It can be hard to remember, but the Toyota Prius used to be cool. Not supercar cool, but the sort of image-building eco-cool that made it a favourite among celebrities.
That’s because it was something of a trailblazer. Hybrids are everywhere now, especially within the Toyota range, but when it debuted in the early 2000s the technology was still young.
Even the fourth-generation Prius on test here was a trailblazer, debuting the TNGA architecture that now underpins Toyota’s more interesting, engaging range of new cars. The name Prius actually means “to go before” and, at one point, that was more than just marketing.
In 2022 though? It’s hard to know where the Prius fits.
Tesla, Porsche, BMW, even Kia and Hyundai, offer desirable (and enjoyable) electric cars for well-heeled early adopters keen to burnish their eco credentials, and Toyota sells hybrid versions of its mainstream cars for people who value efficiency but don’t want to scream about it.
Are we missing something, or is the Prius old news in 2022?
The two-tier Prius range kicks off at $37,890 before on-road costs, but the i-Tech on test here is priced from $45,350 before on-roads.
That makes the Prius more expensive than the range-topping Corolla ZR Hybrid ($34,695), and aligns it with the RAV4 Cruiser AWD Hybrid within the Toyota range.
It’s also a rival to the Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid ($41,390), although the Hyundai is slightly smaller.
Seven colours are offered in the Prius range, with all but white priced at $500.
Prius i-Tech highlights:
The Toyota Prius has a five-star ANCAP safety rating based on testing carried out in 2016. It earned a total score of 36.22 out of 37 points.
You’ll find a full suite of front, side and head airbags, along with a driver knee airbag.
Standard active safety equipment includes:
Although it’s identifiably a Toyota, the Prius has a slightly strange interior design all of its own. It feels old behind the wheel, even by Toyota standards.
The foot-opearted parking brake, 7.0-inch infotainment screen, and centrally-mounted trip computer all age the Prius alongside a Corolla Hybrid, let alone current technology leaders such as the Tesla Model 3. There’s also acres of that gloss black trim we hate so much, even on the steering wheel.
The fundamentals are decent. The seats are relatively flat, but there’s enough support for long stints behind the wheel, and enough adjustment in the powered driver’s seat to help tall drivers get comfortable.
It’s a bit strange staring at the bare dash from the driver’s seat, given the instruments are mounted in the middle of the car, but with big fonts and a sensible design they doesn’t demand much eyes-off-road time. It’s been part of the Prius recipe since day one, as has the stubby gearstick sitting proud of the floating dashboard.
There’s also a simple head-up display with your speed and road sign information.
The infotainment system in the Prius wasn’t a standout at launch, and isn’t standout in 2022. It has a full feature list, but the 7.0-inch screen looks small compared to what’s now expected of even entry-level cars, and its graphics and responses are average.
In a car that’s meant to show off Toyota at its high-tech best, it instead highlights one of the brand’s weak points. At least there’s Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, albeit of the wired variety.
Storage is good around the cabin, with two cupholders, door bins with space for bottles, and a deep space beneath the side-hinged central armrest. There’s a wireless phone charger beneath the dashboard, too.
The second row offers reasonable accommodation for adults with adequate knee- and headroom, but toe room is fairly compromised. It’s likely you’ve sat in the back seat of a Prius if you’ve needed a taxi or Uber ride home from the pub, so the second row shouldn’t hold too many surprises.
There’s only a map pocket behind the passenger seat. Between the two rear seats is a fold-down armrest, but you don’t get air vents back there – something the Camry Hybrid around the same price as the Prius does offer.
Cargo space comes in at 457 litres with the second row in place, and expands to 1558 litres when the second row is folded flat.
Beneath the cargo floor is a tyre repair kit, unlike the space saver you get in the base Prius with its smaller wheels.
The Toyota Prius is powered by a series hybrid setup mating a 1.8-litre naturally-aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine producing 72kW of power and 142Nm of torque, mated with an electric motor and a 1.3kWh nickel-metal hydride battery.
The internal-combustion engine uses the Atkinson cycle, which is a more efficient combustion process that comes at the cost of torque. That torque hole at the low end of the rev band is filled by using an electric motor.
Combined peak power is 90kW, and Toyota doesn’t quote a combined peak torque figure.
Claimed fuel economy is 3.4 litres per 100km, we saw 4.4L/100km with a strong skew to highway driving. Given hybrids like the Prius do their best work at city speeds, that’s pretty impressive.
The car drinks 91 RON regular unleaded, and has a 43L fuel tank. Unlike plug-in hybrids, the series hybrid in the Prius doesn’t offer a meaningful electric-only range.
Once you’ve clunked the foot parking brake off, the Prius doesn’t feel all that different to a Corolla or Camry hybrid.
It starts with a shrill beep, and you generally move off the mark on smooth, silent electric power. With a light right foot, you’ll get from zero to around 30km/h without the petrol engine firing.
When the 1.8-litre engine does kick in, it’s relatively smooth and quiet. A display in the middle of the dashboard shows you where power is coming from, which comes in handy if you’re the sort of person who wants to know what’s going on under the skin.
Such is the refinement of the hybrid system, it can be hard to know at times.
Really put your foot down though, and it’s easy to tell where the power is coming from. The lean-burning Atkinson Cycle engine doesn’t love to be pushed, and even with the electric motor helping out it never packs more than a mild punch.
Performance isn’t the point of a Prius, of course, and the fact the car actively discourages you from going quickly means you can focus on eking out every last kilometre from a tank of fuel.
Although it debuted the TNGA underpinnings that have since spread across the Toyota range, the Prius doesn’t have quite the same confident, planted ride as the Corolla or RAV4. It feels taller and skinnier on the highway, and is prone to being blown about by crosswinds.
It’s not a hard car to drive but it feels a step removed from its platform mates, like it’s hindered by its flat sides and skinny eco tyres. It’s also noisier on the open road, with more wind whistle and tyre roar.
Thankfully, the steering has the same light, fluid feeling you get in a Corolla, and the ride is luxury-car plush. It has a lovely long-travel feeling over highway bumps, and potholes or expansion joints flow nicely beneath its wheels in the city.
With great all-round visibility and light, easy steering, the Prius is right at home in town. The hybrid system is smooth and quiet, and the brake pedal doesn’t have any awkward steps between the regenerative system and the mechanical braking.
The Prius has the same five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty as the wider Toyota range.
Unfortunately, maintenance is required every six months or 10,000km – rather than the 12 month and 15,000km intervals now offered in the latest RAV4 Hybrid.
The first six services each cost $205, up from the $180 you’ll pay on average for each of the first five Corolla Hybrid services.
The rest of the motoring world has caught up with – or overtaken – the Toyota Prius.
Hybrids are big business for mainstream buyers, and electric cars now mean the Prius isn’t the eco warrior it once was. It’s hard to see why you’d buy one in 2022, given the alternatives on offer within the Toyota range.
That’s not to say there’s no future for it, though. Overseas reports suggest the next-generation Prius will be a hybrid frontrunner, with the sort of technology and styling that’ll once again set it apart from the crowd.
Our fingers are crossed. It’s been the butt of plenty of jokes, and it’s not the technology leader it once was, but the Prius is still a significant part of the motoring landscape.
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