Updated: August 15, 2015
Yes, as you know, I really HATE hybrid cars. Imagine that. Which means this is probably the most important car review I will have ever written. Oh, I will try to put aside my anger and disdain, and try to be impartial and honest and all that. Honesty, the very reason why my articles kick ass, including this one, and you haven't even read it. As it happens, my family conscious friend decided to upgrade his transportation experience to a mixed petrol and battery formula, and he asked me to give his set of wheels my blessing.
What makes this review even more intriguing than its title and the initial statement is that I have driven the previous generation of Prius in the US, and I absolutely didn't like it one bit. True, it was a rental, it smelled of smoking, and the rainy conditions in Portland, Oregon did not agree with its eco-molded tires. I have also driven the likes of Honda Insight and other hybrids, and none of these were even remotely fun to play with. So now, let's see what gives with a brand new Prius. After me.
Prius in a (green) nutshell
The thing is, Toyota Prius is almost like a rare animal species. It can only survive in a very narrow band of conditions. In this case, the vehicle is sold primarily in USA and Japan, which cover some 95% of sales. The rest goes elsewhere, mostly Europe, which begs the question, why aren't the folks on the old continent sold to the idea of a medium-sized family hybrid? We will answer that later on.
The second part is the environmental impact. It turns out roughly 57% of all Prius owners have bought the car as a political statement. Only about a third are concerned about the fuel economy, which kind of stands to reason, as the stated figures aren't that impressive compared to any typical turbo-diesel. However, there's no ignoring the powerful global warming lobby behind the hybrid cars. Yes, indeed, using "evil" carbon emissions as a metric for vehicle economy is ultra-retarded, but that does not stop impressionable idiots from feeling holier-than-thou.
Back to Toyota Prius, it's a car that matches the mood of the pseudo-scientific carbon mentality all too well, and in fact, the whole houha around it only makes things worse and detracts from the actual product by infusing it with politics. Even I had a very hard time distancing myself from the complete and utter diarrhea regarding the green slogans and trying to evaluate Prius as yet another vehicle.
And so ...
Eventually, I put my bias aside and focused on the car. The test vehicle is a brand-new 2014 Prius, the third-generation hatchback, with a sleek, aerodynamic design amounting to a drag coefficient of only 0.25. It's a standard hybrid edition, not the Plug-In version, nor the extended v station wagon model, although there are few visual differences between them.
It is powered by a 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle atmospheric petrol engine, rated at just 98 HP and 142 Nm, plus an electric motor that brings the engine power up to 134 HP. On its own, the electric unit is a permanent magnet AC synchronous motor, with 80 HP and 207 Nm of torque and 650V voltage, feeding its electrons into a Ni-MH battery with a 36HP 202V output. Overall, the advantage of the electric engine should be a dollop of instant torque, with a linear response, and reduced fuel consumption, at least on paper. The horses are delivered onto the tarmac using a continuously variable transmission (CV-T) and narrow tires, both of which are supposed to aid economy.
My friend's Prius comes with a fairly rich if somewhat non-expected level of hi-tech like accessories, most of which are standard across the Prius family range. You get a Head-Up Display (HUD) tachometer, climate control, an ignition button and keyless entry, a media unit with reversing camera, pleasant, modern and light interior materials, lots of bins and cubbyholes for personal stuff. Then, you also have 17-in alloys.
Another advantage of Prius is that most governments consider it beneficial to the environment, and we won't argue the reasons or the validity of the argument, so you may get some concessions, including a reduced price both for buying and leasing. All that said, at the local market, the car comes with the not-insignificant price tag of about USD37,000, comparable to an entry-level Jetta or a well-equipped SEAT Leon. It is more expensive than the typical family Octavia offering, for instance, and most other family hatchbacks and sedans that you have seen reviewed on Dedoimedo in recent months.
