen? It doesn’t actually display anything. It is just a shiny bit of plastic. Audio, Climate, Phone, SatNav and fuel consumption outputs are all controlled and viewed on the centre screen. But this causes some confusion. The radio for example is very higgledy piggledy. If you want to change the station, you have a number of disarrayed options. First you select the physical radio button next to the screen (stretch). Then you use the touch screen to select the station. Or you can use the buttons on the steering wheel. Unless you want to manually scan the band, in which case you use the ‘real’ radio below, which has ‘real’ buttons for manual scanning. But this makes the steering wheel controls manual-scanning too. To make them navigate through the presets, you have to hit the touch screen again. The volume is on the ‘real’ radio, but bass and treble are on the touch screen. Its very all-over-the-place. The JBL speakers are Just Bloody Lousy too.

Toyota Prius Dashboard

Toyota Prius Dashboard

And don’t get me started on the stat nav. This actually had me shouting, screeching and literally punching the buttons at the weekend during a period of lostness in Leeds city centre. Its absolutely sh1te and that’s being kind. For a kick off you can’t set it going when the car is moving. OK, so I shouldn’t be doing anything whilst driving but what about my passenger eh? You know she is there, Prius; you were frantically panicking about the seatbelt earlier. There is also no postcode search. When you have finally entered your destination, you have NO CLUE as to whether it is plotting a route or not; the SatNav will, out of the blue, start barking orders at you after a period of uncertainty. But where it will take you is anyone’s guess. I wanted a road 2 miles away which, despite being there since Leeds was invented, wasn’t on the SatNav. So I programmed in the nearest main road. I checked it had found the correct road and it estimated an hour an a half to arrival – trying to send me back onto the motorway!!

And THEN…. after sending me back on the ring road for the umpteenth time I couldn’t shut her up!! I swear I had steam coming out of my ears as my missus frantically pressed each and every button to try and get the stupid thing from telling me repeatedly, at every button press to “take next left” (in the wrong direction). Absolutely DIRE.

Ass-glass

Ass-glass

The Verdict

So, the Prius is a bit rubbish then?

Well.. actually no. Having lived with it for a week and several hundred miles I am surprised to say that, for the job it is intended, it is actually quite good. It’s very quiet for a start. The engine sounds coarse if your giving it some beans and much prefers cruising. But when you are cruising it is a genuinely nice place to be. If you are a motorway kind of guy then this car gives a relaxing ride.

The steering lacks sporty feel as does the handling, but then it’s not even remotely trying to be sporty. It wants to waft about and it wafts nicely without giving you a sea-sick feeling. The seats don’t have side bolsters which I thought would be uncomfortable but both my lower-back and my mind completely disagree. You arrive at your journey end relatively relaxed and I’ve had not even a hint of back pain whilst driving this car.
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Economy

Prius Fuel Consumption

Prius Fuel Consumption

So what about fuel economy? The computer recorded an impressive 62.7mpg on the way home from work. This is a 30 mile commute, largely motorway and on a Friday afternoon means a fair amount of stop/start. Remember this is a petrol engine (cool) and an electric engine (cooler) not a clunky diesel. Overall, for a full tank of petrol doing a long motorway stint and local road driving, we averaged a computer indicated 48mpg. A point to note is that the computer over embellishes a little with its accuracy – a few sums revealed that a real world figure on this occasion was actually 41mpg. However the car is no slouch and accelerates quicker than you’d expect and can handle motorway speeds and overtaking with aplomb. A breathless underpowered car this isn’t.

Toys
The Prius also has a rear view camera, with computer aids imprinted on the screen to help you park. If that’s not enough, then the car will also park itself on your behalf. With a few presses of the touch screen, the Prius will reverse itself into a parking space or parallel park at your behest. Watching the steering wheel move about on its own its fantastic fun and when taking it to show my parents, my mum’s face was an absolute picture. “Its like Knight Rider!!!” she exclaimed! Being an old-school mechanic, my Dad loved the technology and engineering but wondered about longevity and future costs. This is something I have also considered – would this make a good used buy I wonder? Time will tell.

Here is a little (and a little naff) video I made showing the park assist doing its thing…

Summary
In America, the majority of people drive a petrol car. Big lazy engines with poor miles per gallon. There isn’t a great infrastructure for LPG or diesel and I’ll wager many other countries are the same. So here is a huge target market for the Prius, diesel economy from a petrol car whilst waving a ‘green’ flag with its eco posterior (the “Hybrid Synergy Drive” no less – sounds good doesn’t it!).

In the UK its a good alternative if you don’t want the tractor sound of a derv-burner. As a car-fiend, I absolutely couldn’t have this car as my only means of transport. It’s not exciting enough. But to get you to work and back, with something special tucked away for the weekends it absolutely does make sense. It really is worth considering as a company car. Zero road tax, fella’s!

This car is comfortable, quiet, has great gadgets and enjoys promising fuel economy. If you are the kind of guy or gal who sits on motorways in traffic then you’ll benefit the most. If it’s a relatively clear journey for your day to day commute, then the Prius may be a tad worse than a diesel. The nifty Toyota really comes into its own in traffic and it does excel in this area. But please, please, please – buy a TomTom.

Hybrid Synergy Drive!

Hybrid Synergy Drive!

Final Thought
When your stuck in traffic, it really does perk you up a bit knowing that your spending absolutely no money whilst crawling past another set of bollards. I guess owners can be justifiably smug in a Prius.

Now all Toyota need to do is wrap all this eco technology in a body that we will actually want to buy. The new Celica perhaps?

April 2010