(Pocket-lint) - It might seem scarcely believable, but in 2017 the Toyota Prius celebrates its 20th Birthday. To mark this momentous occasion, we took the opportunity to crack out the candles and review this, the fourth generation of Toyota's most famous hybrid car.
Twenty years is a long time. Back in 1997, few would have believed that the world's first hybrid saloon car would morph through four generations from being the strict preserve of the eco-hippy, to The Oscars red carpet transport, before becoming a firm favourite of the Hollywood celeb, and arriving at today's fourth generation – the car most likely to be taking you home from your night out in London's West End. And earlier this year, Toyota passed a landmark – it sold more than 10 million hybrids worldwide, in that 20-year period.
But things move on. We're sat writing this with a fully electric car plugged-in on the drive (a BMW i3, FYI). Toyota itself recently promised to launch more than 10 electric vehicles (EVs) by the mid 2020s. Cars are becoming more electrified, with much bigger batteries and longer all-electric ranges.
So where does that leave the Prius? Is it still the wise buy, or leis it left out in the cold as the world changes around it?
No plug. Boon or bust?
When the Prius launched, its biggest appeal was the lack of a plug. The deal was and remains simple: it's a hybrid – a car with both a regular petrol engine, and a battery – but you don't plug the battery in to charge it, as the car cleverly harvests energy on the move to recharge the battery in a closed loop system.
You simply fill up at the pump as normal, except you reap the rewards of an easy 55mpg in our hands (which means 70mpg if you're careful, it gets 94mpg officially – but that's a stretch) and you can trundle around for a couple of miles without the engine running at all. You never have to worry about trailing an electric cable through your window, or running out of battery charge and being stranded at the side of the road. The Prius asks you to make no specific behavioural changes compared to any car you've owned before.
This is its greatest advantage. If you're London-bound, for instance, don't have a driveway and can't always park outside your house, a car you need to plug in is going to be a massive pain. So how do you get stellar fuel economy, and spend periods – such as when in traffic jams – without an internal combustion engine running, and polluting? The Prius hybrid synergy drive is just about the best answer the auto industry has come up with yet in that circumstance. And the numbers really are hard to argue with: 70g/km of CO2 and up to 94mpg. That's a big leap forward over the last model, and means the Prius is attractive as a company car.
However, thanks to government tax changes, you'll now pay £15 road tax in the first year, and £130 every year after that. It used to be free.
Yesterday's idea of the future?
However, if you genuinely want to run emissions-free for many miles, and have a driveway where you can park at home to charge, then you'll want an electric, or at least some form of plug-in hybrid car.
Yes, there are arguments about the overall "clean-ness" of these – because it depends on how clean your electricity source at home is. But if you've got solar panels, wind turbines or other clean energy that you can harvest (from your house or from a clean energy provider) we suspect you'll feel like an EV is the eco answer.
In subjective terms, we've driven many EVs and plug-in hybrids recently, and after driving those the Prius drivetrain doesn't feel quite so much like the future. Why? The problem is that the engine is often running. And as we've written many times before of the Toyota hybrid system, the gearbox – which is a CVT system – makes the engine toil away whenever you press the throttle down more than an inch.
It's not all bad, though. The Prius is fab in traffic, the ride on the small wheels is good, and once you get the hang of some weird control logics, it's easy to drive. But when the traffic speeds up or the road opens out it quickly runs out of ideas, or tires you with its CVT-induced droning. For those converted to the fully electric way, it just occasionally feels like yesterday's idea of the future.
Something fishy going on
One of the reasons for the success of the Prius over time, is its design and image. It's always looked distinctive – and this latest model is the most wildly styled yet. The question is whether Toyota has gone too far. The Prius looks wilfully strange – like little else on the road, with an unusual profile, unhelpful small wheels, ungainly proportions, and topped off front and rear by some of the most unusual lamp designs we've ever seen.
It's not all bad, though. It's highly distinct, and the nighttime signature from those rear lights running right the way down the edge of the car is fantastic. And if you're one of those people who moans that all cars look the same these days, then the Prius blows your argument right out of the water.
But it's not exactly beautiful, nor do we buy that it has to look like this for aerodynamic reasons alone. The latest Prius has a drag coefficient of 0.24cd, making it one of the best on the road. That's the same as a Mercedes C-Class and Tesla Model S, and it might surprise you to find out that the current Audi A4 (at 0.23cd) is more slippery.
Overall, we admire Toyota for pushing for something so bold – it's certainly keeping the Prius distinction factor up. But the car designer in us sees flaws, and we can't help feeling that the overall look is bound to put some, possibly many, people off – which is a shame.
Step inside the Tardis
Jump in the driver's seat and the picture is better. The Prius is different; it's unusual, but not in a bad way.
The first thing you're likely to notice is a sense of space. The angle of the windscreen, with its base pushed far forward, makes the cabin feel airy, further helped by the arc of the roofline. The Prius isn't a massive car, at 4.5m long, but it feels roomy – and you're not bearing any space compromises because of a big battery or electric motor equipment. There's a normal 3-across rear seat bench, and a relatively shallow yet deep and pretty well-shaped boot. Overall, then, the new Prius is actually a bit of a Tardis.
The car features flat-looking, but highly comfortable seats and a great driving position. From that drivers chair you look out over a very unusual dashboard, split into several key sections, with a main central touchscreen hub for the usual infotainment and navigation, alongside a gear-shift puck control and climate panel – all of which are thrust to within hands-span of both driver and passenger.
