The Prius III hybrid now drives like a real car, writes PAUL GOVER
PRINCE Charles Toyota Prius. Patronage from Britain’s green prince tells you everything about where Toyota’s ecowarrior has been, but nothing about where it’s going.
Prius III, which arrives in Australian showrooms next week, has advanced from a social and science experiment into a real car for real people.
Hollywood celebrities will still drive one to prove they care, and Charles Windsor is almost certain to upgrade, but the world’s largest carmaker plans to convert more than 300,000 ordinary owners from more than twice as many countries as the old model was sold to.
The biggest change to the Prius is well hidden and shows important new thinking: it is effectively twinned with the Corolla and RAV4.
Sharing platform parts with the compact super sellers has cut costs for Prius, but also made it into a real car with a no-excuses driving experience.
The price for Prius III has risen a little, starting at $39,900 and topping at $53,500, but value is better. The basic car even gets a heads-up instrument display, keyless entry and start and seven airbags. The top-line i-Tech model is really loaded, with a
a solar-powered ventilation system to reduce cabin temperatures when the car is parked, an automatic parking system, pre-crash safety package, dynamic cruise control and LED headlamps.
But the real work has gone into the basics. The petrol engine has grown to 1.8-litres, the hybrid system is 90 per cent new — and smaller with dozens of fresh patents, total power is up 100kW, fuel use is officially 3.9 litres/100km and CO2 emissions are 89g/1km.
‘‘Our philosophy is we can take a complex project and achieve a simple, elegant solution. The essence of this is nothing is difficult; it’s just people who make things difficult,’’ Prius chief engineer Akihiko Otsuka says.
He is in Sydney for the Australian press preview and happy to talk about everything from the 1000 engineers who worked on the car to the need to focus on a better driving experience.
‘‘Customers told us they wanted more performance. We also improved fuel economy by reviewing the entire vehicle design, especially the aerodynamic characteristics,’’ he says
In the engine room it meant a complete lack of drive belts — and electric airconditioning, power steering and water pump. Drag was reduced to 0.25, a figure matched only by the new Mercedes E-Class coupe.
Weight has risen a little but changes include eco-plastics in some areas, a bigger boot, more space for three adults in the back seat and three driving modes, from electric to a genuine power setting.
The new-design Prius looks almost identical to the outgoing car, until you put them side by side. Then the new car looks more adventurous and trendy, not just around the reshaped nose but even in the side profile. The highest point of the roof has been moved back to give more head space in the cabin.
The third-generation Prius will never be a big seller in Australia, only 4500 cars a year, but it has already renewed interested in hybrids and triggered a lot of diesel-versus-hybrid
‘‘ Companies such as Honda, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Ford and even Ferrari are embracing hybrid technology,’’ says Otsuka, leaving out Porsche from the companies currently committed.
Prius III also points to Australia’s forthcoming first local hybrid, the Camry, which will adopt a similar Hybrid Synergy Drive system and undercut the hybrid flag bearer on price with more space.
Toyota Australia believes the new Prius will win buyers from all sorts of other cars, and not just people who want to fly the green flag.
‘‘They’re concerned about the environment, yet they are interested in more than just fuel economy,’’ Toyota Australia’s head of sales and marketing, Dave Buttner, says. ‘‘Everything is a subtle statement about what they stand for. They’ll shop at local markets and recycle everything, but they’re not eco warriors. They have the latest gear, such as an iPhone and iQ, but they’re not tech nerds.’’
The biggest test for Prius III will come when Honda launches its bornagain Insight next year, with a price advantage that could be as much as $10,000. Toyota believes it will have the edge on size and have a moresophisticated hybrid system, but says it is happy to have more companies pushing the hybrid drive.
Prius III is still not a sports car, but it has genuinely compliant suspension, good cornering grip, and a powerpack with real punch.
It’s still hybrid super-quiet, and you can dribble around the parking lot in silent electric stealth mode, but put your foot down and the electrically boosted 1.8-litre engine gives a surprising kick.
The hardest thing about driving the Prius briskly is overcoming the belief you should always put economy first in a hybrid car.
Fuel efficiency is still one of the