A lot of people hate the Toyota Prius. When you drive one, as I’ve now done for some 600 miles, other people will make a point of overtaking you, instead of just overtaking. Some people cleverly refer to it as the ‘pious’, which doesn’t really work, as the correct pronunciation of the name is Pree-us, not Pry-us.
It’s widely assumed that if you drive a Prius you are some sort of evangelist for a new Utopian age, but maybe a lot of them are just being driven by people who like sensible cars that don’t use too much fuel. Just a thought. ‘Or Uber drivers’, comes the cry. So? They’re chosen by people who drive for a living and are playing a decisive part in the general rethink of personal transport. Not much of a criticism.
Clarkson has dismissed this car as ‘A cynical marketing exercise’ aimed at faux environmentalists, and I can see where he’s coming from, but I’m not so sure. Toyota, being the far-sighted lot that they are, started work on the Prius in 1968, which was before the environment had been invented. I’m inclined to think that Toyota realised the electric motor would have a place in the future of the car, but that it wasn’t ready to be let out on its own, because battery technology hadn’t really progressed since the days when Baker Electrics roamed the streets of the USA. And let’s not forget that Japanese car makers have always been interested in fuel efficiency. It’s why they triumphed in that difficult 70s crisis period.
In any case, I’m not really that interested in the environment. I’m so sad I’m actually interested in drivetrains. The trouble with this is that properly understanding the one in the Prius is a bit like trying to translate dial-up modem into English, and once you start taking an interest you find yourself dragged into a descending vortex to acronym hell, where Beelzebub will have the following warmed up for you on the end of a toasting fork: ECU, ICE, MG1, MG2, HVB, eCVT, HSD, WTF. This is just the beginning of your torment. The whole subject is riddled with continually repeated acronym phenomenon.
Let’s move on. I’m going to stick my neck out and say I quite like the way the Prius (and indeed many other recent offerings from Toyota and Lexus) looks. As a whole, and from some angles, it seems a bit clumsy, but it’s full of interesting styling details and definitely looks Japanese, or possibly a bit like Hannibal Lecter when he had his muzzle on. See more in the selection of rather fine photographs I’ve taken.
You would, however, struggle to say the Prius is exciting to drive. The performance is absolutely average, the handling is benign, the ride is sort of normal. Some aspects of it seem a bit old-fashioned, such as the touch-screen display. When this is having a digital think, it flashes up the legend ‘I’m working on it…’ This is a bit like having a celebrity voice on your sat-nav; not really very funny from the off, and quickly leading to murderous ill-temper.
What the Prius is, however, is interesting.
It just is. Instead of a straightforward relationship between a rotating crankshaft and the driving wheels, the Prius serves up a mysterious propulsive soup. There's a 1.8-litre engine, and that might be driving the wheels, but it might not, and there's also the electric motor - two, actually - or is it being a generator at the moment? When it goes a bit quiet it's probably driving the wheels but maybe they're both at it. The gearbox has gears but works like a CVT. You can switch it to electric mode but then the engine starts anyway because the battery is quite small. So before you know it, it's charged up again, and you can see that in the pleasing head-up display, which might be an option, not sure, but if you think I'm going anywhere near the brochure you can whistle Dixie out yo ass.
In fact there are lots of things to look at on the facia. There are lots of things on the facia of, say, an Audi, too, but there’s something strangely mesmerising about all the information in the Prius, especially the energy flow display, because you can amuse yourself trying to make the battery recharge or the engine cut in and out and… shit! I haven’t looked out of the windscreen for what feels like half an hour.
You can move the oddly appealing shift lever into B on downhill stretches and on the approach to junctions, giving you enhanced regenerative braking, and this becomes a good game in itself; trying to avoid using the brakes. Good idea, as the real brakes are a bit grabby. It’s like an absurd video game with points as prizes in the form of a commendable consumption graph (Look out of the bloody window!) and you can inadvertently turn into a hypermiler just trying to amuse yourself on a long and lonely commute. Perhaps it’s a plot.
In very mixed driving on motorways, A-roads and small lanes, I achieved an overall 60.2mpg, which you might manage with a modern diesel. But then you’d be driving a diesel. The distant moan of the Prius’s petrol engine, CVT transmission and drive motor are a more contemporary sort of sound, I think.
Look; in the end, it’s just a car. In a way, the banality of the Prius is a measure of its success. It was not the first hybrid car – the idea is almost as old as the car itself – but it is probably the most significant. Without it, we would not have arrived so quickly at hybrid supercars and the hybrid racing cars running at Le Mans. If some successor of mine makes another Cars of the People TV series in 30 years’ time, the Prius should be in it.
Whether we like it or not.
Photography © by Alexander Boy-Warren