In addition, there's a slim display panel which runs across the car, under the windscreen, and which provides your primary vehicle information, and a secondary interaction panel, which doubles-up some of what you can do on the main touchscreen – as well as showing you the all-important hybrid drive indicator to inform you of whether battery, petrol engine, both or neither are propelling the car forwards.
A Toyota tech fest
Our top-spec Excel trim test car features a full feature projector head-up display (HUD), providing speed, navigation and speed limit displays direct in your eyeline – which is very clear and works well.
The interior, on first acquaintance, can seem a little daunting – but you get used to it fast. Like any auto, plant a foot on the break, thumb the power button and the dashboard illuminates, there are a few beeps and whirs and then it just says "ready" and you sit in silence (note: if it's cold the engine will start up instead).
Selecting a gear is the only truly odd bit. Keep your foot on the brake, grab the little blue puck below the screen and yank it across towards you, then pull down into the carpet to select drive. The display on the thin screen under the windscreen shows you which gear you're in. Then you'll need to click off the old-school, American-style parking brake in the footwell to get away.
The new Prius drives like any automatic, except that it pays to lift off the brakes early, so that the car can regenerative brake – so when it slows you down it can harvest otherwise lost energy into the battery.
In addition to the gear selection on the thin display, there's also speed, speed limits and other available screens to view – one of which allows you to see how the hybrid system is working, and which we kept active most of the time. But you can cycle through and select radio stations, climate control functions and other cabin features via controls on the steering wheel. Somewhat confusingly, you can also do that in the main touchscreen.
The touchscreen – an 8-inch Toyota Touch 2 with Go system – is the same setup as the one we recently reviewed in the company's C-HR crossover. It does the job, and some of the mapping functionality, such as traffic hold up prediction, is actually very impressive. But it's a bit clunky to use, with plenty of confusing terminology and some very old-fashioned graphics. We think it's a pity Toyota didn't take the opportunity to re-skin this, to make it feel and look as futuristic as everything else does inside the new Prius.
Excel-ling to the top of the range
Other tech features of note in this top-specification Excel model included a full-battery of safety warning kit or Toyota Safety Sense. That includes blind spot alert, forward collision prevention, rear cross-traffic alert and reversing camera, along with lane-keep assist.
There's also an adaptive cruise control setup, which we found easy to cycle on and off via the steering wheel controls, but like many of these systems it gets a little jumpy on the brakes if another car crosses your lane on the motorway in a dynamic situation.
We also like the well-placed Qi wireless charging mat, which kept our (wireless-charging cased) iPhone 6S in place despite some fairly full-on driving manoeuvres.
A huge plus is the JBL stereo system, which is genuinely one of the best we've clapped our ears around in a car of this size or at this price point. The sound is genuinely top-class, and of the standard you get in some premium brand systems that can cost many thousands of pounds. To get it bundled into the Prius at this top-end trim level acts as a reason to select it and pay the extra.
Which model to buy?
All Prius models come with the same hybrid synergy drive engine/gearbox combo of a 1.8-petrol engine, CVT gearbox and nickel-metal hydride (not lithium) battery. So your choice of selection comes down to trim or grade.
The car starts from £24,115 for the Active model, which comes with the Toyota Touch 2 media system (but no navigation) and the Safety Sense package.
Upgrading to the Business Edition feels like a no-brainer, as you get keyless entry, heated seats, blind spot monitor and head-up display for just an extra £900. The Business Edition Plus (£26,890) adds 17-inch alloys, parking sensors, self-parking and navigation.
Our Excel includes all of the above features, plus the awesome JBL sound system, leather seats, auto wipers and voice recognition for the multimedia system. It's from £28,345 – or £28,890 as tested here.
It's 20 years on and the Toyota Prius is still going strong. Indeed, the world has much to thank it for, in helping get us to where we are now – on the brink of an electrification revolution. How Toyota manages to squeeze such fantastic fuel economy and low emissions out of it, with simply no more than adding petrol, is a great mystery, but efficient it is – returning 55mpg+ in our hands, when driven with little sympathy and often in conditions where it's not designed to excel (country roads).
If you want to go green, it's very difficult to argue that any diesel car has better credentials than the Prius. And if you're stuck in a flat or house with no off-road parking, you may find your life made easier by a Prius than going for something with a plug. But for those really wanting to go to the next level, to drive the car of the future, the Prius has lost its shine. Plug-ins and EVs offer something else – the compelling notion of driving emission-free, paying less tax and going quicker, with greater refinement and better connectivity on-board and off.
The Prius plays a different game. It's now a highly developed and well-refined product, that for many people will provide a useful stepping-stone to a future that's not fuelled by hydrocarbons. It's now a genuinely good car in its own right that should be considered instead of a regular petrol or diesel hatchback because it doesn't ask you to change your behaviour. But it's a car that many will overlook, because the appearance simply puts them off. We do wish Toyota hadn't made it look so wilfully odd looking.
Alternatives to consider
The Ioniq carefully borrows from the Prius's playbook. Which is a polite way of saying it's basically a copy of what the Prius... was. Its major advantage over the Prius is that it looks much more conventional and its also cheaper. The Ioniq offers a few variants – there's a hybrid version like the Prius, a plug-in hybrid and a full EV.
Read the full article: Hyundai Ionic review