FOR YEARS THE TOYOTA PRIUS has been the car of choice for the environmentally conscious among the über-residents of Hollywood. It’s become a ‘must have’ addition to the celebrity garage.
We haven’t checked, but that’s probably also true of Saint-Tropez.
Toyota’s Prius is a defining car of the age and sits at the sharp edge of a powerful shift in buyer consciousness. That’s why it is the first car that comes to mind when most people think 'hybrid'. The release into a somewhat sceptical global market of that first model Prius more than a decade ago was a brave move by Toyota. Its only competitor then, and the only other manufacturer prepared to take a similar risk, was Honda with its first Insight.
With distinctive styling, fuel economy and celebrity endorsement, the outgoing second-gen Prius has been a roaring success for Toyota. This is why the 2010 Prius is such an important car for the Japanese manufacturer.
Now, with more hybrids (and all-electric) vehicles being wheeled out by other marques and increasingly stringent ‘green-motoring’ standards being imposed by governments, Toyota’s dominance of the hybrid market faces more competition than ever.
Fortunately for the Japanese manufacturer, the new 2010 Toyota Prius features more of what first made it a hit: more environmental cachet, even better fuel economy, and, though still a little quirky, more styling appeal (and, you might be surprised, more power).
The 2010 Toyota Prius is sharper and ‘swoopier’ than its predecessor. The distinctive wedge shape remains, and the high back is accompanied by a sloping roofline that joins both ends in that unique elliptical Prius way.
But the new model is better balanced and, well, less frumpy than the old.
It’s a more handsome car all round. At first glance, most of your attention will be drawn to the new ‘boomerang’ front lights and the neat vertical driving-lights framing the lower air dam.
The frontal treatment clearly differentiates the 2010 model, foregoing the rather bland rectangular headlights of the former model and adding a bit of edge to the front end.
In the top-spec Toyota Prius i-Tech model we tested, the low-beam lights were fitted with high-efficiency LEDs - a feature in keeping with the Prius' environmental appeal. The tail-lights have also been revamped, freshening the lines at the rear.
Similarly, setting off the gleaming white of our test car, the dark solar-panel roof looks particularly smart.
There is perhaps a little less single-minded functionality about the styling of the new Prius, as though its designers could relax a little. Sure, its lines still set it apart from the common rung, but the new model looks less like a butter-box and a little more ‘interesting’ as a car.
The wheels fill the arches quite nicely and, with that swooping nose, scalloped bonnet and a defined rising crease running front to back (visually strengthening the lines), it looks modern, fresh and quite appealing.
It is also the right size. Toyota thankfully resisted the urge to inflate its dimensions and, instead, improved the ergonomics and use of space within.
Overall, the updated styling of the 2009 model is evolutionary – the basic format of the earlier model remains, but is now more stylish and balanced. And it needs to be: the Honda Insight heading this way next year is a very classy looking machine.
Inside the 2010 Toyota Prius i-Tech, there is a nice modern techno-minimalism to the look and style – like the older model, you immediately know you are in a special car that is a little out of the ordinary.
The clean lines of the dash and the way the surfaces integrate throughout the interior is particularly appealing. The steering wheel too, while also comfortable, has a modern individual style.
All of the major functions are integrated into a touch screen in the center console. This keeps things logically centralised functionally, as well as contributing to the clean and uncluttered interior lines.
In the range-topping i-Tech model we tested, leather came as standard, giving the Toyota a premium feel when nestled in behind the wheel. This feeling, however, is compromised by the interior surfaces, which, although Toyota claims are made of "ecological” plastic, "cheap-feeling" and “rock hard” might be closer to the mark.
This may not be an issue in the base Prius model, but at $50,000-plus for the i-Tech model, this means paying a premium price for a not-quite-premium feel.
That said, the Prius offers a lot of practical functionality. There's ample storage in the form of door pockets, seat-back pockets and storage bins.
You won't have too much trouble squeezing people into the car either. The Prius’ practical size is one of its greatest advantages over smaller cars that offer similar fuel economy, such as the Mini Cooper D.
In the Prius, four adults can be accommodated comfortably. Rear headroom is a little lacking thanks to the roof-mounted solar panel, but leg and shoulder room is good.
