Toyota Prius 2011

Hybrids. Green.

Many many years ago the Diesel engine spent quite a bit of time working its way into every-day motoring. Diesel engines had a terrible perception of being oil burning smoke puffing slow engines. NO wait, they were old burning smoke puffing slow engines.

Today, as a carmaker, if you don’t have a small diesel engine in the European market, your car will fail. Diesel vehicles back then had massive “DIESEL” lettering emblazoned on the cars, making sure everyone knew you were in fact driving a diesel car. (Not like the smoke pouring out the rear wasn’t dead giveaway) The engine has come a long way, and now finds its way into most manufacturers as torquey, efficient and sometimes even performance oriented models.

What has changed radically is that diesel engines are now discreetly integrated into vehicles. Emissions are more controlled so there’s no puff of smoke. The diesel nomenclature has now even changed to sexy itself up – with fun badges like TDI and D4-D. No more massive “DIESEL” lettering or cars that are bogged down and seem to have the diesel disability.

The hybrid suffers nearly the same story, just on different scale. The Hybrid has been positioned as the “Green” car to drive, and the Toyota Prius has been marching front and centre for that cause for quite some time. A genius move by Toyota, being first to market has done more for the brand image for innovation than any other car. The problem now however, is that nearly 10 years on, the need for a hybrid to look like a hybrid isn’t really as “cool” as it once was. Being seen in a Prius stood for so much in California and in the rest of the world, and to some degree still does. However if Hybrid engines are really going to succeed they don’t need to be in a quirky sleek unique package, but rather in the cars people already like and buy.

Lexus has been doing this for quite some time to huge success. Lexus Hybrid models outsell any other vehicle in class in the USA, and to be quite frank, this is the future of the Hybrid. It no longer needs its own car, but rather needs to find a home being sexy in the vehicle line up manufacturers already have. Sadly this is the conclusion I have about the Prius. It’s an amazing vehicle, and has come along leaps and bounds, but I think the overall hybrid package is going to see a longer life if mated to a current model (exactly that is happening soon).

House. Optional

The model I had on test was the 1.8 ECVT Advanced. The Prius comes in 2 specification levels, Advanced being the entry level at R332 700 and the Exclusive which ads some niceties at R378 100. The Advanced has pretty much everything you’d expect at the price so you’re not doing without any niceties…except the seats, which are covered in what I think is suede which just didn’t “sit” right with me. This is of course where the Prius pulls the rabbit out of the hat as most of the interior is made from recycled materials. The interior is an easy place to get comfortable, but is distinctively Hybrid. The facia runs a long slope up to the window with the electronic gauges that sit prominently in the middle. These are easy to read and give quite a bit of information (Drivetrain, different consumption read-outs and 3D holographic style indicators when you push on the steering wheel controls to tell you what button you’ve pressed)

The interior gives off the familiar Toyota quality with some international flair to it. Nothing is exactly “plasticy” because that shit isn’t easy to recycle, so there’s obviously very little of it on the interior. Great!

There is loads of room for passengers in the rear with the boot being a bit more restrictive as it’s a flat load space due to the batteries living in the rear. The only big gripe is the view out the rear with the split rear window, which is rather limited, and the “gear” lever with tacky blue Star-Trek plastic on it, even stood out in the Prius interior.

HSD Dash indicator

So the interior’s distinctively different, and takes some getting used to, but the ergonomics are simple and nothing takes too much brain power to operate. Speaking of power I was pleasantly surprised at the engine. This 3rd generation Prius now features the most powerful engine yet. Toyota increased the engine to improve acceleration and out-of-traffic cruisability as well as improvements to the Hybrid-Synergy-Drive set up. The system switches seamlessly between petrol engine and battery, and offers 3 driving modes that change at the push of a button. ECO-Mode for the more economical driving, subduing inputs to the pedal and is the best of all worlds mix. There’s also POWER mode which gives more shove but obviously sacrifices economy and EV mode which dials out the petrol engine totally. (can only be used at certain speeds, loads and conditions).

Sipping on fuel

I was genuinely surprised at how much shove becomes available when selecting Power mode! It’s no slow poke at all when in Power mode, but this is going to eat on your economy so is kind of counter productive.

The steering and braking take some getting used to. The steering being a little lighter and over-assisted and the braking, as always with a Hybrid, due to the brake regenerative technology, has a lot of grab in a short amount of travel, but these are things you quickly get used to.

Let’s talk efficiencies, which is really what the Prius is about. I returned 5.3l/100km over the 7day test period with my lowest being 3.2l/100km and highest over 10l/100km. That’s genuinely super impressive and I didn’t drive with a feather-foot touch either. I can honestly say that it’s the first time I haven’t actively tried really hard to get a low fuel consumption, but rather found driving in a relaxed manner brought about excellent fuel consumption figures.

Wave Bye Bye

Unfortunately this all said, I think the “Prius” as a car is seeing its final days. It did for Hybrid technology and electrical car innovation what the Chrysler Voyager did for family transport, but its market will only shrink with cars such as the Auris HSD and Lexus CT200h. To me the “coolness” of Hybrids will be in integrating them into existing shapes and model lines rather than creating “Hybrid” models unto themselves. Diesel became cool by fitting them into existing models as the engine developed and progressed.

Would I buy one? Probably not, but it doesn’t compliment my driving style or what I want out of a car. If relaxed driving and fuel economy is on your check-list for car buying, I can recommend the Prius. I don’t think there’s a car on the market, conventional competitors included, that compares on fuel consumption, emissions and interior size.