Toyota Prius – Electric or Eclectic?

With its twin drivetrains and some brilliant engineering, the Toyota Prius comes to the region hoping to change some entrenched beliefs

Toyota_Prius_10This is an occasion that doesn’t come too often for a motoring journalist in the region. We get to drive fast cars, cars with large engines, some economy stuff and some that don’t really fit into particular slots. But the one breed that we normally don’t get here are cars that propound the intelligent ecological loving path of the Toyota Prius.

We understand that the jury is out on that particular arrangement too. How does a car that has two drivetrains – i.e. electric and petrol engine – claim to be minimalist in anything else?

To begin with the Toyota Prius is not new. It was launched around1997 and is already in its fourth generation. Over the generations, the car has evolved on its initial idea of using an electric hybrid combination to deliver better fuel economy, phases of pure electric driving and the greater power on offer of the electric boost on a small petrol engine. In fact we’ve even driven the first generation of the Prius on Toyota’s track in Japan sometime in 1999 during an extended visit. At the time, the concept was in its infacncy and very few people actually saw a future largely because of the state of battery technology at the time.

But Toyota has persevered through the years, boosting the technology on offer and increasing the value proposition of the car. The Prius is much-loved by Hollywood film stars and Silicon valley types who enjoy the green credentials that the car provides.

We’ve also had car czar Bob Lutz telling us during a 2008 dinner in Paris about how much money Toyota was investing in the Prius but how all of that made sense because of the sheer amount of goodwill and green points it earned in return. Remember, he was heading GM at the time.

Toyota_Prius_3Now, in its fourthe generation, the Prius is available in global markets both as a regular and plug-in hybrid. The difference a plug-in hybrid brings is a larger battery pack and greater range on pure electric energy. In the regular mode the battery pack is smaller and depends largely on the ability of the petrol engine to kick in with its charging on demand.

Let’s look at drivetrains. The regular petrol engine is a 1.8-litre, 4-cylinder VVti engine that combined with the electric assist tops out at 121hp of power. On its own the engine offers 95hp and 105 lbft of torque.

As you would expect from the car, the engine is tuned for an Atkinson cycle operation. The electric motors offer a maximum of 53kW peak output (that’s 71hp). As you’ll notice, the situation does not arise of both the engine and motors offering peak output together – which is what you would expect only in a performance environment, not one geared for fuel efficiency.

The electric motors are placed on the two front wheels and serve as regenerative sources for electric power during braking as well as when the car is cruising along under no load conditions. For the interested driver, the exact mode that the car is going under is visible from the display. You see the energy flow to the electric motors as the car sets off and the moment the engine kicks in you see the battery power taper off. At some stage you see the flow of energy back to the battery as well. That’s also visible as you apply the brakes. And when you drive for enough time and switch off the engine the car scores your driving in terms of fuel efficient driving.

Toyota_Prius_2The latest Prius is the first car built on Toyota’s new global architecture that aims to lower the centre of gravity and provide more stability and safety. But the combination of the platform and the styling has offered a car with a dramatic Cd of 0.24. To achieve this tiny figure the car also offers grille shutters to divert air over the hood and lower resistance and the characteristic tweak of the rear gate that moves air ever so smoothly into the slipstream.

The interiors of the car are very futuristic and tech inspired, especially those on our test car that had a combination of light and dark surfaces, with the almost white soft-feel plastic of the dashboard matching with the piano black finishes of various trims.

The dashboard is multi-tiered and characteristic of the wider Toyota design trend in modern cars. These surfaces sometimes seem to just rise out of the background, the centre of the assembly is dominated by the large central display. You don’t need to have that kept on the drive information, because you also see the necessary information on a smaller readout at the top of the console.

The large display serves as an extension of your smart phone as much as it does as a Navigation and entertainment console. But after sometime, especially when you are testing the car’s performance, you will default to the finer details of how the drivetrain is working, inluding readouts on efficiency.

The seats are generous and legroom is large, both up front and for the rear bench passengers.

