While Toyota may seem like a clinical company at times, their commitment to environmental change has extended beyond merely producing energy efficient cars. And if there is one car that has defined Toyota’s evolution as a brand, it wouldn’t be one of their performance cars of the 1990s, nor would it be their LF A (despite employing some industry changing manufacturing techniques). Instead, it is the humble Prius- the poster child for hybrid motoring, and now in its fourth generation.
As a result of our local hybrid tax exemption laws changing on a whim, UMW Toyota decided to stop selling the Prius – especially after the third generation model was pushed to astronomical prices once the hybrid tax exemption was removed. And that’s a real shame, because the fourth generation Prius is far more than an incremental improvement over its predecessor.
We’ll get the facts and figures out of the way first. The new Prius is capable of a staggering 40.8 kilometres per litre, which is an improvement of 8.2 kilometres per litre over the previous model – that’s about 25.2%. Engineers have assessed that 7.0% of that comes from improvements in the body design – be it lightening, packaging, or aerodynamics – while the remaining 18.2% comes from powertrain improvements. The drag coefficient is down to just 0.24, which again is some industry-leading standard.
You would think that this was enough – after all, they managed to make it even more efficient and the plus points of the Prius have always been its fuel efficiency and environmental friendliness. But there is a lot more to the fourth-generation Prius that isn’t immediately apparent, and the engineers were keen to explain what they had done. One of the improvements that is easy to understand is the reduction in battery size and relocation to beneath the rear passenger seat – the benefit of which is extra boot space and a lower centre of gravity.
Pay attention here, because lower centre of gravity isn’t something you talk about when you’re referring to an energy efficient vehicle. Whenever an automotive manufacturer brings up the term lower centre of gravity, they are usually referring to how their sports car has employed lighter materials and has had components changed to lower the centre of gravity.
Up front, the powertrain has been repositioned and both the power control unit and the transaxle have been made more compact. Again, there are a few reasons for this: improved packaging by means of more space in the engine bay, better flexibility of application in other products in the Toyota range, and (once again) a lower centre of gravity. The more compact powertrain dimensions allowed the engineers to mount it 10 millimetres lower. It may not seem like a lot, but it makes a palpable difference in handling dynamics.
Beyond this, another benefit comes with having more compact powertrain components. For one, it allowed the engineers to reposition the auxiliary battery, from the boot to the engine bay. This meant they did not need a sealed battery to prevent gas seepage during charging as the engine bay would allow it to vent openly to atmosphere – and this represents a huge cost savings on the part of the customer when it comes time to replacement, by roughly 75%.
For the first time and for the Japanese market exclusively, the Prius is made available with an E Four electric all-wheel drive system. It is now a viable concept thanks to the smaller transaxle and motor design, and it mounts directly at the rear without the need for a prop-shaft. This is actually similar in concept to the Lexus RX350h and some other all-wheel drive hybrid vehicles which are primarily front wheel driven by an internal combustion engine and provided with electric assistance at the rear. In the case of the Prius, this was done to cater to parts of Japan where all-wheel drive is very important during the winter months. If the feedback is positive and there is demand in other parts of the world, Toyota is willing to make this variant available elsewhere.
The chassis has been completely redesigned with double wishbones at the rear, although we were not given much information regarding what exactly had been done and what their rationale was. In general a double wishbone offers greater wheel control during suspension travel, and is again the kind of thing you would usually find on a sports car. But perhaps beyond merely explaining it, the best way to understand the improvement is to drive it – and we had the opportunity to take the Prius for a few laps around Fuji Speedway’s short course.
Again, it’s a little strange that we would be testing the dynamics of the Prius as opposed to its known strong points like fuel efficiency. Or perhaps as a result of marketing over the last decade or so, it’s already known that Toyota doesn’t fib its efficiency numbers with the Prius and that it’s already highly capable of what is claimed. In either case, putting a Prius through its paces on a tight track was exactly the kind of thing that would prove if the Prius was really as fun to drive as Toyota made it out to be – and in many ways, it was.
Three short laps on an already short course were all we had time for, but it was enough to exploit the Prius chassis and push it to its limits on the damp tarmac. Handling dynamics are usually an afterthought in the pursuit of efficiency, but the Prius turns and tucks in as terrifically as a warm hatch would. It may not be the weapon of choice on a trunk road or at your local racetrack- but if you find the urge to drive spiritedly, the Prius will happily comply. Mid-range acceleration is brisk, which was one of the areas engineers focused on in order to improve consumption but also translates very well to a track where the average speed is low and the straights are short. Naturally the continuously variable transmission gets in the way of the fun, but it isn’t so soul-sucking as to render the Prius completely pointless.
Beyond the handling dynamics, there’s still a lot to like with the new Prius. It has an interior that is appreciably improved over the outgoing model’s traditional turn-of-the-century Japanese styling, with hardly a sharp line in sight. Perhaps the only odd choice is a plastic-y trim piece in the centre console which dirties quickly and is a little incongruous with the more futuristic design. The build quality is impressive as well, but naturally the only comparison is with our locally produced models where components are value engineered from a tolerance standpoint. Still though, it’s a reminder that given a larger budget and leeway, the Japanese are capable of producing European-rivalling quality products.
If there were a hybrid incentive for fully imported models once again, the new Prius could certainly be a competitive product. Unfortunately this isn’t likely to happen, but if you like what you see here you can always talk to your nearest UMW Toyota dealer and see what they can arrange; it’s been said that the Prius can be put on special order if you’re willing to put the money down and accept the staggering price (well over RM 200,000), but if you do you can be assured that you’ll be doing a big part in saving the environment- and you’ll enjoy yourself while you do it too.