In the US, the prices are laughably lower, but still not insignificant. Across the pond, Prius costs about 24-26K, more or less equal to Golf GTI. You can see right away that this is a no-brainer choice. I mean, Golf wins, of course, with superior looks, performance, equipment, driving thrill, and pretty much everything else.
The slightly space-age design that Toyota Prius boasts isn't bad at all. The car has a pretty modern appearance. It looks best from the front and rear quarters, somewhat less so from the side, because it feels a bit too chunky. The wheels can be larger, but that's part of the eco-package. Still, the lines are smooth and slick, and this is one of the better looking Toyotas around. I definitely prefer its looks over Auris or Corolla, even though there's been a significant convergence among these different models.
The really interesting part happens when you open the door. Prius sports a futuristic cockpit, with sweeping lines all over the place. Anything but straight angles, so this could make you crazy if you have OCD. That said, all the contours have been etched nicely, and you get a sprinkling of chrome and colored plastic to add spirit. The default beige and gray tones are pleasant to look and touch. I did not like the elevated central console, especially since it's hollowed out. While it does serve its purpose as a valuable storage space, it's extremely visually annoying.
There's no proper dashboard in front of you. Instead, you have a small HUD, which is only visible to the driver, and there's a recessed digital panel in the center, which comes with a whole range of views. You control the display using haptic controllers on the steering wheel. There's also a cruise control button, ignition button, and three selectors for the driving mode, including EV, ECO and PWR.
The first will try to maximize the usage of electricity as much as possible. It also dulls the throttle response quite a bit and makes the car extremely lethargic. You may even struggle climbing steep inclines. ECO is meant to be used for everyday driving, and it's also somewhat of a fun-killer. PWR will try to maximize your petrol usage, while trying to offer you some measure of excitement. If you're not satisfied with either one of these, you can turn them off. You don't have to have any one active while driving, and you can just putter along without clever algorithms in your way.
However, you can never quite turn off the eco brain. The display comes with several modes, all designed to showcase your treatment of the environment. Little green cars that add up the more you drive on electricity, a bar graph showing your consumption in 5-min intervals, an animated schematic of the drivetrain, which tells you which component is being used and in what matter. Are you charging, regenerating or depleting the battery, and so forth.
The reversing camera is good. You have decent visibility all around, including the back sector. The media unit worked fine, and it interfaces easily with a range of smartphones using Bluetooth. Most of the interior is relatively easy to use and figure out, although the abundance of buttons can be a little confusing.
You may also not like the foot-operated parking brake, which is the most retarded concept in the world. It is also almost exclusively used in the US, where the idea of using your left leg is sorely neglected. Well, Mercedes C 220 did the same thing, and it's still pretty stupid. I did not like the gear lever, too. It's a purely digital selector, and it springs back into the neutral position once you release it, which can be frustrating. Lastly, the indicators. No three-second function. What? This is the 21st century, please.
The boot space is adequate, and quite high, because there's a bunch of batteries underneath. Still, it's surprisingly big enough, considering the car's size and the fact you carry so much extra stuff above the rear axle. And as the photos clearly show, my friend's decision to have offspring has affected the car's aesthetics, because the boot is already full of dirt and whatnot. Amazing, but inevitable for people supporting the country's economy through voluntary DNA replication. However, to his credit, the rest of the car is quite immaculate compared to most parents with small children. Normally, kid-carrying transporters (KCT) are like vomit comets.
The driving experience
Do you really care how Prius drives? Well, you should. All right. The driving position is decent if a little high. The seats are very comfortable, and they grip well. The steering wheel is too small and too artificial. It's quite heavily weighted, and it's completely disconnected from the tires. There's no feel, and it's like playing a car simulator. Yet another ergonomic issue is that the door rests are too low. You cannot rest your elbow on the door and hold the steering wheel with your fingers. This is a drawback of many Japanese cars. In fact, taller drivers will not feel all too comfortable, and the footrest for the left leg is dangerously close to the parking brake, and a tad too forward positioned, so you may end up straining your calf muscles. The alternative is to notch the seat back, but if you have shorter arms, you won't have the best grip and control on the steering wheel.
