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New Car Test - New Generation Prius

The argument for buying a hybrid-powered vehicle gets stronger.

By Michael Knowling

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Hybrid vehicles. Australian buyers have been slow to embrace electric/petrol vehicle technology but the second generation Toyota Prius has the potential to change all that. There are six reasons to get very excited about this car. The new Prius consumes less than 5 litres of fuel per 100km, releases half the carbon dioxide emissions of a comparable petrol car, offers useable space, generous power, improved styling and a price cut over the original Prius.

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The Prius' most obvious advantage over a conventional vehicle is fuel consumption. Toyota claims the Prius achieves an astounding 4.4 litres per 100km fuel economy under the new ADR 81/01 combined cycle. This is almost matched by the impressive Peugeot 307 HDi (see New Car Test - Peugeot 307 HDi), but the Prius runs away with the ball in demanding city/urban conditions. In city/urban conditions you can drive nearly 1000 kilometres before you need to refill the 45-litre tank...

In addition, the Prius is credited with extremely low tailpipe emissions. Toyota claims the new Prius' HC and NOx emissions are just 2 percent of ADR requirements and CO is 7 percent of ADR requirements.

And don't think for a moment that the eco-friendly Prius offers zero on-road performance.

The Prius is equipped with two power sources that are controlled by the second generation Toyota Hybrid System (THSII) - a petrol engine and an electric motor.

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The petrol engine is a VVT-i, twin-cam, 16-valve four-cylinder with a displacement of 1.5 litres. Interestingly, the engine employs the Atkinson cycle principle, which - by keeping the exhaust valves closed until the end of the expansion stroke - is said to offer greater efficiency over a conventional Otto cycle engine. Electronic throttle control, a MAP load sensor, direct-fire ignition and high 13.0:1 compression ratio are other features of the Prius' 1NZ-FXE engine.

The petrol engine is rated at 57kW at 5000 rpm and offers 115Nm of torque at 4000 rpm.

Working alongside the petrol engine is the electric motor, which is much improved over the original Prius. Toyota claims that the new 50kW electric motor has the highest output per unit weight and volume of any electric motor in the world - impressive stuff. A relatively compact nickel-metal hydride 201.6-volt battery also offers the highest output density of any battery in the world.

The electric motor produces up to 32kW at speeds of above 85 km/h to achieve an 82kW total output. Total combined torque is an astounding 478Nm - but only at speeds up to 22 km/h...

The Prius channels drive through a constantly variable automatic transmission (CVT). This transmission performs seamlessly but - by bringing engine revs up to the optimal range when under moderate-to-heavy load - it does accentuate the relatively noisy petrol engine. The car is extremely quiet at all other times.

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With up to 82kW on tap, Toyota claims the new Prius can accelerate from standstill to 100 km/h in an impressive 10.9-seconds. Our tests (conducted in warm conditions) averaged around 11.5-seconds. But more relevant is the abundant torque available at all urban speeds - the Prius never leaves the driver wishing for more grunt.

The new Prius hybrid also drives very much like a conventional vehicle.

Prius II offers a smoother regenerative braking system than the previous model. The regenerative braking system steps in whenever the throttle is released or the foot brake is applied. Regenerative braking is used to slow the vehicle and by using a generator driven off the front wheels, maintains the charge of the hybrid battery pack. Our only criticism of the hybrid system is a slight jerk when the petrol engine engages.

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The front-wheel-drive Prius II is configured to understeer when pushed through corners and the 195/60 15 Michelin Energy tyres don't offer tremendous grip; thankfully the stability control system (as fitted to our i-Tech optioned test car) keeps things on-track. Braking performance always feels up to standard. Four-wheel disc brakes are fitted along with standard brake assist, EBD and ABS.

The Prius' electric-assist power steering is an interesting mix. There's decent steering weight and precision but there is very little driver feedback. This isn't a major concern in most urban conditions but it is noticeable on the open road where the Prius is easily unsettled.

