Toyota Prius

Have dull hybrid dynamics finally turned the corner?

BARRY PARK

FIRST OVERSEAS DRIVE

TOYOTA’S hybrid technology is now almost two decades old. Over time it has improved, but the unexciting driving experience has essentially remained the same. Until now.

Toyota’s fourth-generation Prius is about to arrive and it’s shaping up to be something of a revolution. The biggest change is that it introduces the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) that will underpin a range of yet-tobe- named mid-size models.

The TNGA chassis uses more high-strength steel and, in the interests of saving weight, the Prius now includes lighter aluminium panels for the bonnet, boot and front crash bars.

Suspension still uses traditional struts up front, although they feature a more laid-back angle of attack and increased camber to help distribute steering force, and their towers now are joined by a stiffening cross-brace. Down the rear is a sophisticated doublewishbone set-up in place of the previous generation’s torsionbeam arrangement.

Inside, the instrument cluster – now in full colour – is still offset to one side of the driver’s eyeline.

The Volvo-style floating centre console is gone, replaced with a fixed one featuring a shallow pan shaped to nestle a mobile phone.

A smarter-looking steering wheel is now round rather than the former Prius’s oddly ovoid one.

Instead of hogging boot space, a more compact, energy-dense battery sits beneath the rear seats.

The resulting larger boot can now open into the passenger cabin.

According to Toyota, the Prius is all about its newfound dynamics.

To explore it, we were given two low-speed laps – about four kilometres all up – of the Lexusowned test track fronting Japan’s Fuji Speedway.

This was enough to learn that mechanical improvements to the Prius are more advanced than its awkward cosmetics. The steering is 15 percent quicker than in the model it replaces, and has decent weight, despite obviously being optimised for city parking. The formerly wooden brake pedal with its extensive dead zone now has a sharper, linear feel, and the awkward lurch when the regenerative braking kicks in to sap electricity from the Prius’s kinetic energy has smoothed out to be almost imperceptible.

Go directly against the fuelsipping hybrid ethos and mash the pedal, and where the old engine flared on step-off to settle into an uninspired drone, the new Prius draws more torque from its electric motor to smooth out acceleration. As a result, the 1.8-litre engine can hit constant revs earlier, making it sound less desperate to win a drag race.

The throttle-dulling Eco mode is no more, with just a default setting supplemented by a power mode that with the push of a dash-mounted button changes the illumination to an angry red.

The size of some of the components making up the hybrid drivetrain have shrunk by about a third and the seats are mounted lower in the chassis, moving the centre of gravity down and greatly reducing the elephant-on-roller-skates feel of the outgoing Prius.

Pushing the hybrid through a slalom on the test track revealed a hint of keenness for corners.

A limiting factor are the 17-inch Toyo Nanoenergy tyres, which squeal in protest even at moderate cornering speeds.

As yet, there’s no official fuel figure for the Prius, although it could drop as low as 2.5L/100km, helped by the electric motor that can now coast the Prius at speeds of up to 100km/h.

PLUS & MINUS

Likely to be more expensive; old battery tech; no plug-in version More dynamic; engine and CVT a better match; improved brake feel

RACE-BRED TECH 01

Active flaps in the front air dam close when cooling isn’t needed and make the Prius more slippery through the air. Petrol engine claims a world-best 40 percent thermal efficiency.

RIBBED FOR PLEASURE 02

Laminated windows, ribbed door cards, special rubber flaps over the door drain holes, sealed joins and floorpan insulation are all designed to reduce noise levels.

HEAVY METAL 03

New TNGA chassis uses a mix of laser screw welding and traditional spot welding for Prius panels. The laser is better at joining different metals such as aluminium and steel.

Weight for it

This generation of Prius will again be available with either a heavier, cheaper nickel metal hydride battery, or a lighter, more expensive lithium-ion one. However, the lighter battery will only be used in markets where the 15kg saving improves fuel economy to meet strict emissions targets – think North America and Japan, not Australia. The new Prius uses more aluminium than the generation it replaces, at up to double the cost of steel parts.

OR TRY THESE...

Nissan Leaf $51,490

Australia’s best-selling electric car. The design looks more like a science experiment and, aside from bypassing conventional fuel for battery packs, brilliant step-off acceleration is its only other party trick.

Toyota Camry Atara S Hybrid $32,490

Cheaper, roomier, more conventional to look at, has a boot, and, until 2017 at least, it’s Australian-made. However, like the old Prius, the dynamics have all the verve and zest of soggy Weetbix.