Settling in is also an easy task, thanks to the adjustable steering and upright driving position. The seats in the i-Tech model are only manually adjustable for tilt (although the driver's lumbar adjustment is electric), which again came as a bit of a surprise on the more expensive model.
The large boot is a plus, offering good luggage space – certainly enough for a small family on a holiday away – and excellent access. A total of 446 litres is available with the rear seats up, an increase of 31 litres over the last-gen model.
There’s also a commodious storage tray beneath the completely flat boot floor, and the rear seatbacks feature a 60/40 split fold.
Unfortunately, the Prius i-Tech doesn’t have a spare tyre under its boot (the base model gets a space saver), and gets instead an inflator kit and sealant. (I think I’d be fitting a set of ‘resealing’ Continental tyres that Volkswagen is fitting to the Passat CC).
Equipment and features
When it comes to features, it is clear where Toyota has invested its energy and high-end technologies. It also becomes clear why the i-Tech carries a price premium.
Aside from the leather trim and LED headlamps, the i-Tech model gets an intuitive satellite navigation system, radar cruise control and even a self-parking system that allows you to sit back while the Prius reverse-parks itself into tight spots for you.
There is also a climate control system and an automatically dimming rear-view mirror.
The i-Tech's real party piece though is its ventilation system. The solar panel roof has been engineered to generate electricity to keep the inside of the car ventilated without drawing on the battery.
The point of this is so that when you come back to the Prius after leaving it in the sun all day, the interior will have been kept comfortably cool.
This means you won’t have to immediately crank the air-conditioning to its maximum levels the moment you get into the car (not only saving the battery but also saving fuel-use in recharging it). Neat.
And if that’s not enough to keep the cabin chilled, a button on the keyfob can remotely activate the air-conditioning system before you open the door.
The instrument cluster is a high-contrast electronic display mounted high in the centre of the dash, and features a number of aids to improve readability.
Chief among these is the heads-up display, which can project both speed and navigation instructions onto the windscreen directly ahead of the driver.
Another visibility aid is the ‘Touch Tracer’ display, which flashes up an image of the steering wheel buttons whenever the driver lightly touches one of them. The button being pressed is highlighted, thus allowing the driver to use the steering wheel-mounted controls without taking his eyes too far from the road.
To the left of the main readouts, the instrument cluster also features a number of information screens that can be cycled through via the steering wheel controls.
An economy meter shows how efficiently the car is being driven and a system status screen shows whether the petrol engine or electric motor are operating, and whether the battery is being charged or drained.
Economy-over-time screens also show how frugal the driver has been with the throttle.
An eight-speaker AM/FM stereo system with 3.5mm auxillary input and CD player is standard, but sound quality isn’t the best for a car of this price.
In terms of safety systems, the 2010 Prius i-Tech features almost every safety aid under the sun - ABS, EBD, Brake Assist, Traction Control, Vehicle Stability Control, and seatbelt pre-tensioners.
Airbags also abound, with front and side airbags for both the driver and front passenger, and side curtain airbags for the front and rear.
Toyota’s pre-crash system is also part of the i-Tech package, and uses the cruise-control’s radar system to detect whether a collision is imminent. If it determines the Prius is about to hit something solid, it applies the brakes, tensions the seatbelts and sounds an alarm to alert the driver.
New for this year is an extended 8 year (or 160,000km) warranty on the i-Tech's battery pack, as well as 3 years of roadside assistance for those who spring for the expensive i-Tech model.
The last generation Prius only offered a 5 year/100,000km warranty on the battery pack, so this is good news for consumers.
While the basic operation of the hybrid drive system is relatively unchanged, the mechanical package in the third-generation Toyota Prius i-Tech is a big improvement over previous offerings.
The performance of the previous-gen Prius was mild - while it was great for fuel economy, the weedy engine sometimes struggled a little in its duties.
Now, Toyota's engineers have given the Prius a new 1.8 litre Atkinson-cycle engine mated to a 60kW electric powertrain. In total, the new Prius has 100kW of power, a figure which is more than 20 percent greater than the previous Prius could boast.
Incidentally, this new engine is Toyota's first ever beltless mechanical package. According to Toyota, this results in better fuel economy, but the big plus is in ease of maintenance with no necessity to replace a belt later on in the car's life.
