Toyota Prius moves from merely pious to pretty nifty
By Jim Bray
Don't sit too close to this column lest you become collateral damage from the lightning strike it may prompt.
Why? Because for the first time ever, I spent a week driving a Toyota Prius and I didn't hate every second behind the wheel. And I have to be honest enough to tell you that.
What's going on here?
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What's going on is a new generation of Prius. Oh, it's hardly the perfect vehicle, and it has undergone an appalling uglification process in the creation of this fourth generation of Toyota's world-beating hybrid (what's with this current trend among some Japanese manufacturers to over style their vehicles with excess pleats, wrinkles and the like?), but I have to admit that I had a comparative blast in this car compared to my usual problem of staying awake while behind the wheel of previous generation Prii.
I still wouldn't buy one, but for once I liked the car. Mostly. And I can see why people would choose one, if only for the outrageous gas mileage it gets. Hell, once I discovered the new Prius doesn't penalize drivers too much I drove the thing as if it were a Porsche Cayman (well, as much as I could, all things being equal, which they aren't) and the worst fuel mileage I ever got was 5.4 litres/100 km. That translates to just over 53 miles per Imperial gallon, and most days (you can get a day-by-day mileage readout if you desire) I did more like the low four litres/100 kilometres, which is more like 60+ MPG. With a lead foot! Remarkable!
What we have here, then, is a hybrid that gets better gas mileage than ever and is more interesting to drive than ever. If it were priced around the same as a reasonably loaded Corolla, which is sized approximately the same, I'd call it a win-win. Alas, it's about six grand more than a Corolla and you can buy a lot of gasoline with that cash saving.
If I ran Toyota, I'd just make the Prius a hybrid Corolla because Toyota's legendary small sedan is a much nicer car overall. Of course if they did that, owners wouldn't be able to show off their "smug emissions" (hat tip to South Park) by driving a car that's recognizable instantly as a world saving eco warrior.
Still, I have a feeling this new Prius is going to do very well for the company. And so does Toyota, not that one would expect anything else. "The 2016 Toyota Prius is ready to win over new fans with bold new styling, a more dynamic fun-to-drive spirit, and rewarding fuel efficiency," said Cyril Dimitris, Vice President of Toyota Canada Inc. "Rebuilt from the road up, what we've achieved with this vehicle in terms of dynamics and technology makes as strong of a statement about the future of mobility as when we released the first generation and pioneered an exciting class of vehicles."
Indeed. Well, except for the "exciting class of vehicles" part. Till now, anyway. And sorry Toyota, if anyone pioneered the hybrid, it was Honda, with its awful little Insight. Toyota pretty much owns the segment now, however.
Prii get their power via Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive, which couples (well, "trios") the output of a 1.8-litre four cylinder gasoline engine with two motor/generators via, unfortunately, an electronically-controlled planetary-type continuously variable transmission (CVT). The CVT is like most of them - whiny and enthusiasm-sapping - but it's no worse than many others.
As is the wont of technology as it marches forward, the Prius uses smaller and lighter hybrid components, including "a newly available lithium-ion hybrid battery in addition to the existing nickel-metal hydride." This means Toyota has been able to slide the new battery under the rear seat, rather than the trunk, which opens up more cargo space. The new hybrid system also operates more efficiently and quietly than before, they say.
Drivers can now choose between new Normal and Power driving modes. I pretty well left it in Power once I learned of its relative delights, and was pleased to discover that the Prius defaults to whatever mode you left it in when you fire it up subsequently. I wish all cars were like that. It isn't a big deal, but it's thoughtful design.
There's also an EV mode that's electric only, but in my experience you have to drive the thing so gently that it's only useful in parking lots, for annoying other drivers at newly green lights, or for those who relish getting their doors blown off by pedestrians.
Which reminds me; while driving the new Prius I had a couple of occasions to wipe the smug smiles off the face of pimply-faced kids who thought their coffee-can-exhausted Japanese cars would make short work of the Prius once the red light turned green. They didn't, though they probably didn't try too hard since they obvoiusly underestimated the dynamics of the new Prius. They sure put a smile on my face, though once again I had to duck down because I thought I'd be struck by lightning! Well, that and I didn't want to be seen driving a Prius…
Inside, the new Prius is still quite annoying, but no worse than before. There's still an instrument pod mounted in the middle of the dashboard, which is nice for Toyota because they don't have to change it for left or right hand-drive areas of the world marketplace, but I've never liked it that way. And the seat heaters are placed oddly, mounted down below most of the centre stack and a long reach away. The audio system is still weak and uninteresting, too, though it works fine and is easy to figure out.
Prii continue to feature Toyota's odd insult to the intelligence of its drivers: an annoying beeping noise that rears its ugly head whenever you shift into reverse. It's like those beeps you hear from commercial trucks when they back up, except that in the Toyota it only beeps inside the car, so it doesn't warn anyone outside! Sure, it reminds the driver that he/she/it is in reverse, but so does the transmission readout on the dash (assuming the act of the driver actually having shifted into reverse goes unnoticed by said driver). You can also tell you're in reverse because the rear view camera fires up and - here's the kicker: the car actually starts moving backwards!
I've never understood the rationale for that.
But, heck, if you can get around such things you'll find a car that's far more fun to drive - and more fuel efficient - than you'd expect it to be. The brake feel is decent, as is the steering, and I even liked how the suspension felt (including its new, double wishbone setup "out back"). Sure, you'll never confuse the Prius with a Supra, if there still were such a car, but if you're found previoius Prii to be wanting, you may be as gobsmacked as I am.
Naturally, the new Prius is full of real "safety features" as well. Toyota says it's one of the first vehicles in Canada to be offered with "the available Toyota Safety Sense (TSS) system" which blends a Pre-Collision System with Pedestrian Detection, Lane Departure Alert with Steering Assist, Auto High Beam and Full-Speed Dynamic Radar Cruise Control into a single undoubtedly quite annoying and intrusive package (if it's like other such systems). It also comes with eight airbags, Active Front Headrests with Whiplash Protection (you'll be safe if you run afoul of Indiana Jones!), a Direct Tire Pressure Monitoring System, and the Toyota Star Safety System of Smart Stop Technology, Vehicle Stability Control, Antilock Braking System, Traction Control, Electronic Brake Force Distribution and Brake Assist.
You also get such normal amenities as Bluetooth for phone and tunes, voice recognition, automatic temperate control and the like, and it all works very well.
Toyota Canada's sample started at a base price of $25,995 CAD (which Toyota says is $300 less than the outgoing generation's) and it had nearly $900 worth of extras added to it, including the $590 Upgrade Package (nannies, auto high beam and heated front seats). It also cost an extra $255 because of the attractive Hypersonic Red premium paint. All that extra stuff brought the price, sans taxes and other fees, to $26,840 CAD, which puts it in the range of a fairly loaded 2017 Hyundai Elantra, VW Jetta, and the like - gas versions, of course. Honda, according to its Canadian website, still has a hybrid in this price range - the CR-Z - but it's more of a two seat sports coupe than a "practical" family sedan.
Toyota has done a remarkable job with this fourth generation Prius. I'm still not a fan of the car, but will eat a certain amount of crow by admitting that this one is a huge step forward in the driving dynamics and fuel economy departments, and I never expected that going into my review period.
Watch out for that lightning!
Copyright 2016 Jim Bray
Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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