Toyota Prius & Prius i-Tech

words - Ken Gratton
Build quality, refinement and exceptional engineering collide with 'oily-rag' motoring in the third-generation Prius

Toyota Prius & Prius i-Tech

Local Launch
Sydney, NSW

What we liked
>> Improved practicality, driveability
>> Steering feel
>> Spaciousness, ease of entry

Not so much
>> Noisy tyres
>> Purchase price
>> Interior plastics and switchgear placement

Overall rating: 3.0/5.0
Engine and Drivetrain: 3.0/5.0
Price, Packaging and Practicality: 3.0/5.0
Safety: 4.0/5.0
Behind the wheel: 3.0/5.0
X-factor: 3.0/5.0

About our ratings

-- This 'Gen 3' is no fuel guzzler
If this is the way of the future, it won't be so bad. There's no need for austerity measures 'in abundance' when Toyota can build a practical car that parks itself, maintains a safe distance from the car in front and keeps you ensconced in piped MP3-audio/leather-trimmed/climate-controlled comfort -- while returning an ideal-world fuel consumption figure below 4.0L/100km.

The Toyota in question is the third generation of its hybrid-drive Prius. It's a car that betters its predecessor's consumption figures and manages to break the 4.0L/100km threshold in all three types of ADR-approved fuel consumption testing -- scoring 3.9L/100km for city and combined cycles, 3.7L/100km for the highway.

It would be easy to write off the Prius as a high-priced exercise in conscience-clearing for green zealots, but the hybrid-drive Toyota -- particularly in high-grade 'i-Tech' guise -- is a technological wunderwagen.

-- Less cost to the environment, but a drain on the folding green
Toyota has confined the price of the base-grade Prius below $40,000 ($39,900), but the Prius i-Tech flagship hits the heights of $53,500 -- an increase of $6600 over the equivalent variant in the previous model range.

If that's just too steep for the new Prius buyer, there's a Navigation pack option for the base model, adding $5000 to the price of the entry-level car and taking the impost up to $44,900. That navigation pack adds satellite navigation with seven-inch screen, Intelligent Park Assist and reversing camera -- all features fitted as standard in the Prius i-Tech -- to the base car's specification.

The manufacturer justifies the pricing of the new model, explaining that the new entry-level model is cheaper to purchase than the first-generation Prius introduced here eight years ago. Furthermore, there's just a lot more technology in the new car than even its immediate predecessor, let alone the original Prius sedan.

The base Prius features the following standard items of equipment: 15-inch alloy wheels, seven airbags, stability control, keyless entry/start, auto-up/down electric windows, electric lumbar adjustment for driver's seat, steering wheel controls for air conditioning/audio/mobile phone, multi-information display, 'Touch Tracer' prompt system, Head-Up Display and eight-speaker audio.

For the Prius i-Tech, additional standard features comprise: DVD-based satellite navigation, Intelligent Park Assist (a system to reverse the car into a parking space with minimal involvement on the part of the driver), LED low-beam headlights, auto-headlight levelling, pop-up headlight cleaning, radar-based active cruise control, Pre-Crash safety system, sunroof-mounted solar cells to power interior cooling fans, leather-bound steering wheel, leather interior trim (seats/doors/rear of centre console), front-seat heating, electro-chromatic mirror, climate control and a tyre-repair kit in lieu of the space-saver spare fitted to the base model.

For further information on the high-tech features fitted to the Prius, in both levels of trim, see our detailed report here.

-- Prius ex machina
The technical details of the new Prius are covered in significantly greater detail here, but, in brief, the Prius is built on radically re-worked version of the current Corolla platform.

Also a development taken from the Corolla, the 1.8-litre 2ZR-FXE engine runs in an Atkinson cycle for enhanced efficiency. It's linked through Toyota's patented Hybrid Synergy Drive system (featuring a continuously variable transaxle) to twin electric motors, one of which is starter motor/alternator and power-sharing controller, the other provides motive power to the wheels through a reduction gear and front-mounted differential.

From the differential, the drive is transferred to the front wheels, which measure 15x6J and are shod with 195/R15 tyres. The front wheels are suspended by MacPherson struts, steered by an electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion setup and braked by ventilated discs.

At the rear, the suspension is a coil-sprung torsion beam and the brakes are solid discs. Regenerative braking converts kinetic energy (the vehicle's movement) into electrical energy through the power-sharing CVT and back to the nickel metal hydride batteries that provide power for the electric-drive system.

Toyota offers the Prius with four drive modes: Power, Eco, EV and the default normal mode. The first three modes can be manually selected by buttons in the centre console and normal mode can be selected by disabling (a second button press) the prevailing mode. EV provides engine-off  pure electric drive at low speed – providing sufficient battery charge exists.

-- Toyota ticks most of the boxes
Overall, there's very good news on the packaging front, with just a couple of blemishes on the report. For its modest external footprint, the Prius is roomy and extremely well designed.

