When we think Toyota Prius we think taxi. Whether New York City Taxicab or one of many Uber cars, this hybrid electric vehicle is a well-established player that, well, you're probably more used to sitting in the back of rather than behind the actual wheel.
Back in September Toyota unveiled the fourth-generation Prius at the Frankfurt Auto Show, a reformed model that's lower, longer, quieter and more efficient than any Prius before it. That's a lot of adjectives, but do they add up to a Prius that's altogether more exciting? Indeed, has a Prius ever been exciting?
First thing's first, let's brush over the new looks. We know it's the third-generation Prius, superseding the 1997 original, but that's hardly old. Yet somehow it's developed jowels. Someone's got a bit over-excited with the designer eye-liner when it comes to the front and rear headlamps too - they stretch and twist and turn all over the place in a way that just looks, well, odd.
Squint, rotate your head a lot, and you'll find some good angles, but catch this thing going down the street - especially from behind - and you might squint in a whole other manner. But there's no denying it'll make you look. Which may well be spot on for its needs. Taxi! Although that's perhaps besides the point, as Toyota wants you to buy into the new Prius as a hybrid to own and love.
So back in October we planted ourselves behind the wheel to get a feel for what the 2016 Prius is all about. Slinking into the driver's seat and it's a comfy place to be, with the compact auto gearbox almost floating up and out the way to leave enough room for relaxed legs (unlike the hydrogen fuel cell Mirai). There's an ultra shiny plastic bin between driver and passenger side, though, which could do with being made from a fancier material like the large, stretching dashboard.
It's in this dash that some of the most exciting tech is tucked away too. A digital display will show you driving mode - there are normal, power and eco options which utilise electric and combustion engines in different proportions for extra grunt or a more conservative economy - alongside speed, fuel, and the usual display ins and outs. This line-of-sight positioning makes for easy glancing, none of that juggling eyes between behind the wheel and the road.
We drove around the Fuji Speedway track in pre-defined scenarios that were so pre-defined we didn't really get a full feel for the car. It accelerates smoothly, it's effortless to drive, but as we'd touched upon earlier it doesn't exactly tick the "ultra excitement" box. Such is the way of the Prius.
It's the tech inside that brings most of the thrills. In a second car, seated as the passenger, we were taken to experience Toyota's safety tech in full flow: namely pre-collision with pedestrian detection, whereby the car auto-brakes to avoid hitting pedestrians (well, a fake pedestrian in this case - a dummy on a rail that was sling-shotted out in front of the car to make it screech to a halt). There's also lane departure detection, radar cruise control, and auto high beam for added long-distance safety assurance - not that we needed any of that on the super-wide racetrack.
In this second car we also got to witness the large central display, with funky touch controls to the sides, where the satnav, media and in-car settings are all handled. With tech dominating the car industry, such touches were bringing us around to the new Prius. Until, that is, we stepped outside and got another look at those bonkers rear lights.
Unconventional though its looks may be, Toyota has put a lot of work into the fourth-generation Prius, which is built on the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform. So here come the important figures that actually matter.
At 1,470mm the 2016 Prius is 20mm lower than the second-generation model, with a shallower bonnet for better visibility - works a treat when paired with that glance-at digital dash, although the C-pillars are still unconditionally in the way for perfect view - and the powertrain sits lower, too, meaning a lower centre of gravity.
There are improvements for passengers too: the whole car is longer than the last-gen (4,540mm means it adds 60mm), and wider too (1,760mm means it adds 15mm), providing a touch of extra room inside. More noise-adsorption and insulation material on the floor and around the engine compartment also make for a quieter ride. It's definitely quiet, bar for the occassionaly electric motor noise when hammering the throttle to the floor in power drive mode.
There's also a brand new nickel-metal hydride battery that's 10 per cent smaller than before and repositioned beneath the passenger seats to allow for a large 502-litre boot (that's an extra 26-litres of space right there).
For now the fourth-gen Prius is announced asa fuel-only option, with no news of a plug-in hybrid (which we predict in the future). The latest combustion engine on board is a touch more efficient for 2016 (40 per cent maximum thermal efficiency achieved rather than 38.5 per cent) to keep those all-important emissions down and efficiency figures up.
And so we've gone full circle, which brings us back to those earlier adjectives: lower, longer, quieter, more efficient. The 2016 Prius is all these things, but it's also wilder looking (decipher that as you will) and, just as we'd say of any Prius before it, not exactly heart-thumpingly exciting.
Although if it's a hybrid low-emissions car you're after then the Prius has always been the hero model and that's not going to change in 2016.