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Are low emissions vehicles the future of motoring? Y’s Alvin Thomas finds out if the Toyota Prius is the harbinger it’s claimed to be.
Let’s face it: we’re not going to be driving petrol-powered cars for much longer. And with fuel prices in Oman going through the roof, people have already started feeling the pinch, so much so that they’ve started driving more carefully to save money on fuel.
Even then, I have always been under the impression that electric (and the more practical hybrid) cars were still years – if not decades – away from hitting the roads of the GCC. In fact, I was so confident in my theory that I actually went on to take delivery of a V6-powered sedan a few months back. Needless to say, I’ve been penniless ever since.
But as an avid petrolhead, I could never imagine the day that I would be parking my car and hopping into a Toyota Prius – a car that has donned the title of being a “petrol car-killer”(even though the car uses a petrol engine alongside the electric motor) – of late.
And while Oman is only witnessing the Prius for the first time on its roads, the nameplate has been available on the international market from as early as 1997. And if you didn’t know, this is also the first mass-produced hybrid car in the world, so think of this as the modern equivalent of Ford’s Model T (the first affordable mass-production car) – sort of like a modern 21st-century adaptation of the former.
The car has since become the most sold electric-petrol hybrid hatchback to date, thereby also making it the “real-world” definition of a modern hybrid car. But, let’s glance over all of that and since this is the first Prius to enter the country, let’s treat it how we would treat a newcomer; let’s give this one a sporting chance.
But first, the design: the Toyota Prius certainly looks unlike anything else on the market. The design language is unique, if a tad controversial. But it’s one that grew on me as I spent more time with it. I did receive a lot of attention while navigating the highways here, but I cannot be sure if it’s because people like it or because they think it looks unlike anything they have ever seen.
The Prius is quite tall for a compact hatchback, and it rides on fairly low-resistant 38cm wheels. This makes the car look like it’s tip-toeing while toddling along the roads. But there are some unique styling elements, which I grew to love over the course of my drive. For instance, the sculpted head, fog and taillights; and the glowing-blue Toyota logo give the car a quirky persona while the raised dual-window rear hatch recalls the days (1983, if I’m not mistaken) of the beautiful Honda CRX – which also had a similar rear hatch.
The side profile, however, is generic Toyota. But, I still would like to commend the designers for going all avant-garde on the Prius. Here at Y, we like driving cars that stand out.
The interior is very much in tone with that quirky exterior. It’s unlike any interior we have seen in a car – and we’re glad it is different. I, for one, completely detested the interior in previous generation Priuses. This one, however, raises the bar a notch.
They’ve kept things simple inside: the steering is thick-rimmed and meaty (almost like it belongs in a Toyota 86 sports car), while the dashboard is neatly laid out. A responsive “floating” 18cm touchscreen unit dominates the dash and takes control of all entertainment functions, but they’ve also placed the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) buttons underneath. I’m also glad that they are buttons and not light-sensitive controls like you would find in many “modern” cars of today.
There’s a second screen on top of the dashboard that shows you important functions of the car – the battery range, whether you’re running on the petrol engine or electric motor, and even your gear status. My “E+TH” tester also came with 10-speaker JBL audio, and other goodies like blind-spot monitoring and lane change assist.
Cabin space is excellent for its class, and the front seats are well-bolstered and supportive. The cabin felt really airy and non-claustrophobic, offering more than adequate space for five adults. The hatch-style rear also makes way for ample space while storing luggage.
But the most interesting feature about the interior is the gear stick. Why? Just look at the tiny little blue-coloured gear stick; it’s not what you see every day. The shift-by-wire (a gearbox, which shifts transmission modes via electric signals) is quite tricky to use initially but the learning curve isn’t that tall. It only took me a couple of minutes to figure it out and before I knew it, I was out on the road.
But let’s talk about the core of the Prius: the hybrid system. The car houses a 1.8-litre four-cylinder “Atkinson Cycle” petrol engine, that pumps out 97hp and 142Nm of torque, and is backed up by an electric motor/generator system that buzzes out 71hp and 163Nm of torque. Somehow, the combined efforts only add up to a total of 121hp, though (probably because the load on the petrol engine reduces while the electric motor is running).
The performance is spritely, as opposed to what the media has portrayed about the Prius of late. The car runs solely on the electric motor up to 30kph before the petrol engine kicks in. But that’s just how the “Hybrid Synergy Drive” system works, and I think that’s how it manages to keep things very efficient.
Power is sent to the front-wheels through a CVT gearbox. The latter doesn’t “drone” or possess the feeling of a slipping clutch like some of its other counterparts from Asia do.
I could hit the 100kph mark in a little over 10 seconds, upon hard acceleration. There’s a nice mid-range kick, and the car picks up speed steadily. There are also minimal vibrations entering the cabin while you’re driving at high speeds, although there’s a slight tendency for wind noise to creep in at those speeds. The ride, however, is pristine, and much better than that of other cars in this price and size segment. It takes bumps effortlessly, and with a great deal of composure.
There are four driver modes to choose from: Eco, Power, Normal and EV. Normal mode takes care of things efficiently but I saw myself driving in Eco mode for the most part of the journey to make up for all the fuel I have been wasting on cars recently.
The biggest surprise, however, was how the Prius handled corners. I found the handling to be neutral, with no understeer (although I didn’t push it to its limits), and limited body roll. It definitely handles better than its cousins – the Corolla and Yaris – despite the light and unassuming steering. I presume this is because the batteries reside under the rear seats, offering a lower centre of gravity.
The Prius is no doubt Toyota’s answer to the fuel-price crisis we’re currently facing here in the GCC. And while we all have accepted that electric cars are the future, the world is yet to see one that is affordable and practical at the same time.
So in the meantime, why not put the past and the future together and take forward a proven technology to make the most of our resources, right?