The all-new Toyota Prius is a sharp-cornered vehicle that takes its time to grow on you
The fourth-gen Prius has just been delivered to our office basement, and my first thought is, What did they do? What had inspired Toyota to pen that squished face, those…indescribable headlamps, and those weird edges? Its predecessor had a design so friendly you wanted to hug it. This looks like a mutated deviation in the gene pool.
I shouldn’t be surprised—this isn’t my first meeting with Toyota’s newest hybrid flagship. A month back, I was in Japan trying this out along with an assortment of blue-badged Toyotas. And what a trip it was.
FOUR WEEKS AGO…
For several years now, I’ve been going to the Toyota Technology Tour in Japan. In 2013, I was shown how a plug-in hybrid could be part of a whole town’s electric grid, and we got to race Prii around a race track. In 2014, I drove the Toyota Mirai hydrogen vehicle. This year, Toyota Motor Philippines (TMP) invited us again and filled our itinerary with test drives, discussions, and a factory tour.
At the Mobilitas safety center in Fuji Speedway, waiting for us were hybrid Crown Majestas. Since its absence in our market, the Crown has reached Lexus levels of refinement, but on the track,it displays an athleticism that belies its tito-car stature. I’m grinning as I dive into corners and let the electronics stop me from massacring pylons.
Then it’s time to drive the fourth-gen Prius for the first time. Now, I adore the Prius line since I drove the second- generation, and I’ve spent many enjoyable hours behind the wheel of these cars. But the new model is just…odd-looking. It’s as if the designers have been given too much free rein after the success of the predecessors. Having said that, there’s a Lime Green color that suits the unique shape well.
I slide inside and get a little overwhelmed by the radical dashboard layout and the much higher quality of the digital displays. Before I can take it all in, I’m directed toward makeshift barriers to test the new pre-collision system. I’ve been exposed to so many Japanese safety demonstrations, so I don’t even flinch as I hurtle toward a barrier with my braking foot not doing anything. As expected, the system works seamlessly.
But can the Prius take a hit? In the afternoon, we find out through a crash-test demonstration. A reinforced concrete slab is hurled at a sitting Prius, and it produces a deafening crash that sends out a shockwave of compressed air.
Bun the tire where the concrete hits doesn’t even deflate.
It’s more hybrid-vehicle testing on the second day, and morning options on the menu are the Crown, the Alphard and the Corolla Fielder, which is a JDM model akin to a wagon version—not hatchback—of aVios.
The Crown shines brightly again, despite the inclement weather. Seeing this tito car diving around the cones is like watching an uncle do the FettyWap challenge — a little surreal. The Alphard feels the same as our version, albeit springier because of the extrahybrid 00mph. But the Corolla Fielder makes me a bit sad. It’s a workhorse with a hybrid powerplant, and I can’t help imagining how this model would be so well-suited to our market. Butwithout tax breaks, having a fuel-efficient model like this remains a pipe dream.
My mood improves with the next batch of test vehicles: a Lexus RC300h, a Prius, and a Mirai. And now we have a proper— although small—track to play with. If what we‘ve been driving these past days were buffet selections, these three models would be the wagyu beef.
I try the Lexus first. Despite the right-hand-drive orientation, the RC300h is a willing animal in my hands. Only hushed hums come out of the engine bay, but it surges forward like there were eight cylinders in there. I confess I’ve never driven the gasoline version, but I’ve heard about its significant heft. There’s none of that here. The RC gives me gobs of power every time my size-13 foot nudges the go-pedal.
With the Mirai, there’s that Batmobile-like whine — seriously — purposeful linear acceleration. It isn’t sporty like the RC300h,but it handles brilliantly for a first-generation model, its e-motor pulling it out of corners like a tractor beam. Amazing. It’s definitely more fun than the Prius, which I drive after. On the same track, I’m braking sooner and feeling the body sway. After being enamored with this Prius’s predecessors, I feel doubt starting to creep in.
The highlight of the last day is the factory tour of the Prius assembly line. Prii are made in Toyota’s Tsutsumi plant. I haven’t been to a lot of car factories, and to be honest, the ones I’ve seen are all clean and well-organized. Tsutsumi is like this, but in fused with an extradose of Toyota quality. We walk above the workers doing their tasks with that Japanese single-mindedness. We see Prius bodies being fitted with electrical systems and dashboards. On two assembly lines, this process produces about 1,500 hybrid vehicles a day.
As with other Technology Tours, I depart Japan filled with memories, but saddened about the disparity of technology and environmental awareness between our two countries. Toyota doesn’t build hybrid vehicles just as a business endeavor. It truly wants to make the world a better place by lessening dependence on fossil fuels.
Back here, I am reminded of the Prius’s oddness once more. From certain angles, there is an angular beauty to be found in its lines. But in the grim harshness of a dimly lit parking area, its flaws are exposed.
The cabin makes a better impression. It’s a bit Star Trek inside, with the two-tiered dashboard and the multiple digital screens. For those not used to hybrids—and most of us still aren’t— those screens are the closest thing to peering into a Prius’s soul. Its electric and petrol vital systems beat and blink, and the hybrid’s life is rendered in colorful digital animations.
The white panels are a bit distracting because they’re unusual. But once I settle in and push the Start button, the Prius clicks into life, ready to serve. Through the minuscule gearshift, operating the transmission can now be done with flicks of the finger. I immediately notice there’s none of that forceful initial push that the e-motor used to provide.
The new car moves forward like a typical gasoline vehicle — responsive but not instant. The powerplant is more integrated now. This new hybrid has a more refined powertrain that feels like the gasoline engines we’ve known for decades, but it can do 13km/L easily— although Toyota claims40.8km/L can be achieved during testing.
What strikes me during my daily commute with the Prius is its build quality. The chassis is solid thanks to a frame that’s 60% more rigid. I remember seeing how the Prius was built in Japan, and I can feel the precision that has gone into building this. It isn’t long before the quirks are forgotten and driving the Toyota becomes second nature.
The Prius may have been a little awkward on the trackback in Japan,but that really isn’t its natural environment. On Metro Manila streets, it’s an urban ninja, gliding around smoothly via battery power in slow-moving traffic.
On instances when the road opens up, the petrol engine (97hp and 142Nm) and electric motor (71hp and 163Nm) rockets the car easily to 90kph even on uphill stretches.
As of this writing, Toyota hasn’t given us a price yet, which is a little odd. I dream of the day when the Filipino motorist appreciates how enjoyable hybrids are to drive. A friendlier price will help make that happen.
On my last night with the Prius, I glance at the graphic that shows the battery, the engine and the motor interacting. In older models, this illustration was rendered in blocky pixels and crude animation. But the new display is sharper and has a higher resolution. The arrows are brighter and more legible, and have a mesmerizing effect if you stare too long. I think I finally understand why. They’re pointing toward the future.