Review: Toyota Prius

I’ve been meaning to write this post for some time.  I had the opportunity to live with a Toyota Prius for a week or so earlier in the year, and again for a day recently.  I’d been meaning to review the experience but each time I’d started I’d got bogged down in the whole “green hype” behind the car’s advertising and not done it justice as a review.  So in an attempt to avoid this, here we go…

One day all cars will be like this.  That is both a prediction and a depressing comment on the state of the auto industry today.  The Toyota Prius is a car that fulfills the compact/mid-size family car very well.  It seats four adults in comfort, five if the three in the back are close friends.  It has a wheel at approximately each corner, and you drive it with the usual combination of pedals and steering wheel.  The boot is big enough for a good sized shopping trip, and the cabin is light and airy. So far so good.

Now for the more practical complaints.

It has no acceleration and I don’t mean it is just slow, I mean it is dangerous to try and pull out into regular traffic because it just doesn’t seem to want to move.  The Prius also has an alarming tendancy to shift its weight when cornering.  In a front wheel drive car you will feel a momentary shift of balance if you enter a corner too fast and then stupidly brake, this shift of balance is your signal to stop braking or prepare to have the rear of your vehicle try and overtake the front.  In the Prius this experience happens if you take any junction or sharp bend at even a gentle trotting pace!  Worse still it does not then start to slide, it just totters into understeer at an alarming angle.

The rear visibility is terrible, with the interior rear view mirror view being obscured by the angled section of the rear screen, the rear wiper, and the tinted lower glass panel.  The rear vision camera system is a hopelessly wideangle lens making it useless for judging distance, and since it points almost straight down it gives a very misleading view of the world.

The drive selector/gear lever is stupidly small and floppy, and gives you no real confidence in what position you left it.  It also has very little impact on the cars behavior, with “D”rive and “B”attery drive both using the petrol engine in equal amounts on my road tests. Also interestingly when stationary at traffic lights the display showed no power being used but the petrol engine was still thrumming away nicely, methinks the display stretches the truth.  Back to the wacky gear system, reverse is froward and the two drive modes are back, which doesn’t seem intuitive… I push forwards to go back??? And there is no “park” mode on the lever, you have to engage a separate “P”ark button, and press the foot pedal “emergency brake”.  Would it not have been easier to introduce a single handbrake lever?

The multi-function display is cool, but can easily go from being “information” to “distraction”.  Next time you pass a Prius look in, it is a 50:50 chance the driver will be staring at this little screen.  The car already has a functional display well placed by the base of the screen housing the speedo and other essential details, so the huge display should be disabled when the car is in drive.  The same kind of restriction is already placed on driver DVD players, and this is just as much of a distraction.  Also, why didn’t they include a DVD player with a screen that huge?

Last of all the gas consumption isn’t that great.  Sure you can get 99 miles per gallon according to the display when coasting down a hill, but by the same logic I get infinite miles per gallon if I turn off the engine and walk.  In practical day to day driving, say my regular commute in the D.C. metro area, I was lucky to get an average of 45mpg per tank of gas (See my earlier post about calculating your true miles per gallon, the Prius display is a little generous).  I admit that beats my daily drive, but an average of 30mpg consistently is not bad for a 18 year old turbo charged sportscar driven in an enjoyably  brisk but legal manner.  That kind of performance just isn’t possible in the Prius.  Worse still, my brother’s 4 year old VW Golf GTDi manages a Prius matching 45mpg on his daily commute, and stretches its legs to 65mpg when he is hauling up and down the motorways.  So if you want to use less fuel, seat four adults in comfort, and drive a car with a hint of performance and a good dash of handling buy a 4 year old VW Golf turbo diesal.

So my final verdict is that the Toyota Prius is a bit like an Apple Ipod.  It isn’t really any better than the competition that is out there, it just markets itself in such a way that you feel there is no real alternative.  If you are the kind of person that wants to buy a Prius, you will buy one regardless of the fact it isn’t that earth shatteringly economical and it handles like a brick on a waterbed.  You will buy one because you believe you have to.

Toyota Prius   5/10

Innovation 8/10      Handling&Performance 3/10       Safety&Comfort 4/10

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