So what if I miss the green light? Chill

Toyota’s Prius+ will bring an air of calm to frazzled drivers of family seven-seaters, but it’s a bit noisy – and uses more fuel than you might expect it to

Make: Toyota

Model: Prius

Year: 2013

Fuel: Hybrid

Date Reviewed: June 17, 2013

Wed, Jun 19, 2013, 01:00

   

Amid the aggression and verbal abuse of rush-hour traffic, the Toyota Prius is like motoring Prozac. It’s odd the way hybrids change your driving habits, particularly in traffic. After a while behind the wheel you find yourself touching the accelerator gingerly, as if a giant nail is protruding from it. You long for the silence of electric-vehicle mode. So what if I miss the green light? I’ll get the next one. Chill.

Whatever about environmental benefits, the Prius offers some mental benefits during the daily commute. Sensibly, Toyota has now decided to bring that air of calm to arguably the most frazzled motorist: the driver of a fully loaded family that needs a seven-seater.

It’s the latest in an ever-expanding range of hybrids from the Japanese brand, which now features hybrid variants of the Yaris and Auris, plus several others on the way. The Prius remains the iconic hybrid model, not the first car to offer this format but certainly the best known.

Despite the hype, hybrids have not been a universal hit. Their differing fortunes on either side of the Atlantic demonstrate that for now there is no global response to demands for better fuel consumption. Just as electric power doesn’t seem to be the all-encompassing fix to the future fuel crisis, so petrol-electric hybrid hasn’t usurped diesel power trains in Europe.

In North American, however, where diesel is penalised for its nitrous-oxide emissions and is therefore not commonly used by private motorists, hybrid is the main alternative to regular petrol power trains. It’s in the land of the pick-up that the Prius makes most sense.

So the Prius+ was not designed with a midsized Irish family in mind. Instead it aims to cater for the environmentally conscious US soccer mum. But that doesn’t rule out its potential for Irish buyers.


First impressions
First impressions are very positive. The exterior is styled more like a smart estate than a boxy SUV. Inside is one of the best cabins Toyota has built, from the ergonomic switchgear – all within easy reach – to the smart cubbyholes, particularly the neat storage flap in the central console that’s ideal for cards, wallets and the like. The touchscreen system is an advanced version of the one that graces all new Toyotas at present, for good or ill.

Toyota claims the boot can accommodate 505l, which is the equivalent of a full-size premium family saloon. That’s impressive, but there is a slight problem in that the luggage cover never seems to fully cloak its contents. There’s a gap between the second row of seats and the start of the cover. It’s a niggling issue that leaves you uncomfortable leaving items on display in car parks. Also, the third row of seats – the main reason you would opt for the Prius + over the regular version – is not the easiest to access. Legroom is at a premium, although each of the middle-row seats can slide forward to improve matters for the rearmost passengers. In effect this is more of a 5+2 than a full seven-seater, but for the school run or short journeys the third row will suffice.

Married to these practical features is a cabin that’s extremely comfortable, with big soft seats upholstered in a brushed velour – a brave move by designers, given that many occupants are likely to be grubby-fingered tots and unwashed teens.

Even the dashboard areas on view are covered with a soft-touch plastic. There’s nothing harsh or cheap in the direct eyeline of driver or passenger.

The air of comfort and calm in the cabin is well suited to the whisper-quiet movement in electric mode. Sadly, as in every other facet of family life, the silent mode doesn’t last very long. When the 1.8-litre petrol engine that serves as the primary source of power kicks into life, the decibels dramatically increase. Things aren’t helped by Toyota’s CVT automatic gearbox, which never seems to find the right rev range for the driving conditions.

This transmission is the Achilles heel of the Prius hybrid format, engineered with such a focus on fuel economy that even in so-called power mode it’s far too noisy. Kick down and the shrill whine from up front suggests you are doing something altogether unnatural to this ecocar.

Dynamically, it handles quite well for a car of its size, with decent feedback from the steering, but you never really get a chance to put its handling to the test, as the engine is always lagging behind.

Although you might forgive its noisy engine, it’s harder to accept that the fuel economy would not significantly surpass anything else in its class. Motors has reported many times before that it’s almost impossible to match the claimed fuel economy of any car, and hybrids are generally more guilty of this than most. That’s because the loopholes in the current official fuel tests allow hybrids to show their best possible hand – and outside the lab it’s a hand that’s never going to be dealt.

My motoring colleague Neil Briscoe also spent time in the Prius+ and reports that, with four occupants, a bootful of luggage and lots of steady motorway cruising saw the test car return an average of six litres per 100km (47mpg). Not bad given its size, but, having tested many an MPV in his day, he reckons he would have achieved better from a 1.6-litre diesel MPV. Given the onus on the Prius+ to be ultraefficient, it should be leaving its rivals far behind.


Pluses and minuses
For €34,995 you get a significant amount of standard equipment, including climate control, cruise control, a heads-up display, a huge suite of safety features, LED daytime running lights, Bluetooth connection, a colour touchscreen infotainment system and a SkyView glass roof.

Rivals are available at a lower price, but we’d be hard pushed to opt for a boxy rival with less comfort over the Toyota.

Those are the positives about the Prius+. The negatives remain the cross-country fuel-consumption figure and noisy engine that ruins the Zen-like character of the car.

It really depends on your driving needs. Perhaps reflecting the attitude of most rearseat passengers in MPVs, the Prius+ offers a calming air in urban commutes but an annoying whine when asked to contribute more on the open road. If you spend most of your time in heavy town traffic and can make the most of the low-speed electric mode, then the calming graces of the Prius+ shine through.

But if you spend a good deal of time on national routes and so will lean on the 1.8l petrol engine more, the benefits quickly start to wane and the flaws start to show through. For the latter it would seem that a diesel MPV is a much better alternative.