Toyota Prius is a well-known name in fuel economy and for good reason. The Toyota Prius is a hybrid electric vehicle, a combination of a small petrol engine and an electric motor. Honda Insight may have been the first hybrid on the market, but the Toyota Prius reached 1 million global sales in 2008 and doubled that just two years later.
Mention ‘hybrid’ and the first thought that likely pops into your mind will be ‘Prius.’ Since hopeful beginnings in 1998, and launched officially in Australia in 2001, the Toyota Prius has delivered industry-leading fuel economy, typically less than 5.3L/100km, with many drivers reporting better than 4.0L/100km.
The Toyota Prius was built for fuel economy, and with the price of petrol continually on the rise, those tiny fuel consumption numbers and sexy aerodynamic lines are sure to impress. The first thing you'll note stepping into the Prius is the simplicity of the controls. The shifter is very basic with Drive, Reverse, and Braking positions. Park has been relegated to a button. The dash dispenses with the traditional tachometer and represents your power consumption in kW, both positive and negative.
The vehicle’s parallel hybrid electric drive system pairs a small 4-cylinder petrol engine with a compact electric motor. The power splitting device closely mimics the power transfer of a constant velocity transmission, but shouldn't be mistaken for such because it is a completely different beast. Depending on power demand, the electric motor or the petrol engine, or both, may drive the power split device, which transfers engine/motor power to the wheels. Acceleration is smooth and shift-free, as the dual electric motor generators continually adjust to maximise efficiency and minimise fuel consumption.
Braking for the uninitiated may also feel slightly strange, because letting off the accelerator pedal activates slight regenerative braking, which uses the forward momentum of the vehicle to recharge the battery pack, slowing the vehicle down slightly more than you'd expect in a conventional vehicle. The shift position in B, for Braking, enhances this effect. Step on the brake pedal and regenerative braking ramps up to considerably slow the vehicle. Pay attention the power meter and you'll note the gauge dipping into the negative side of the scale, which indicates energy flowing back into the battery pack. The hydraulic braking system won't activate until the last few metres coming to a stop.
Seating is comfortable for 4 and even the backseats aren't all that uncomfortable for the average adult. The lift-back has plenty of room for cargo in the boot, about average for vehicles in this class, and the rear seats fold flat to open up even more space. The Prius is no sports car, but you'll come to appreciate its super-low fuel consumption during those suburban and urban commutes. The Toyota Prius really shines in city traffic, where it takes advantage of the electric motor's high torque for short acceleration in stop-and-go traffic. Fuel consumption in the city is often far better than out on the highway. Once you get out of the city and on the road, fuel consumption is pretty much the same as any low-powered conventional sedan.
The 1.5L i4 engine is rated at 43kW and tuned for a specific range of rpm and torque output, befitting its primary role as a generator as it keeps the engine in the most efficient range, reducing emissions and fuel consumption. The 30kW electric motors propel the vehicle forward with some assistance from the engine but also function as generators during regenerative braking and when the engine runs to charge the battery pack. The 73kW total output doesn't give the Prius a whole lot of performance edge, but it excels with average fuel consumption at just 5.6L/100km.
The official launch of the Toyota Prius here in 2001 upgraded engine architecture, still displacing 1.5L in a 4-cylinder petrol engine but generating 52kW. The electric motor was also upgraded to 33kW. Fuel consumption remained in the low 5L/100km range.
The third-generation Prius for 2010 saw further enhancements to power output, with a new 1.8L 4-cylinder petrol engine generating 73kW but with a smaller 27kW electric motor. The larger engine made for better power output to reduce highway engine speed and fuel consumption. Fuel consumption for the third-generation Toyota Prius is even lower, officially rated at 4.7L/100km.
Even the base-model Toyota Prius comes with plenty of features to keep drivers safe, including dual front airbags and anti-lock brakes. Driver happiness is enhanced by automatic climate control, a CD player, and power windows, locks, and mirrors.
The i-Tech upgrade adds a pretty penny to the price, but it adds some great features including extra speakers for better audio as well as an in-dash 6-CD changer and cassette player. Bluetooth connectivity and satnav round out the audio/visual package. Upgrading to i-Tech also adds electronic stability control, keyless entry and start, as well as side and curtain airbags for extra safety.
When the Toyota Prius was first launched here, it had no competition in the hybrid market, but that didn't mean that other manufacturers weren't developing hybrid technology of their own. One notable competitor came along in 2005, the Honda Civic Hybrid. The Civic Hybrid handles somewhat better than the Prius, especially in steering feel and braking. The Civic is also less expensive, starting out around $7,000 less than the Prius when new. That being said, however, the Toyota’s hybrid drive system is far more advanced and more fuel-conscious.
Outside hybrid territory, there are plenty of other vehicles in the low-fuel-consumption class. The Fiat 500 is one excellent contender, which may be a wiser choice if your commute is mostly highway. The Fiat 500's small turbodiesel engine consumes just 4.2L/100km, which is actually better than the Prius on the highway. Of course, once you get into the city, the Prius hybrid drivetrain makes much more sense and consumes less fuel doing so.