What we wear, eat, read and drive all serve to define us. But do 20-year-old notions about hybrid cars still apply? Brent Davison went to the launch of Toyota’s latest Prius to find out.
THEY say that what we drive says who we are and while that might have an element of truth it can’t be a completely golden rule, can it?
Sure, a slammed Mitsubishi Lancer screams “Pimply Herbert” and possibly a P-plate while a white Toyota Camry suggests a middle-aged, white collar suburbanite. A suited and bespectacled accountant type in a late model Volvo? Goes without saying.
Of course a 55-year-old with a comb-over, travelling solo in a convertible Porsche 911, is sure to cause a collision between perception and reality but not every ideal is set in concrete, is it?
So what does Toyota’s latest Prius, the fourth-generation of the petrol-electric hybrid hatchback that made its global debut in 1997, say about those who will be driving it?
On the one hand it could tell the world you are a taxi driver who has deserted the LPG-fuelled Falcon or Commodore for the high tech 21st century. On the other hand, it could suggest its driver is the sort of person who drinks kale milkshakes (made with soy milk of course), detests coal-fired power stations and hugs bunnies.
The car recently made its debut in our wide, brown land and there are a few things I can tell you about it.
The first is that it has grown a bit in size. The second is that it, even though the styling is better, it still looks like it was penned by a bored 15-year-old in maths class and the third is that it no longer yells the word “GREEN!!” at the top of its lungs but rather suggests that may be the case.
There are some other interesting factoids about the car. Such as its price which, at $34,990 start-up, is $5000 cheaper than the first Prius sold here in 1999. Or that 3.6 million Priuses (Pri-i?) have been sold in the model’s lifetime. Or that this car has had the biggest percentage gain in fuel economy than the first car. Or that it has a 0.24 co-efficient of drag (make of that what you will) which is lower (and therefore better) than cars like Nissan’s 370Z sports car or Hyundai’s sporty Veloster hatchback.
What that low drag co-efficient means is the car is sliding, rather than pushing, through the air to lower fuel use and its 3.4 litres/100km claimed average fuel consumption is proof of that. It also makes the 7.1 litres/100km figure of my sweet little Korean buzzbox look positively Mack truck-like and that really annoys me.
In real terms that makes for a 12.8 per cent improvement in fuel economy.
Seriously, on a 200 kilometre loop north from Sydney Airport and using almost every kind of road scenario Prius owners will encounter from stop-go to freeway, I was certain the fuel gauge of my test car was broken.
And using advanced calculus to multiply the kilometres per litre by the fuel tank’s capacity I determined that Prius could go a really long way before needing petrol pump attention. Which kind of wrecks the idea of the human bladder filling-up at a rate proportionate to the emptying of the fuel tank on a long drive. In other words, piddle stops will happen at about twice the frequency of fuel stops for Prius travellers.
In the real world, this latest Prius is the first of the Toyota fold to benefit from “Toyota New Generation Architecture” which is another way of saying the giant car maker has seriously reworked its approach to platform design and overall vehicle engineering as well as and engine and gearbox interaction, not to mention everything else on the car that has any sort of electrical or mechanical action.
Mechanically, Prius still has a 1.8 litre “Atkinson Cycle” engine with variable valve timing but it has been re-engineered to cut friction, stay warm, stay smooth and have fewer parasitic losses.
In conjunction with this Toyota’s technicians figured-out how to make the battery pack and electric motor unit smaller and lighter.
Power output, you ask? Well, it’s a little complicated. Individually, the petrol engine delivers 72 kilowatts of power at 5200rpm and 142 Newton metres of torque at 3600rpm and the electric motor delivers 53 kilowatts and 163 Newton metres of torque.
The combined number? Wish you hadn’t asked that one. Toyota says 90 kilowatts but won’t talk torque because it gets complicated. Guess at maybe 180 to 200 Newton metres and you might be in the ball park.
It certainly feels that way when the throttle is kicked. Rather than sprinting forward on a pure power surge, Prius thunders away on a torque rush, gaining momentum exponentially rather than accelerating.
Anyone who wants a car for its handling will probably not want Prius. Sure, it gets a redesigned MacPherson strut front suspension and new double wishbones at the rear but it has been set up for a nice, comfortable ride first and foremost.
That said, a solid blast on a 10 kilometre country road showed that, when push comes to shove, Madam Prius really can hoik-up her skirts and frilly petticoats and get a move on, even if she does look and feel a bit awkward doing it.
In styling terms Prius still looks clumsy and awkward though, even if Toyota does describe the look as “futuristic and stylish design cues (that) create a high visual impact resulting in a sleeker, better proportioned design that conveys a strong character and builds on the image-making quality of Prius”.
Sure, the thing is wider, the bonnet line lower and the triangular profile reduced but it still has a hint of 1989 Corolla in the side profile and 1991 Celica in its rear end design.
Inside, the car has the recognisable Prius hallmarks with a bit of “right here, right now” thinking thrown-in for good effect.
The curved dash wraps between the windscreen pillars and has a futurist instrument panel at its very centre with a tablet-style 17.5cm touchscreen for audio, sat-nav and the rest below it.
There is nothing by way of instrumentation in front of the driver save for the head-up display. Personally, I’m not a fan but others like it. If nothing else that empty space in front is a great place to stick Post-it reminders to pick-up the milk or bread on the way home from work.
Safety systems now standard across the range include a pre-collision system, active cruise control, lane departure alert and automatic high beam headlights. A nice touch is a new air-conditioning system that detects front seat passengers. If drivers are going solo it shuts down the vents on one side to focus on the driver, potentially improving fuel economy.
The more expensive i-Tech variant gains a blind-spot monitor and rear cross-traffic alert to warn drivers of hazards they cannot see from the wheel (handy in crowded car parks). It also gets 17-inch diameter wheels and tyres.
Standard equipment runs to 15-inch alloy wheels, colour head-up display, auto-levelling bi-LED headlights, LED daytime running lights, 10-speaker JBL audio system, Toyota Link connected mobility, leather-accented steering wheel, premium door trim and a wireless phone charger.
The i-Tech adds 17-inch alloy wheels with resin inserts, satellite navigation, leather-accented seats with eight-way power adjustment for the driver’s seat, front-seat heaters, rear cross-traffic alert and blind spot monitor.
Safety equipment across the range includes seven airbags, reversing camera, vehicle stability and traction control, anti-lock brakes, emergency brake signal, hill-start assist and smart entry and start.
So if cars make a statement about the people who drive them, what sort of thing would Prius say?
Well for starters, it might say they are enthusiasts but with enthusiasm that goes in a different direction. It might even suggest its drivers are thoughtful types who want to be part of the solution rather than the problem.
Or its statement might be that they just want to make a statement.
WHAT IT COSTS
Prius i-Tech: $42,990
(not including on-road costs, dealer charges or optional extras)
Ground clearance: 123mm
Kerb weight: 1375-1400kg
Fuel tank capacity: 43 litres
Fuel-injected 1.8 litre inline, four-cylinder with double overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and variable valve timing. 72 kilowatts at 5200rpm, 142 Newtonmetres at 3600rpm.
Watercooled, DC, permanent magnet series/parallel electric motor. 53 kilowatts, 163 Newtonmetres.
Electronically-controlled continuously variable automatic transmission.
SUSPENSION AND BRAKES
Independent MacPherson struts front, independent double wishbones rear. Four-wheel disc brakes with electronically-controlled braking, anti-lock braking, brake assist, electronic brakeforce distribution, traction control and vehicle stability control.