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Toyota's Prius hybrid needs little in the way of introduction. Andy Enright checks out the latest version.

Ten Second Review

The Toyota Prius is now thoroughly established at the nation's favourite hybrid vehicle. This third generation car has demonstrated that a hybrid car doesn't need to be dull and it's been further improved of late, with better driving manners, a few styling updates, better quality interior finishes and more standard equipment.

Background

The hybrid car has matured. The first generation of these vehicles were rather odd-looking things. With dumpy styling and lacklustre performance, they were bought by those who wanted to make a statement while brushing under the carpet the fact that simpler diesel cars were cheaper to run and better to drive. Statements like this only hold their impact for a finite period of time, after which a hybrid vehicle needs something more than a political soapbox to draw new sales.

Toyota realised this and launched a massively improved second generation Prius in 2003 and an even more refined third generation car in 2009. By this time, it had become a properly rounded buyer proposition, capable of acting as a practical family car. In other words, the hybrid had come of age. What we have now is a revision of the third generation Prius, with a number of improvements aimed at retaining its appeal.

Driving Experience

As part of the maturing process, it's incumbent on modern hybrids to be decent to drive. Time was when buyers would put up with all the driver appeal of a milk float in order to trumpet their green credentials. Not any more. While the latest Prius is clearly no hot hatch, it's a vehicle that realises that customers demand more. That's why the Prius's body has been made stiffer by increasing the number of welding spots and reinforcements. This increased rigidity allows for softer suspension tuning, which improves ride comfort without diminishing the car's dynamic abilities. This also serves to make the steering column more rigid, which has the effect of giving the driver better steering feel. Additional soundproofing materials have reduced noise and vibration levels in the cabin even further.

The engine is still a 98bhp 1.8-litre petrol unit with a 38-cell nickel-metal hydride battery that boosts acceleration when required to provide 134bhp. Alternatively, the Prius can run in full electric vehicle (EV) mode where the petrol engine is switched off.

The on-board computer adjusts the mix of drive from the petrol and electric motors according to the prevailing conditions but the Prius can also be set to one of three modes. In EV mode, it runs exclusively on battery power. Then there's the Eco mode that gives optimum fuel economy and Power mode which sharpens performance. The power is distributed through a CVT automatic gearbox and the Pruis provides detailed information to keep drivers abreast of what the Hybrid Synergy Drive is up to as well as the fuel economy being achieved. Give the throttle pedal some serious punishment and you'll be able to crack 60mph in around 10 seconds. Most Prius drivers won't though.

Design and Build

Over successive generations, the Prius has morphed from an ugly little spud into something rather handsome. Along the way, it has come to define the shape of the hybrid car. While Toyota realises that hybrid technology is, in effect, a means to an end and aims to offer it across all of its mainstream range, it's interesting to see how many rivals have cribbed the basic shape of the second and third generation Prius. The latest iteration sees a sharper looking front end, with a revised bumper and a larger lower grille that gives the vehicle a low and wide look. There are clear-lens headlights, too, while the LED daytime running lights have been relocated in the bumper beneath the indicators. Go for the range-topping T Spirit model and you'll get LED headlamps, too. At the rear, the combination lamps have been redesigned as have the wheel trims for the 15-inch wheels on the entry level T3 car.

The cabin has come in for a refresh too. The materials quality is higher and the colour choices are much more elegant. Darker materials are used for the dashboard and T4 and T Spirit models see matching black seat trim too. The seats are bigger and offer a wider range of adjustment. The centre console and air vents feature silver inserts. The box in the centre console has come in for a rethink too, with the 12V power socket, USB port and AUX audio input terminal moved to the front of the box while the top features an inbuilt cup holder you can use without having to lift the lid. This underscores the Prius's impressive practicality. There's room for five and the boot is a massive 446 litres, which can extend to 1,120 litres when the rear seats are folded.

Market and Model

Another consequence of the Prius becoming a more talented all rounder is that the price has crept inexorably upwards. The second generation car opened at around £17,700 and this third generation model now demands at least £21,000 for the entry level model, this revised car having bumped another £300-£400 over its predecessor. Of course, much of that has nothing to do with Toyota being predatory on pricing, but a lot more to do with getting a better car and the comparative strength of the yen against the pound. Does it still represent decent value? We'd say yes, especially when compared with rival Japanese manufacturers' wares, which gives a meaningful baseline.

Equipment levels have stepped forward quite significantly as well. The familiar trim structure of T3, T4 and T Spirit is retained but now all versions get the Toyota Touch touchscreen system for audio, multimedia connectivity and Bluetooth, plus a rear-view camera. The flagship T Spirit features the Touch & Go Plus package with satellite navigation, advanced traffic pattern intelligence on programmed routes, voice recognition for calls, music search and play, plus phone contacts search and call functions. The system can also access Google Local Search via your phone's data connection for useful information on services such as live parking and fuel prices. Other equipment highlights include LED daytime running lights and a folding function on the electric heated door mirrors on the T3, while the T4 benefits from an eight-speaker JBL audio system with power-saving GreenEdge speaker technology. Splash out on the T Spirit and there's water-repellent glass, dusk-sensing LED headlamps with washers, and an auto-dimming electrochromatic rear-view mirror.

Cost of Ownership

More important even than the green image of the Toyota Prius is the car's green reality. The current taxation climate rewards low emission vehicles like the Prius, especially for company drivers. Emitting just 89g/km and managing to return a combined cycle fuel economy of 72.4mpg, the Prius has improved to rebut the criticism of those who claimed it was no more economical than a cheaper diesel car in real world circumstances. It's worth noting that these economy and emissions figures refer to the entry-level car. Go for a Prius on 17-inch wheels and they're knocked back to 92g/km and 70.6mpg, which is still hardly catastrophic.

Residual values have improved as worries about the durability of the Panasonic battery pack have diminished. Couple that with very low insurance groupings of 15-16 and you have a car that springs no big bills on its owner. It now appeals to the head as well as the heart.

Summary

When the second generation Prius debuted, it sold 43,000 cars worldwide in its first full year of sales. At the last count, the third generation car multiplied that figure by ten. By any measure it's a spectacular success. A key constituent of that success has come through normalising the hybrid ownership experience. It's no longer a concept bought into by bearded lentilistas. It makes sense to normal people. The latest Prius is a relatively inexpensive way to run a family car and it's an altogether different, more relaxing drive than a typical diesel hatch. What's more, it's a car that feels better the worse driving conditions are. In traffic-choked cities where many cars feel as if they're straining at the leash, this Toyota is serenity itself.

The improvements made to the Prius should keep the order books ticking over while the opposition belatedly catch up. For the time being, this remains the benchmark if you're looking for a hybrid-powered family car.

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