Prius has a decent bite when you floor it - provided you're running on petrol mana. Like all atmospheric engines, it responds immediately, and the electric engine adds its dose of cool to the equation. It's helpful, but the high engine noise due to the CV-T spoils the effect. Prius accelerates reasonably well in the mid-range, but it does not feel fast. And when it comes to speed satisfaction, that's its big sin. It's designed for composed driving, which is nice, but the effect may lead drivers to try harder just to get that expected response from Captain Physics.
After the initial few seconds of extra whoomp, the car quickly runs out of breath, and you're left with the impression that your 1.8-liter engine isn't doing all it can. The lack of steering feel emphasizes the frustration, and you will end up speeding faster than you intended.
On the other hand, the braking is quite stressful. The recuperative part needs some time getting used to, and it feels as if the car is gliding forward, and when you jab in the stop pedal, it takes time slowing down. You don't get the impression the brakes are strong enough, or at the very least, there's a delay between foot action and the first law of mechanics. You have to press hard to get Prius and its considerable kerb weight to respond.
Cornering is also less fun. If you swerve sharply, Prius will dip and tilt, and this can make you believe the car is losing control and about to slide. The ESP is very fidgety, and it will kick in often. There's a decent amount of grip, and the car is capable of going through curves at normal speeds, but you never get the needed seal of confidence to do that with a grin on your face. Maybe this is intention to make you slow down. In the previous version, the effect was even worse, and sometimes you'd really lose lateral grip, especially in the wet.
Over bumps and deformities and other asphaltic zits and pimples, Prius rolls like a champ. It's quiet on the motorway, and most of the noise comes from the wind and tires. It's comfortable, and the light interior colors give an airy feel to the driving experience. Relaxed, bright, cheerful, and such. For passengers, it's a very pleasant car. As a driver, though, you're devoid of primal stimuli.
From a purely performance perspective, it will do a 0-100 km/h dash in 10.2 seconds. This is quite all right, but it just does not feel fast. That's the big problem. Effortless is nice, but effort-confusing is not. Speed wise, it carries well in a straight line and mild corners, well into the three-digit range, but of course within the permissible legal limits. Shame about the cornering abilities and the steering. I guess Toyota saved the good parts for its GT86 offering, which is even cheaper. Now, there.
This is the big one. Is Toyota Prius worth its name - and its hype. After all, the very reason why one should, if ever, compromise on the performance and driving experience, is the monetary value of owing a hybrid. In other words, it ought to be cheaper to buy, maintain and drive, with lower monthly fuel bills than if you drove some other car.
My test regime was the routine work-home leg that my friend travels every day, with a decent 45 km in every direction. As it turns out, my friend also happens to drive a SEAT Leon 1.8 TSI, albeit with the DSG transmission, so I had the opportunity to compare his driving habits and thirst to mine. In this case, Leon will be our control group, so to speak.
Driving very gently, with little to no forced pedaling and smooth acceleration, my friend manages an average fuel consumption of about 5.1 liters per 100 km. This isn't bad, but it's a lot more than the official 3.9 l/100 km figure. On the other hand, my friend does the same route in Leon at the expense of some 7.9 l/100 km, which makes Prius a highly sensible solution for his driving needs. In the same driving conditions, I would average a very steady 6.8 l/100 km in Leon, some 15% better than my mate. And in Prius? I did 6.1 l/100 km. My driving style is a little more aggressive overall, with occasional hard acceleration, but we did the trip without aircon, normal highway cruising at around 110-115 km/h, some 20% urban driving and light traffic jams, plus great 80s music.
