STRESSING THE POSITIVE
Toyota's Prius+ brings petrol/electric hybrid technology to the seven-seat MPV sector. Andy Enright reports.
Ten Second ReviewLike most vehicles of this size, the Prius+ should only be thought of as an occasional seven seater, but it scores plenty of credit points in the way it translates the Prius' hybrid driving experience to a bigger body. Capable of 68.9mpg and 96g/km, it's a brilliantly green contender in an otherwise crammed market.
BackgroundPerhaps the most puzzling thing about the Toyota Prius+ is that it took this long to appear. Think about it. Toyota has been selling the Prius since 1997 and its sister company, Lexus, has been shifting hybrid SUVs since 2004. It's a little strange to think that eight years had elapsed before Toyota felt compelled to bring something to market that plugged that yawning gap. It's here now and while the Prius+ might not be radical, it's packed full of the sort of smart and practical thinking that's sure to make it a success.
The catalyst for the development of the Prius+ was the launch of the massively improved third generation Prius in 2009. Bigger, slicker and better to drive, here was a platform that could be extended to a more family oriented vehicle without too much trouble. But, as we'll see here, the Prius+ is more than a Prius with a pair of seats tacked onto the back. As is always the case, Toyota hasn't gone at this one half-cocked.
Driving ExperienceGone are the days when hybrid vehicles could be lousy to drive, counting instead on their green credentials to wash over the fact. The Prius+ doesn't look the obvious candidate for a spirited steer, powered as it is by the same 1.8-litre 98bhp engine that propels the smaller and lighter Prius hatchback. All, however, is not quite as it seems. Toyota has lowered the final drive ratio of the transmission to make the Prius+ accelerate that bit quicker and it also uses more advanced lithium ion batteries that are 8kg lighter yet still preserve the electrically powered range of around two miles.
The steering ratio is has been sharpened up and the damping has been adjusted to cope with more weight in the vehicle. Weight has crept up by 80kg, but it's not something you're likely to feel. One thing you will notice if you come from a Prius hatch is a very clever anti-dive and anti-pitch system that smooths powertrain torque to keep the body level under braking, hard acceleration or over road imperfections. It's still not a quick car by conventional measures, reaching 62mph from standstill in 11.3 seconds and running onto 103mph, but the urge of the electric motor assisting the four-cylinder petrol engine makes it feel a good deal brawnier than the numbers suggest.
Design and BuildWhen Toyota announced the Prius+, I was expecting something boxy like the old Avensis Verso but with hybrid underpinning slung beneath it. I certainly wasn't expecting something quite this good looking. It looks like, and I hate to sound trite, a bigger Prius. So you get the same arched roofline and neat fastback rear end. The wheelbase has been teased out by another 80mm with 50mm added to the rear overhang. Together that adds up to 130mm to the length, so you guessed right if you thought the rearmost pair of seats are a tad cramped.
The second row of seats features three very useful independently sliding/split-folding chairs, while the cheap seats out back are a 50:50 split-folding row. To make space for these extra pews, the battery pack has been shifted to the centre console between the front seats. Toyota has worked at making the most of what it has and to good effect. The seats are thin, with a curved seat back design for the front and middle rows that is eminently knee-friendly.
With all seats in place, Prius+ has 232 litres of cargo space up to the roof, which is a little misleading as virtually every other manufacturer quotes a figure to the height of the parcel shelf. With the third row stowed, this figure rises to 784 litres, and when all the rear seats are folded flat, a maximum 1,750 litres is available. There's also a 60-litre storage tray beneath the luggage deck and loads of storage throughout the cabin, including an 8.5-litre glovebox, a 4.5-litre upper glovebox and an accessory space on the side of the driver's seat.
Market and ModelIf you thought this was going to be a really expensive car, think again. Prices start at what you'd expect for an upper mainstream diesel hatchback, with the Prius+ T4 weighing in at just over £26,000 and the range-topping T Spirit demanding around £29,500 of you. That compares well with other seven seat MPVs such as Vauxhall's Zafira Tourer. There's a fair lick of equipment offered as well. Both versions come with smart entry and start, a head-up display and the Toyota Touch multimedia touchscreen, a system that brings with it Bluetooth for mobile phone connection and audio streaming and a rear-view camera. A panoramic roof is also part of the package, together with automatic air conditioning and automatic windscreen wipers.
T Spirit models go further still with 17-inch alloys, leather upholstery, a more powerful, eight-speaker JBL sound system and Toyota Touch & Go Plus, which includes navigation, advanced Bluetooth functions, voice recognition control and a text-to-speech facility. The stereo is worth a special mention. It uses GreenEdge technology to ensure the speakers, amplifier, equalisation and even the positioning of each component work together to deliver high sound quality and low power consumption. The high-efficiency JBL GreenEdge speakers generate twice the sound output levels of conventional levels for the same amount of power use. They have custom-designed acoustic lenses that spread a more powerful sound across an even wider frequency range. If you needed an excuse to go for the more expensive version of the Prius+, grab a favourite CD, lock yourself in one at your dealer and crank the volume up.
Cost of OwnershipThe Prius+ cannot succeed without offering compelling cost of ownership figures. The novelty has well and truly worn off hybrid cars, to the extent that they're now judged by the same tough criteria as petrol and diesel models. So how does it stack up? Not badly at all actually. We've already seen that the upfront pricing is fair and early concerns about Prius battery durability have been shown to be completely unfounded by the legions of 300,000 mile private hire vehicles still running without a murmur. As a result, used demand is strong for any Prius family vehicle.
Day to day running costs are also nailed right down. In normal use, the T4 model will return 68.9 mpg while the bigger wheels of the T Spirit take the edge off that a smidgeon, that car getting 64.2mpg. Emissions are rated at 96g/km for the T4 and 101 for the T Spirit, which may be key in the buying decision as it means the two cars are in different tax bands and only the T4 is exempt from the London congestion charge.
SummaryThere's a lot to like about the Toyota Prius+. As a seven-seat MPV it's not the most convincing. As a five seat car with plenty of luggage space, it's a much more compelling proposition and the ability to carry a couple of extra passengers is something that can't be ignored. If anything, it's this added utility and elegant styling that make it even more appealing than the standard Prius hatch. In other words, it offers so much more but the downsides are genuinely few.
Take the T4 if you absolutely must have the first seven-seat vehicle that emits less than 100g/km, but otherwise my money would be on the unashamedly well-stuffed T Spirit version. Who knew that saving the planet felt this easy?