FUJI SPEEDWAY, JAPAN – The message from Toyota is simple: if you love the Earth and need to drive a car, you should buy a Prius. It’s a simple message but it has been an effective one: the Japanese automaker has sold almost four million of its halo eco-cars since the first generation was introduced in Japan in 1997.
Now the fourth generation Prius is due to hit the streets, coming to Canada early next year. Each iteration is more fuel-efficient than the one before and it’s grown steadily more comfortable. Now the newest Prius wants to be more mainstream. It wants to use very little gasoline, but drive more like a conventional car.
To demonstrate that point, Toyota lined up a dozen Priuses at Tokyo’s famous Fuji racetrack and invited media to turn some laps and chat to engineers. We only had seat time for a few laps, but it was enough to show there’s nothing out of place with the car in this environment.
Longer, lower, wider, stiffer
The latest Toyota Prius is slightly longer (61 mm) and slightly wider (15 mm), but most important, it’s 20 mm lower than before, both in its ground clearance and its roof height. Everything has dropped down to lower the centre of gravity, which helps its handling.
The new car has a noticeably different shape to its predecessor, since its nose is 70 mm lower and its trunk is 62 mm lower. The peak of its roof is 170 mm farther forward than before, and the whole thing creates an impressive drag co-efficient of just 0.24. That aerodynamic shape adds to the fuel savings.
As well, it’s the first car to be built on the Toyota New Global Architecture platform, which uses laser screw welding to help hold everything together. This means there are a lot more welding points between surfaces and the joins are stronger, so everything is more rigid. Combined with greater use of lighter steel, Toyota now claims the Prius is 60% stiffer than before.
Out on the track, we drove behind a pace car and didn’t try to set any lap records, but it was apparent the Prius is as well-mannered and predictable on the higher-speed curves as it is on the straight. At the slalom course, it drove confidently through the cones, as a car should.
Fun to drive?
The Prius is not a sports car and never will be, but it’s also now more than just a way to get from A to B using as little gasoline as possible. Our short time behind the wheel was fun, and when was the last time you heard a Prius called fun?
Plenty of other cars also are fun, however, including Toyota’s own Camry Hybrid, re-engineered last year to be sportier than before. The Camry Hybrid actually outsells the Prius in Canada as buyers look for something more mainstream and less eco-pushy. It consumes a claimed 5.7 L/100 km of gasoline, so the Prius has to improve on that if it’s to help save the planet.
Toyota didn’t provide any official fuel consumption figures and our time behind the wheel was too short (and too, er, “enthusiastic”) to be a useful indicator. But the current Prius has an official consumption of 4.7 L/100 km and Toyota reckons the new generation will improve on that by about 10%, which would come in at 4.2 L/100 km. And yes, that’s a big difference.
Most efficient engine
The improvement is found with little efficiencies throughout the engine and powertrain. There’s still a 1.8L in-line four-cylinder gasoline engine under the hood, paired with an electric motor, but the engine is completely redesigned to improve its thermal efficiency to the range of 40%, which Toyota says is the best in the automobile business.
This means 40% of the energy that goes into the engine (in the form of gasoline) is actually used to power the car in some way. A more typical car engine probably has a thermal efficiency of around 25%.
As well, all the hybrid components are now a little smaller and lighter, which means they can be arranged more effectively for less power loss through the system. It all helps to both save fuel and improve the response of the drive itself.
There’s a Power button on the instrument panel of the Prius that, when pushed, adjusts the shift points of the transmission and the touchiness of the throttle. Of course, this doesn’t add any actual power, but it does make the car respond a bit quicker. It’s still no sports car, but it does make for a more satisfying drive.
More comfort but still dull inside
We circled the track a few times, getting comfortable in seats redesigned to reduce fatigue on a long drive. They’re lower too, by 59 mm at their hip points. This means there’s more head room now, by about the same amount.
Inside, though, the sedan may be comfortable and planted on the road, its design is dull. There’s lots of black plastic where the dials and gauges normally sit in front of the steering wheel – as before, the instruments are contained in a horizontal display across the top of the central instrument panel.
This arrangement helps Toyota keep the price down because it can use the same instrument panels for its cars in both left-hand-drive and right-hand-drive markets, but it doesn’t give much satisfaction to the driver.
That horizontal display provides a digital readout of the speed, and a graphic display of the fuel consumption and real-time engine/battery use, among other things. A larger panel above the centre console provides the navigation map and additional information.
Optional driver assists
At least the new Prius now provides an array of optional driver assistance features, including a “Safety Sense P” package that includes pre-collision warning, lane departure warning, high beam control assistance and radar cruise control. You can also get blind-spot warning, parking assistance and even a heads-up display.
There’s no price on any of this yet – Toyota hasn’t even provided a base price while the U.S. and Canadian dollars sort themselves out against the Japanese yen. If previous experience is any guide, the new car will probably be slightly more expensive than the current car in all its various trim levels. That’s to say, slightly more than the current $26,305 for the base model, and a bit more than $31,290 and $34,390 for its mid-level and fully-loaded trims.
These prices won’t deter typical Prius buyers one bit. They’re willing to pay their share to save the planet, and they want everyone to know it, too. If they can now enjoy driving their cars more, then that’s an added bonus.
Engine: 1.8-LITRE inline four-cylinder gasoline engine with hybrid electric motor
Fuel consumption: 4.2 L/100 km combined (est.)
Competitors: Chevrolet Volt; Ford C-Max Hybrid; Toyota Camry Hybrid