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BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

The 1400kg Priusí 72kW/142Nm 1.8-litre twin-cam fourcylinder atmo petrol engine combined with its 53kW/163Nm electric motor-generator unit delivers 90kW via a CVT to the front wheels. Smaller, lighter and more efficient than before, the nickel-metal hydride battery pack also allows about 2km of pure electric propulsion (under 37km/h), before the engine kicks in. It averaged 4.8L/100km running on 98 RON premium unleaded, in both urban and highway driving scenarios.

OurGarage

Fourth-gen hybrid shows potential for eco-excellence

SOMETIMES fortune deals a hand that couldnít seem more premeditated if fate itself was pulling the strings. Case in point Ė the latest Toyota Prius.

Launched early last year, only months after the Volkswagen Groupís diesel emissions cheating scandal has left every oil-burner literally under a cloud darker than the soot that purportedly spews from their stinking exhaust pipes, the fourthgen petrol-electric hybrid has suddenly found itself standing as one of a handful of legitimate non pure-electric eco alternatives to normal petrol cars.

Additionally, the Prius was the first to receive the hotly anticipated Toyota New Generation Architecture (TNGA), which is set to underpin many models in the makerís vast empire. Espousing lighter, stronger, quieter and more spacious engineering, with a switch to a pair of double wishbones after years of a torsion-beam rear suspension. Itís highly promising stuff.

Finally, all that TNGA goodness provided an opportunity for the reborn hybrid icon to usher in some fresh design thinking inside and out, to further help it stand out as the green car of choice for the masses as we head towards an uncertain future. Like we said, itís as if Toyotaís strategists couldnít have timed the Mk4ís debut better.

But the best laid plansÖ more than 12 months on and the fourth Prius since October 2001 has yet to fire. And this is despite headline improvements like industry leading fuel economy (3.4L/100km is the official average), improved space and significantly more active safety gear, such as autonomous emergency braking, as part of higher standard specification levels that more than offset a $2500-plus price jump in the base version.

If youíre wondering why, consider seeing an ophthalmologist, because the Priusí styling Ė while commendably aero at just 0.24Cd Ė is provocative at best, and a poke in the eye at worst. That insectoid snout would make Mothra squirm. We reckon it blinds people to the huge steps the series has made in terms of handling, body control, comfort and refinement.

With previous iterations woefully devoid of steering feel and ride finesse, I vowed Iíd never own one. Thatís why I put my hand up for a long-term Mk4 after experiencing the range at the most recent round of COTY testing. In many ways, and despite the grotesque looks, the redesign represents one of 2016ís biggest improvers.

The three-month wait for our i-Tech to arrive from Japan was worthwhile. I chose Graphite metallic to help neutralise the challenging aesthetics, helped out by the attractive toy car-like 17-inch lightweight alloys that the upper-spec version brings (up from the tiny 15-inch items).

For an $8K premium, the i-Tech also nets satellite navigation, leather seats with electric driverís side adjustment and heating elements for the front pair, digital radio, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert systems. Thatís on top of the standard $35,690 Hybridís active cruise control with auto braking, lanedeparture warning with steering-nudging input, auto high-beam, seven airbags, rear camera, keyless entry/start, head-up display, LED headlights, 10-speaker audio and full multimedia connectivity including a wireless charger for Android phones. Too bad I use another platform.

In the first month of getting to know YGJ- 73P, I am struck by how soft and cosseting the sumptuous front seats are, amused by the bisected rear window, annoyed by the foot-operated park brake (Iíve stopped using it in protest Ė I guess if it rolls into something the styling might improve), pleased by the build quality and delighted by the economy. Likewise, the performance is ample and ride nicely absorbent. However the steering is a tad too low-geared and feel-free while the brakes are too snatchy and wooden in feel Ė a typical Toyota hybrid trait. Still leagues ahead of before though.

So things are falling into place for the Prius. This should be interesting.

Space cadet

The Priusís TNGA architecture allows for a deeper floor as well as a longer and wider body (though the 2700mm wheelbase and 1490mm height remain the same), resulting in lower seating positions for greater head- as well as leg-room figures.

Relocating the hybrid gear and battery from below the boot floor to beneath the back seat also helps boost cargo capacity by 11 litres, to 457L in the base car, and 502L in the i-Tech thanks to the removal of a space-saver spare.

TOYOTA PRIUS

Date acquired: March 2017 Price as tested: $43,850 This month: 1001km @ 4.8L/100km Overall: 1001km @ 4.8L/100km Da Pr Th Ov 34 3 3 34 44 3 3 0 0 2 1 5 3 WEEK 4 URBAN COUNTRY SPORTS FAMILY MOTORWAY