Since launching just over 20 years ago in Japan, Toyota has sold more than 6.5 million Priuses worldwide – a stunning number considering its idiosyncratic appearance and economy.
And unlike some manufacturers that have integrated hybrid technology into existing model lines, Toyota has kept the Prius as a stand-alone model to benefit those consumers who want to be seen as green.
This latest version of the Prius moved to the TNGA platform of Toyota (Toyota New Global Architecture). It is a modular vehicle architecture that allows Toyota to integrate hybrid components into different vehicles, with a relative reduction in research and development costs associated with creating a new platform for each set of models.
As you can imagine, this strategy works well when the platform being shared is a good platform, but it is a bit of a disaster if it is a dud.
Fortunately in Toyota’s case, TNGA combines the right combination of space and hybrid integration with a strong focus on driving comfort.
With a start of $ 36,590 (plus on-road costs), the new Toyota Prius 2020 is powered by a 1.8-liter naturally aspirated gasoline engine that produces 72 kW of power and 142 Nm of torque. Toyota claims that this engine has the best thermal efficiency of all gasoline engines on the market.
Coupled with a CVT (continuously variable transmission), the electric motor produces 53 kW of power and 163 Nm of torque. Combined, the system produces 90 kW of power and stores energy in a nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH) battery pack.
Driving on 15-inch alloy wheels (with an aerodynamic cover), one of the advantages of the entry-level models is a space-saving spare wheel. The added functionality comes at the expense of load capacity (from 501L to 457L) with the top specification i-Tech model that dumps the space-saving spare tire for a tire repair kit. Nevertheless, 457L is still a generous load space, made even better with the large hatch opening.
In the cabin it is a fairly austere environment. It is black, on black, on black. Although it may sound good in theory, it looks a bit bald and is not helped by equally ordinary fabric chairs.
That said, it is a functional place to sit with all controls within reach and clearly visible from the driver’s seat.
At the center of the cabin is a 7.0-inch color infotainment display with a touchscreen and hot keys on both sides. Although it is a big step forward from the infotainment system of the previous generation of Toyota, this is missing Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which is being converted for free to other new models in the Toyota range.
The speech recognition functionality has been improved, but it is still far removed from the best in the industry. It is often inconvenient and requires specific command entry, as opposed to general commands, to activate certain controls. But it does enable the driver to send commands to advanced smartphone recognition functions such as Siri.
The leg and headroom in the first and second row are excellent. There is a surprising amount of knee room available in the second row for passengers to stretch out, while the two outboard seats have ISOFIX anchor points. There is also a center armrest.
There is USB connectivity along with Qi cordless phone charging in the first row, but you will only find a 12V power outlet in the second row – USB charging points for passengers would have been nice.
The on-board computer is located in front of the driver in a cluster on top of the dashboard and provides essential vehicle information, along with a litany of useful information about the economy. It will be a game to try to push your fuel consumption down as far as possible.
The fuel consumption of this car is an interesting point, because Toyota claims it only uses 3.4 liters of fuel per 100 km in the combined cycle.
We usually exceed the recommended fuel consumption figures when testing vehicles, because our split from driving may be skewed to city driving in that week, or when a number of people roll through the car, driving habits change.
With the Prius, on the other hand, it almost perfectly matched the claimed fuel consumption. It is an incredibly low figure, and one that you will struggle to hit, even in the most efficient diesels on the market.
You do wonder if there is a preference for the way you drive. An energy meter located under the speedometer in the head-up display switches from economy to ‘power’ the harder you press the accelerator pedal. It encourages you to drive softer to keep the meter in the happy zone.
An analogy that explains why hybrids offer improved efficiency is a heavy box on carpet. Let me explain. If you have a heavy cardboard box on carpet and you have to move it from one place to another by pushing it, it is always difficult to move, but once it moves it is much easier to keep moving.
This is because static friction is the force that resists the initial movement on a flat surface. We need more energy to get the system moving before it can move at a constant speed and with less force.
The same applies to cars – set the system in motion (i.e. overcome the static friction of a stationary tire on the road) and then it becomes easier to keep it moving.
Hybrids play a role here, because instead of using a combustion engine to create the force needed to initially move the car, an electrical system is used for the first movement before the combustion engine starts.
The kicker is, so to speak, that energy stored in the hybrid battery system is ‘free’. It is generated when the vehicle slows down, and instead of energy being lost as heat in the braking system, it is stored in batteries for later use.
This energy then sets the car in motion before the combustion engine takes over. There are many reservations about this efficiency comparison – such as the extra weight of battery systems and hybrid components, but when the hybrid powertrain is combined with an efficient combustion engine (like in the Prius), you can get impressive fuel consumption figures.
On the road, the Prius is one of the best driving cars on the market, let alone this segment. Sitting on 65-profile rubber that is 195 mm wide in each corner, the Prius uses independent front and rear suspension, where the rear suspension uses a double wishbone system with drag arms, coil springs, gas dampers and a stabilizer bar with ball joint.
It deals just as well with speed bumps as with waves and pits. Toyota has managed to find the right balance between comfort and collision compliance, even with constant waves, which can often disrupt soft-spring cars.
If you are planning the accelerator pedal from a standing start, the Prius will move from 0–100 km / h in about 11 seconds. It will not set world records, but the system offers flexibility for efficient driving with sufficient reserve for sudden torque requests.
Toyota has perfected the brake pedal feel as much as possible with a hybrid. A first application of the brake pedal starts a regeneration mode to collect energy for the battery system, while a longer and further pressure on the pedal activates the friction brakes.
The transition between regeneration mode and friction braking activation is where most other hybrid vehicles struggle, but the Prius lands in the right place to maintain the brake pedal feel, but also creates a functional sweet spot for the two side-by-side systems.
Beyond this braking whim, driving a Prius is just like driving another car. You will often find that the gasoline engine is switched off, allowing the electric motor to drive the system, while at other times it can run in the background and charge the hybrid’s battery system.
This is the key to the success of the Prius – it is no different than any other car. That is why more than six million people have put their money behind the model worldwide.
Toyota now offers a five-year warranty on the Prius, with service at a discounted price. The Prius requires maintenance every six months or 10,000 km with a capped price of $ 140 per service. Over a three-year period, it comes out to $ 840.
The Toyota Prius lives on as one of the strangest cars on the market, but it delivers efficiency, an excellent ride and a laudable range of functions. The maintenance intervals of six months are a bit frustrating, but apart from that it is a car that really does not set foot.