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The new Prius is large enough to be considered a small family car. In contrast to the previous model, Prius II uses a 5-door hatchback body design that is high and provides an airy interior feel. Front space is generous and there's enough rear space to accommodate another two passengers with comfort. A fifth passenger can also be accommodated at a squeeze. The seats are comfortable despite a firm ride.

The styling of the interior is very futuristic. The dashboard is unusually arranged with a central LED display for road speed and other vitals - it might not be located directly in front of the driver but it works well nevertheless. Some of the interior surfaces are also a bit weird - the door trims, for example, are finished in a harsh black plastic that is easy to mark. Oh, and someone at Toyota obviously thought it's be a good idea to clutter the steering wheel with 16 push buttons...

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The centerpiece of the cabin is a LCD touch screen for audio control, climate control, maintenance info and a hybrid system monitor. The screen works well overall but it can be difficult to read in direct sunlight. Other standard features list includes power windows and mirrors, cruise control, auto lights-off and remote central locking/immobiliser.

The optional i-Tech upgrade (as fitted to our test car) expands the interior features list by adding DVD-based satellite navigation, "Bluetooth" hands-free mobile phone technology, Smart Entry and a nine speaker JBL 6-stack CD sound system. The sound system offers good sound quality at normal listening levels but is let down by a lack of bass.

Unfortunately, the Prius will scare off many buyers in their first few minutes behind the wheel. The starting and stopping process is complicated (it's much more involved than simply turning a key!) and the gear selector is, well, unconventional. The selector is spring-loaded so that the lever always returns to the same position and the gear pattern is also unusual. Like the original Prius, there are only two forward drive gear positions - Drive and Brake. Drive is used in all instances except where you select Brake to decelerate the car and increase the regenerative charge that's put into the hybrid system battery.

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Prius II offers generous rear cargo space along with a separate storage compartment, tool kit and space-saver spare wheel hidden beneath the false floor. The hybrid system battery lives beneath the forward section of the cargo area floor and consumes very little space.

Toyota has done a good job keeping the Prius' weight down to a manageable 1300-odd kilograms by fitting an aluminium bonnet, rear hatch, calipers and various suspension components. The fuel tank is also multi-layered plastic and there's an integrated radiator, air-conditioning condenser and electric inverter radiator assembly to help shed more kilos.

Visually, Toyota has given the new Prius much more flair than the superceded model.

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The new 5-door hatchback body is attractive and sleek and carries standard fog lights, a 'bee sting' aerial, rear spoiler and full colour coding. The standard 6-spoke alloy wheels are also styled with a little pizzazz.

Crash safety? Well you get a reinforced cabin with crumple zones, pre-tensioning and force limiting front seatbelts and standard traction control. The i-Tech option pack enhances safety with vehicle stability control, front side airbags, front curtain airbags and rear side curtain airbags.

One area where the original Prius fell over was pricing. The new generation Prius can be bought from just $36,990 (which makes it the cheapest hybrid sold in Australia), while the i-Tech option pack rockets the price to $45,090. The i-Tech pack (as fitted to our test vehicle) adds extra airbags, stability control, satellite navigation, "Bluetooth" hands-free mobile phone technology, a nine-speaker JBL 6-stack CD sound system and Smart Entry.

So would we shell out $36,990 or $45,090 for a new generation Prius?

Well, we wouldn't bother if we planned a lot of open road driving - the hybrid system doesn't offer the greatest fuel economy and emission benefits in these conditions. On the other hand, if we intended using the car mainly for city/urban driving we'd be very tempted by the new Prius. This is a car that will satisfy anyone with an appreciation of cutting-edge technology and a genuine interest in protecting the environment.

Just be aware that - until Australia wakes up to hybrid vehicles - the depreciation rate is likely to be horrific.

Why You Would

  • Remarkable fuel consumption - especially in urban/city areas
  • Very low emissions
  • Capable performance
  • Spacious and comfortable
  • Extremely quiet when running off battery power
  • Much more attractive than original Prius
  • The cheapest hybrid in Australia

Why You Wouldn't

  • Slight jerk when petrol engine engages
  • Firm ride
  • Expensive in the context of comparable petrol vehicles
  • Expect a high depreciation rate

Test vehicle supplied by Toyota

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