Toyota Prius pursues own path but is it heading the right way?
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Once a pioneer, is the Prius still the ideal eco-minded platform?
The new Prius hatch has arrived and, if you've ever accused Toyota's petrol/electric hybrid of being a tad dull, the manufacturer is out to shock your senses with its new styling.
The fourth-generation Prius features lots of dramatic creases and slashes, a blacked-out c-pillar to give the roof a modern floating look and lots of edgy detail in the headlight and taillight clusters. The car sits lower on Toyota's new TNGA global platform, with new suspension, a lower centre of gravity and improved torsional rigidity. It's also 25kg lighter than the outgoing car which, along with its hybrid drive system, helps it achieve impressive combined fuel economy of 3.4-litres/100km (the previous one achieved 3.9-litres/100km).
It's bigger than the outgoing model (60mm longer/15mm wider) and its cabin feels light and spacious. In ZR trim there's plenty of new tech onboard, such as S-flow air conditioning that senses which seats are occupied and directs air flow there automatically, a wireless Qi phone charging pad for compatible devices and the first colour Head-Up Display in a Toyota. The seats are all new, too.
Toyota's comprehensive Safety Sense package is standard in both trim levels. The ZR includes satellite navigation out of the box, but you can buy the GX with a Touring Package, which gives you GPS and bigger 17-inch alloys.
Including Prius c and Prius v, more than 4000 Toyota hybrids have sold in New Zealand.
The distributor has high hopes for the restyled Prius to continue as a hybrid flagship, although presumably when they arrive over the next 18 or so months, the hybrid Corolla (expected this year) and an as-yet-unspecified hybrid SUV (but probably the RAV4 and probably late next year) will gain big sales based on being less, well, hybrid-y.
Their mainstream looks will serve them well for private and fleet buyers who want the superior efficiency without the Prius' "Hey! I'm a Prius! Hybrid stuff happening over here!" aesthetic.
The 230V elephant in the room, though, is every other manufacturer. For any car brand trying to produce alternative-fuelled vehicles, the plug-in EV or range extender has become the platform de jour. The adoption of plug-in technology and the act of recharging a car in this manner has been slow but steady. Infrastructure is more of a barrier than consumer interest.
Toyota argues plugging in cars with big orange cables is fussy and time consuming. But for those who build the process into their daily lives, it's no more inconvenient than stopping for petrol.
Of course Toyota hasn't put all its eggs in the petrol/electric basket and is addressing the hydrogen fuel cell topic with its Mirai sedan.
Although admirable (and available as a lease vehicle in some countries), that technology still feels some distance away from mainstream consumer adoption.
Toyota's mass-unit-shifting competitors are adhering to the plug-in philosophy, leaving the Prius to follow a different path alone. The risk is that, despite its pioneering status in the realm of alternative-fuelled transport, the Prius becomes the Betamax of hybrids, while most other manufacturers are heading in a VHS direction. (Millennials, ask your parents.)
The name Prius is Latin for "first"; a derivation of "prior to" or "to go before".
It certainly did that and the new model is great at being a Prius. Its problem is that, away from the admiring gaze of its core fans, it could be seen to be following behind.
ENGINES: 1.8-litre four cylinder petrol/electric hybrid (72kW/142Nm)
PRICES: $47,490 (Prius GX), $54,990 (Prius ZR)
PROS: Diverting exterior styling, spacious interior, still a byword for eco-minded motoring
CONS: Try as we might, we can't find a charging cable in the Prius. And that puts it behind the EV eight ball