Drive from the hybrid drivetrain is sent to the front wheels via a continuously variable transmission. As in previous models, the petrol engine is dormant when creeping in traffic or stopped at lights, springing into life under acceleration and then alternating between battery or engine power depending on the load at the wheels.
The system is regenerative, recharging the battery under braking or when coasting. It is now proven technology, and is brilliance itself.
Driving the Prius is actually a pleasant task, and not just when you're filling up at the bowser. Although, as a hybrid car, fuel efficiency is the first thing most customers will be looking for, it is easy to enjoy the Prius at the wheel.
A hybrid does change the way you drive. You start to get into the swing of the technology and start chasing economy figures.
Officially, the Prius is rated at just 3.9 l/100km. In our care, trying to emulate real-world driving conditions over an even mix of highway, suburban and urban roads, the i-Tech returned a fuel consumption average of 4.2 l/100km - reasonably close to Toyota’s claim.
We fell under its spell though and found ourselves driving a little more sedately than normal. You‘d suspect that if driven like any other car when taking off from the lights and when pushing through the traffic, fuel consumption would start nudging the 5.0l/100km mark.
All Prius models feature four different driving modes: Normal mode, an EV mode, Eco mode and Power mode.
In EV mode, the Prius is virtually silent, and runs emissions-free thanks to only using the battery to operate the car. EV mode cuts out at 50km/h and its range is limited (1km is the most we could eke out of a fully charged battery in EV mode).
In Eco mode, both the petrol engine and the battery are engaged, but in a somewhat restrained manner. The accelerator pedal response is dulled in this mode as the primary function is for economy (and if you need a sudden burst of speed, you have to mash the foot to the floor).
The air conditioning is also backed-off in this mode to improve fuel economy. The payoff, according to Toyota, is a 10-15 percent improvement in fuel consumption.
In Power mode, accelerator response is improved and you have all the power resources of the hybrid drive at your disposal for any occasion that may require a more spirited drive. In this mode, the new Prius is much livelier than the model it replaces and has no trouble dealing with the traffic light dash or when overtaking.
Normal mode is engaged when none of the other modes are selected. It is, as you'd expect, a compromise mode between Eco and Power.
Dynamically speaking, the MacPherson strut front and beam axle rear suspension is tuned for a balance between ride comfort and handling, but leaning more to comfort. For an ecologically-focused car the Prius isn’t completely crippled around corners, but it's not going to be your dream drive for taking around a track either.
The suspension leans to the softer side of the spectrum and performs well over undulating and cracked roads. The trade-off is a bit of body roll and understeer, but nothing that will unsettle your passengers.
We were a little surprised though by the level of road noise, but, with its slippery shape and near silent powertrain, wind and mechanical noise is almost completely absent. (This might be why some tyre roar is evident.)
The tyres aren’t the grippiest around, being a low-friction compound designed to reduce rolling resistance. They get fairly vocal when pushed too hard around a curve, but we suspect that few Prius owners will discover this and fewer will care.
Overall, we like the new Prius. The redesign has breathed fresh life into it, and, with livelier performance, even better fuel consumption, and an eight-year warranty on the battery, it makes an even stronger case in the showroom.
It looks sharp and, importantly, it is much more satisfying at the wheel. And, if you’ve got a Prius in the drive, there is now a lot more to talk about now than just that brilliant hybrid drive system.
With features like radar collision avoidance, radar cruise control, satellite navigation and clever heads-up displays, the Prius i-Tech is a technological showcase.
There is, however, that hefty $53,500 price tag that Toyota is asking for the i-Tech. While it is well-featured, it remains a heck of a lot of money for a small hatchback.
Perhaps, if you’re buying the Prius to save on fuel bills and to do the planet a favour on emissions, you may be better served to choose the base model.
You don’t get all the gadgetry, but you get the same very clever car.
- Well built, feels rock-solid
- Hybrid powertrain is impressively smooth
- Not difficult to get excellent fuel economy
- Gadget-laden i-Tech is a nerd's wet dream
- Luggage space is generous for a small car
- A lot of money to pay, especially for a car this size
- Interior feels too sterile, hospital-grade materials aren't very inviting
- Hard to keep up with other traffic, particularly in fuel-saving Eco mode.