New Prius a better, more affordable car

BY Kelly Taylor. Jun 17 04:00 am

One week, 164 kilometres, $8.64. It’s a small sample size, I know, but it was a week punctuated with, “Will the gas gauge ever move?” until, “Finally, it moved.” Even then, it was impossible to stifle a laugh when the pump clicked off before the gas-station attendant could finish telling me the pump number (to pay inside) and asking whether I wanted the oil checked or windshield cleaned.

This is the latest generation of Prius, and as far as eco-sensibility goes, it's undoubtedly the best yet. Refinements to the hybrid system — which maintains the traditional 1.8-litre gas motor and two electric motors for its architecture — have given Prius its lowest fuel consumption figures yet. Toyota has redeveloped the hybrid transaxle, allowing for higher shaft speeds and reduced parasitic losses.

Similar refinements in the engine allow Toyota to claim thermal efficiency figures that rival diesels at 40 per cent. Typical gasoline engines have such figures between 20 and 30 per cent. Thermal efficiency is a rating of how much of the fuel’s thermal energy is converted into kinetic energy (vehicle motion), with the remaining 60 to 80 per cent lost to heat, friction, pumping losses and waste.

As well, a new exhaust-gas recirculation system heats up the engine’s coolant much more quickly, allowing the auto-stop feature to begin working earlier than ever. All of this results in a combined average rating of 4.5 litres per 100 kilometres. My average was 4.4. To put that into perspective, the Toyota Tundra I recently drove was running about 17 litres per 100 kilometres. At $1.129 per litre, those 100 km cost $19.20 in the Tundra and $4.97 in the Prius. And while previous Toyota hybrids felt a bit jerky when the engine started up again, the new one seems more seamless.

The elephant in the room, however, could be the styling. It is polarizing, and perhaps my ability to see the inner beauty meant I didn’t hate it, but the same couldn’t be said for some of my contemporaries. That being said, low levels of aerodynamic drag don’t necessarily permit beautiful designs. There is an ultimate shape for reduced drag, and it ain’t pretty. It’s an egg. Such a shape in a car would result in it getting egged, so Toyota’s design starts with a wedge at the front and finishes kinda eggy in the rear. The good news about the egg shape is research has shown if you lay the egg shape on its side (the front of the car is the rounded end), you can lop off the pointy end of the egg at the rear of the car and retain the benefits of the egg shape.

The better news is most of the advantages of the egg shape are at the rear, as well, where the lines help reduce turbulence, meaning a wedge shape at the front isn’t an issue. The upshot of all this is the beauty of the design may not be in the eye of the beholder, but rather in the Prius’s co-efficient of drag, which is a remarkably low 0.24. The only currently produced vehicle with a lower number (.23) is the Audi A4, although the Tesla Model 3, due out next year or the year after, is expected to be in the .21s.

Toyota will not say whether the drive cycle has a higher percentage of electric drive mode than before, so I can only offer my observations: it does. It maintained electric mode for longer and for higher speeds than before. As well, once the battery ran down, it seemed as though the attention to details such as losses and battery size results in much quicker charging of the battery, both from braking and from generation driven by the gas motor. That smaller battery size now allows Prius to carry the propulsion battery under the rear seat instead of spread out under the floor of the cargo bay, which expands the available cargo space nicely.

Some things I like about the physical styling of the Prius are that it looks more like a sedan even though it remains a five-door hatchback, the taillights are integrated much more seamlessly into the body work, and the wedge shape tones down the dorkiness a bit. I wonder whether Toyota’s (and Lexus’s) new penchant for blacked-out D-pillars — designed to make the roof look like it’s floating — is a bit faddish and may grow tiresome over time.

The interior styling moves the Prius a bit into the future, with a nice pod for the controls, an improved centre-mount instrument cluster (still, not my favourite location) and decent storage and charging options. The placement of the heated seat controls, when so equipped, is a tad odd: down, below the pod and almost out of sight. So much so they had to install another LED next to the driver’s side heated seat switch to let you know the passenger’s was on.

The performance is improved over previous models, with increased acceleration (or at least, a better launch) and excellent handling, improved by the low and rearward centre of gravity created by placing the propulsion battery below the rear seat.

A definite improvement has been made to the feel of the braking system. Previous Prius models, thanks to the regenerative braking, were difficult to control right at the end of braking, to get that soft, chauffeur’s stop you get by letting up lightly just as the car stops. It was hard to let up without the car lurching forward. With the new Prius, the brake feel is such you can nail the chauffeur’s stop with just a little practice, as with any car.

The last word is on price, and that word is lower. Prius starts at $25,995, which is less than it did in 2000, and so moves closer to being a mainstream alternative. Sure, if the ultimate goal is lower cost of ownership, a Yaris hatchback at $14,775 is a better deal.

But the Prius is more full-size than compact, so the better comparison is to Camry at $24,505. With this kind of price difference, the economics work much better than before.

kelly.taylor@freepress.mb.ca