The Prius is designed from the ground up to be super efficient. This begins with the highly efficient 1.8-litre petrol engine and the two electric motors on its front wheels as well as to the 53kWh battery pack that it carries in this regular hybrid version. The efficiency of the car is improved by influencing driver behaviour with readouts of actual consumption and efficiency during a drive cycle.
The Prius also has one of the highest class cabins we’ve seen. Its unique combination of white and black interiors with very tactile surfaces adds to the class of the car.

If you put aside for a moment that the car is supposedly special because of its drivetrains, you will see a rather generous package sitting under the meek identity. It has all the creature comforts you would expect including leather-wrapped steering wheel, a full suite of airbags, reversing camera, blindspot monitoring, lane change assist and is even offered with a heads-up display and leather seats in its higher version.

Driving Impressions

You would expect the car to be underwhelming because of its fixation with fuel-efficiency. It isn’t. Of course you don’t get any tearaway starts even with the electric motor. Unlike the Infiniti Q50’s hybrid drivetrain, this one’s tuned for economy and that means that you wouldn’t usually try to floor the accelerator.

When you press the start button, there is no commotion. The petrol engine remains off, and to engage the drive you have to use the fly-by-wire drive controller that needs to be pulled towards the driver and tapped down for D mode. To get it to N the controller should be held pulled to the left. It takes a little getting used to. Once in D mode, you can further nudge the drive to a battery only mode if needed. Getting it back to park position is done by pressing the P button next to the controller. For a second we wondered whether that was an electric parking brake till we remembered the foot operated pedal off to the left of the footwell. The systems battery voltage tops out at 600W, delivering a highly efficient electric mode. The petrol engine is also more efficient than previous units, with a boost to 40% thermal efficiency with features like EGR (exhaust gas recirculation) and the use of the Atkinson cycle.

The transmission is through a planetary CVT arrangement making for a compact unit. Considering that you barely notice the engine switching on as you drive, it will be only a very perceptive driver who ever notices the complete flatness of the delivery curve.

Just as you wouldn’t really notice that a huge amount of the braking force is due to the electric motors act as generators instead.

The suspension is of a rather stiffer tune than we would have expected from a US centric car, but it does comes in handy especially over speedbreakers and such, where the normal sedan would bottom out. The car is responsive around the corners, but the electric power steering is not the most direct in communicating feel.

When the car trundles along on only electric power, there’s a complete lack of sound outside and in the cabin, except for a bit more tyre noise than we would have expected. To make up for that, the car beeps when it senses pedestrians or cyclists around, in order to warn them. When the petrol engine switches on, the sound is still muted although you can opt for a slightly more vigorous drive mode by selecting the appropriate mode.

Drivers will appreciate the amount of glass around for the visibility although the view out the back is slightly impeded by the cross bar of the glass tailgate and the rising windowsill line for the rear seats. That’s when you really begin to appreciate the large 7” screen with camera.

Verdict

Its hardly a million dollar question, but what really needs to be asked is whether the Toyota prius makes a difference to the informed buyer in the region and Oman? Are you ready to shell out a couple of thousand Rials over a regular drivetrain equipped car from the same manufacturer (even taking all the features and extras that the car has) for the sake of the guaranteed extra mileage? The car should get you better than 25 km/litre in actual conditions and with the car’s instrumentation egging you on to improve your green driving it should get even better.

It is a pity that unlike in the US or Europe, we don’t actually get an incentive or rebate for thinking green. Until that happens, the chances are that the Prius will only appeal to a discerning few.

About Raj Warrior
Raj Warrior is the managing editor of Automan Magazine and has been a part of the Middle East’s automotive landscape from the past 15 years. He has run top rung car magazines in India and Oman and is often referred to as the Automan of Oman. With a background in mechanics, mechanisms and software programming, he is able to visualise the intricate workings of the modern automobile and brings a mix of technical and lifestyle based assessment to his writing. He is also an avid Photographer, often shooting the cars and motorcycles he tests for the magazine. As comfortable on a motorcycle as he is in cars, Raj is driven by his love affair with all things on wheels and brings his passion to all his automotive ventures. Raj has chosen Oman as his home base because he loves the country, its friendly people and its great driving and riding roads.

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