Considering the battery pack in the rear -- and the need for a (albeit meagre 45-litre) fuel tank as well, there's a surprising amount of luggage capacity in the rear of the Prius. There's also generous under-floor storage as well. The downside is Toyota has had to forego a spare tyre in favour of a tyre repair kit. Presumably that helps with kerb mass as well as luggage volume.

If ever there were a car that could justify doing without a spare, it's probably the Prius. Flats still happen, but the Prius is bound to be within easy reach of roadside assistance most of the time, in the event of a worst-case scenario.

There's adult-size accommodation in front and rear, with ease of entry for both. The doors are tall but reasonably narrow for car parks -- and they swing wide open and close snugly -- for the sort of user-friendliness we've come to expect from Toyota.

So entering and exiting the Prius poses no problem whatsoever, but the suggestion that the Prius is a full five-seater is one that's open to debate. You could probably squeeze a kid into the centre seat position in the rear, but we doubt they'd be all that comfortable, since that position is rather narrow and any adult occupant in that position sits high enough for headroom to be compromised.

Still, if you're carting kids around rather than adults -- and for shorter trips -- it shouldn't be a deal-breaker. Other than the rear-centre seat position, the headroom in the Prius is good all around, particularly in light of the fancy solar-powered sunroof.

A couple of journalists on the drive program commented on the hard plastic finishes in the Prius. Toyota might seek to be forgiven in this regard (some of the material is described as 'ecological plastic' derived from plants) but in reality the ‘green’ plastic is well hidden, comprising minor trim items and part of the driver’s seat base. Greenwashing at its finest…

Switchgear placement might be better -- and that's the other 'blemish' on the scorecard for the Prius. Seat-heating buttons are placed below the floating console, making them a difficult reach for the front-seat passenger -- and only slightly less difficult for the driver. It's perhaps less of an issue for some, but the bottleholders in the doors are rather small.

Much has been said of the 'Touch Tracer' system in the Prius. Let it be said that while it's not an active distraction, nor is it the great boon to keeping the driver's eyes on the road that Toyota intended for it to be.

Motoring writers are the sort of drivers most in need of ergonomic aids such as these, but the switches on the steering wheel require so little familiarity (and Toyota is one of the masters of ergonomic efficiency), that the Touch Tracer system would be redundant within a day or less of a long-term owner taking possession of the car.

It's not that it's bad, it's just that it's somewhat pointless. Typical Prius drivers are not technology-averse and will quickly work out the switchgear placement without having to rely on Touch Tracer to provide hints. On the other hand, it might be useful to those who aren't regular drivers of the Prius.

The other issue is that the Touch Tracer prompts display in the centre fascia readout binnacle. It would work better if the prompts appeared in the head-up display. As it is, the driver is still taking eyes off the road. Gut feeling suggests it's a facility that needs some further development and, in this first incarnation, it's rather like BMW's first attempts with iDrive. Currently, we wouldn't pay extra money for Touch Tracer as an optional feature.

The head-up display, on the other hand, is very effective. It's bright enough in broad daylight and can be adjusted up or down to suit the height of the driver. There's nothing more to say on that point. It just works.

Toyota's 'multi-information' display allows the driver to scroll through five different 'screens' in the left end of the centrally-located instrument binnacle. One is a settings screen, one is a driving style screen, one is a drive operation screen and two are fuel consumption bar graphs over different intervals (one-minute and five-minute intervals). It's interesting and can keep you endlessly amused -- to the detriment of attention on the road? Certainly it's far more entertaining than the unexceptional games offered with mobile phones.

However, here's an idea for an update of the Prius. Why not allow the screens to be placed side-by-side, if the driver prefers? The bar-graph screens for fuel consumption don't need to be as wide as they are and the driving-style screen (ranging from 'charging', through 'Eco' to 'power') could be arranged vertically rather than horizontally, to suit space constraints. There are times, you see, when you might want to be simultaneously monitoring fuel consumption over the previous 60 seconds and your driving style.

As a final point about the Prius, it's a more attractive car in this new model than the predecessor was. It bears a closer resemblance to the Corolla on which it's distantly based and also manages to provide outstanding accommodation in spite of its remarkably low drag coefficient of 0.25Cd.

-- Them's the brakes... By wire
We've rated the Prius four stars for safety despite not really knowing what the Prius would compete against directly. But even in a class of its own, it's above average, if that makes sense?

Standard safety equipment for all Prius variants includes seven airbags (the seventh being a knee airbag for the driver), active head restraints for the front seats, 'Pre-Crash' and automatic-locking retractors -- to secure child safety seats -- for the three lap/sash seatbelts in the rear.  Active safety features number standard stability control, braking-by-wire, ABS, traction control and Brake Assist.

Other features to boost the safety score for Prius (some of which are only available with the higher-grade Prius i-Tech) include the reverse-parking camera, LED tail lights, Dynamic Radar Cruise Control and the driver's head-up display.

Pre-Crash will warn the driver of an impending tailender and will, in the last resort, brake the car autonomously as well as tensioning the seatbelts in anticipation of a collision.