There's another piece to this story, and that's the fuel tank. With only 40 liters, it undermines the purpose of reduced petrol hassle by having an economic or would-be economic car. One of the great joys of having a frugal car is topping off the tank and then seeing the car computer estimating the next refueling in about 1,500 km. Not so here, unfortunately.
Is this good or bad?
Well, we learn a lot from the above experiment. One, different cars require different driving styles. Having a turbo benefits those with an itchy foot, like me, because instant torque means less fuel, even though it may sound counterintuitive at a first glance. But remember my trip to Croatia versus the Italy drive. The bigger and heavier Opel Insignia with its 2.0-liter turbo-diesel was more economic than Ford C-Max 1.6-liter, because it had a more refined engine, with more Newtons, allowing it to attain speed with less effort. The same thing happened to me with the little Adam, a cute and precious but underpowered car. This is a valuable lesson.
Secondly, Prius is mostly an urban car, and this is where the hybrid drivetrain comes to bear. If you're about commuting on the open road and higher speed, you will mostly be using the petrol unit, and that will be an underpowered engine that does not offer the necessary steroids for quick action. Ergo, more fuel. If your life happens inside a town, gently rolling from one traffic light to another, you will like the concept.
Thirdly, regardless of who sat behind the wheel and did the maneuvering, Prius did not impress with its economy. Sure, it's not a great guzzler, but it's definitely not a carbon miracle worker as some would like you to believe. Yes, if you compare it to large, inefficient American cars, it's all unicorn tears and fairy dust, but it's not really a bargain when pitted against European turbo-diesels, especially those with manual transmission.
Let's recall the Insignia experience, and then the Skoda Superb Germany roadfest. Both these cars are one or three categories above Prius in terms of size and weight and possibly price. Both come with 2.0-liter diesels, with manual and DSG gearbox, respectively. I drove these cars at very high speed, all the way up to 200 km/h in the case of the latter, and a very solid, steady 150 km/h with Opel, with two or three persons onboard, tons of luggage, lots of aggressive swerving and acceleration, plus aircon.
Opel was extremely frugal, and it averaged between 5 and 6 litters. Roughly like Prius. Skoda Superb returned a very respectable 6.6 liters per 100 km, and this includes almost 350 km at unlimited autobahn speeds. Overall, there's less than 10% difference between these three vehicles. I am positive that in the same driving conditions, I would be able to match, if not best Prius in either of these two turbo-diesels, and that means elegant 110 km/h with a single person inside the cabin and no artificial cooling.
Another car that comes to mind is Audi A1 1.4 TFSI. True, it's a smaller hatch, but it's nippy and fast and demands love, and yet, despite its aggressive nature, this little car eats just about 5.7 l/100 km at a steady 130 km/h. Very similar to the hallowed hybrid mark. And then, we have the monster Audi A6, with a twin-turbo 3.0 TDI with more torque than most supercars, Quattro drive and just 7.5 liters of fuel consumption. You can't beat diesel.
None so far. But it's a new one.
Toyota Prius is not a bad car. It's a decent, average family vehicle, with stylish looks, a modern and comfortable interior, a bunch of gadgets to please those technologically minded, and a fuel consumption that is comparable to most family diesels of similar size, shape and abilities. Performance is adequate, but the handling is sterile and artificial. Tall folks might struggle a bit with the driving position.
You probably expected me to hate this car. But I don't. I dislike the hybrid concept, and the whole LA area celeb nonsense only does it harm, and the fuel figures are nothing to be proud of, but it's not a monster nor some terrible thing that wants to suck your driver's life force out of you. Just average. That isn't exactly the accolade I would aim for, but I guess Toyota folks knew what they were doing when they started marketing this product to its indented media-loving guilt-loving audience. So there. I was being objective. Pointless when it comes to its stated mission, for sure, but okay if you're into clean modernistic concepts, abundance of technology, a pleasing drive, and only then, at the bottom end of your checklist, you might be mildly concerned about performance or environment. Overall grade, something like 7.5/10. See you around.