What is it?
The Toyota Prius, the most recognisable mainstream hybrid, whether you know your cars or not. We’ve driven it in top-spec T Spirit trim, which costs £23,895.
That petrol-electric hybrid drivetrain. It links a 98bhp 1.8-litre in-line four-cylinder petrol engine with a 80bhp electric motor, giving a maximum system output of 134bhp, transmitted to the front wheels via a CVT gearbox, a popular transmission on vehicles like this.
Similar to Honda’s CR-Z, there are a number of dashboard displays to show how the car’s complexities are working (see image, right). A diagram of the car, with arrows between engine, battery and motor to show where your power is currently coming from, whether the battery is being charged and suchlike, is particularly interesting. There’s also a windscreen head-up display for your speed and any sat-nav instructions.
What’s it like to drive?
As you might expect, it’s not exactly our ‘Thrill of Driving’ cup of tea. The steering is light, the brake pedal feels artificial and tricky to modulate and the CVT gearbox, already far from ideal for keen drivers, lacks any manual control. But the Prius is better to drive than its most natural rival, the Honda Insight, by still offering some engagement: the body control is good, the turn-in pretty crisp and the ride very accomplished. It’s brisk enough to keep up with (and overtake) traffic, and is very refined when cruising, too, with noise, vibration and harshness all at a minimum.
That dashboard display is a plus-point, too – by being so easy to see without distracting you from the road, it offers an extra level of involvement. Trying to use only the electric motor while in slow-moving traffic or adjusting your throttle use so that you can drive quickly while still topping up the battery become oddly rewarding challenges.
How does it compare?
Like we say, it’s a much more talented car than the Insight. But at £24K in this high-spec trim (the range kicks off at £20,695) it looks pricey, despite the premium feel of the interior and the cache the Prius badge seems to carry with some folk. Toyota claims around 70mpg combined, but a week of mixed, real-world driving saw us average around 50mpg. A good diesel hatchback is cheaper and easier to recommend: a VW Golf TDI Bluemotion is less powerful but feels as quick, and it costs over £5000 less, though you’ll spend some of that specifying options the Prius gets as standard. Like the Toyota, though, its sub-99g/km emissions make it road-tax-free.
Anything else I need to know?
If you must go down the hybrid hatchback route, Toyota itself provides perhaps the Prius’s sternest rival – an identically powered and equipped Auris Hybrid T Spirit costs £21,325. Though it lacks that all-important Prius badge…