-- A benign environment for Prius
As mentioned above in the SAFETY section, you could safely say that the Prius needn't fear any natural competitors. The Toyota is at the expensive end of an environment/buyer budget beam balance.

At the budget end of this balance are diesel cars such as the imminent Ford Fiesta Econetic and, moving up the scale, slightly larger cars like the Hyundai i30, Ford Focus TDCi, Holden Astra CDTi -- with European diesel small cars like the Audi A3 1.9TDi e, Citroen C4, Peugeot 308, Renault Megane, Skoda Octavia and Volkswagen Golf.

Toyota would argue that diesels aren't logical competitors to the Prius -- and nor is the Honda Civic Hybrid. The diesels produce more nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide emissions than the Toyota, but the Honda doesn't compete with the Prius for different reasons again. It's cheaper than the Prius, but the Civic Hybrid is a mild parallel hybrid -- a vehicle in which a single electric motor handles the twin tasks of generation and motive power, but cannot work independently of the petrol engine.

In this respect -- and true too of the Honda Insight that's due in about 12 months -- the Civic doesn't comprehensively address emissions reduction, although it is appealing for its lower purchase price and reasonable running costs.

Toyota argues that the Insight, when it arrives here, won't offer the same rear-seat room as the Prius. As Honda also seems set on marketing the Insight at a price well under that of even the base Prius, the Insight is unlikely to offer the level of technology and standard equipment found in the Toyota.

For all that, Toyota is plainly concerned that the Insight might be a distraction for hybrid vehicle buyers. The Honda was the one car singled out for special mention during the media launch of the Prius. According to Toyota, and based on American market specifications, the Prius is both more powerful and more economical than the Insight.

Even further down the budget end of the scale are two conventional cars with hybrid-drive systems, both from South Korea. The Hyundai Elantra LPI and the Kia Cerato (Forte) LPI are both under evaluation for Australia and could significantly undercut not only the running costs of Prius and Civic Hybrid, but probably even the diesel small cars.

The internal-combustion engines powering the Korean cars operate on LPG, which is considerably cheaper (half!) to purchase than either petrol or diesel. Any talk of these cars competing with the Prius remains academic however, because they're yet to be confirmed for Australia.

-- Prius as green as a bean, but rides on roughshod rubber
This writer's previous experience with the second-generation Prius has been limited to brief drives, but even from that, it was apparent immediately that the new model is vastly improved – especially where dynamics are concerned.

Most telling, the well-weighted steering provides feel not only better by the 'standards' of hybrid-drive vehicles generally, but better than many conventional cars of similar size and price. Turn-in is also about right for this type of vehicle. The Prius is not nervous entering a corner, but nor is it highly responsive. Part of that can be attributed to the car's original equipment tyres, which are the Achilles Heel of the car -- although a necessary evil too, since they are low-rolling-resistance Bridgestone Ecopia tyres that aid fuel efficiency.

The ride/handling compromise attains a high standard for a car that's basically a comfy carriage making a virtue of low fuel use -- and the car's grip proved quite good, despite being marginalised once more by the tyres.

Since we're sticking the knife into the tyres (not literally, since the Prius comes with a tyre repair kit rather than a spare), tyre noise proved dominant inside the cabin, irrespective of the road surfaces. By comparison, wind and drivetrain noise was negligible.

At the driving position, the vinyl-clad steering wheel in the base model Prius feels cheap and unpleasant to hold. The leather-bound version in the Prius i-Tech is much better. Even over longer distances, the seats were comfortable and commodious. There was adequate support under the thighs, although the seat base felt -- to this writer -- just a little short.

The Dynamic Radar Cruise Control allows adjustment for different braking distances, so you're less likely, with braking distance shortened, to have merging cars constantly pushing you back in a queue of traffic.

The one aspect of operating the Prius where it fails to deliver what Toyota promises is in the area of fuel consumption -- and in some people's eyes, that's the most important target set by Toyota for the Prius. At no point have we been able to approach numbers like 3.9L/100km, although on a launch the car is always bound to be driven flat-chat, whether it's a Prius or an Audi RS6.

If it didn't meet the numbers promulgated in the Green Vehicle Guide, nor would any other vehicle in the same circumstances. What the Prius can do is it can halve the fuel use of a typical 1.8-litre conventional four-cylinder car around town.

That's ultimately selling the Prius short, of course. As a technology leader, the Prius demonstrates what is possible with some engineered lateral thinking applied to social and climatic challenges. It's a role model for cars to follow.

Further reading:
Techno-cred for new Prius
Toyota's hybrid onslaught
Eight-year hybrid battery warranty for Toyota, Lexus
Hybrid innovation drives new Prius
Diesel is dead say detractors
FTHS still on the cards?
Toyota answers hybrid sceptics
Toyota Prius - Run to Melbourne

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Published : Tuesday, 21 July 2009
In most cases, attends new vehicle launches at the invitation and expense of vehicle manufacturers and/or distributors.

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