Green is the new black

BY Haney Louka. Jun 17 04:00 am

I’m not really into lucky numbers. My office lottery pool is a futile series of random tickets that fail to pay off week after week. And when in Vegas, I bet on red. I like those odds.

I think the Prius has a lucky number, though, and it’s 4.4. As in, the car consumed 4.4 L/100 kilometres during its week with me. It also consumed 4.4L/100 km on the second trip odometer, which had about 2,500 km. In fact, according to the onboard computer, the car’s lifetime fuel consumption was — you guessed it — 4.4 L/100 km over about 4,500 km. That figure is also the car’s official city fuel-consumption rating.

If a Prius owner achieved such consistency, this wouldn’t be too surprising. But consider that this particular car has been doing press-fleet duty since February and has been in the hands of at least a dozen drivers during that time. It has attended various press events, wandered across the Prairies and tooled around town. And all that time, it has been unwavering in its commitment to sip as little fuel as possible.

This is the fourth generation of the Prius, a name that is synonymous with state-of-the-art hybrid technology. And as with each generation before it (and worldwide sales of some four million units), Toyota has again raised the bar on what is possible in the realm of mass-produced hybrids.

The hybrid components in the new car are smaller and lighter than before, and the battery is now under the rear seat instead of at the bottom of the cargo area for better use of space beneath the hatch. The 1.8-litre Atkinson cycle engine now has greater than 40 per cent thermal efficiency; unusually high for a gasoline engine and more in line with what is expected of diesels.

Based on the press-kit info, Toyota would like us to see the styling of the new Prius as more athletic and sporty than the previous model. It’s certainly different, but athletic and sporty are not words that come to mind when I lay my eyes on this car. I find it uncomfortably awkward to look at from virtually every angle. I can’t help but think it was devised by a group of engineering students who were tasked with designing the car of the future. And got the grade of C.

The tiny 15-inch alloy wheels look like smaller, plastic ones. The tall swath of metal surrounding the rear wheels doesn’t help the car’s proportions. The boomerang-shaped lights, double rear window and blacked-out D-pillar are all elements of the design that will contribute to the car looking dated in the not-too-distant future.

But, the beholder determines beauty — so that’s all I’m going to say about that.

CONTINUED ON E4

What I will talk about is how refined Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive has become in this latest iteration of the Prius. The combined output of the hybrid system is 121 horsepower; down by 13 compared to last year’s model. But people aren’t buying these cars for their ability to leave a streak of rubber on the road. The available power is adequate. On a cold start, I’m accustomed to having the gas engine fire up until the system reaches operating temperature, which in the winter can be ten minutes or more. Though I drove the Prius in mild late-spring weather, it struck me how quickly the use of the gas engine was dispensed with during the warm-up period. The Prius uses a new exhaust heat recirculation system to speed up this process, lowering consumption and emissions during this critical time.

But the seamlessness of the whole operation is where Toyota has made real progress. There was a time when the engine shut-off/start-up process in the Prius was a disruptive one, and today many gas-engined vehicles so equipped suffer from that same malady. But in the new car, the transition between gas and electric propulsion is virtually undetectable, and I found myself referring to the screen display to tell me whether the gas engine was running in some instances.

Inside, the dash has a more symmetrical design than before and includes a little nub of a gear selector poking out from the vertical face of the centre stack. That opens up the centre console for some much needed storage space and lends a more spacious feel to the passenger compartment. Thanks to that relocated battery, cargo volume is up by more than 80 litres to 697 behind the rear seat. A cargo tonneau cover is standard, but is just made from lightweight fabric and I wonder how such a component would last in day-to-day use.

Pricing for the 2016 Prius starts at $25,995 and includes automatic climate control, a backup camera, push-button start, and LED lighting. Our tester was this base model augmented by the creatively named “upgrade package”, which for a paltry $590 buys a pre-collision safety system, lane departure alert, automatic high beams, and radar cruise control, and heated front seats. Throw in $255 for our tester’s Hypersonic Red paint, and we arrive at an as-tested price of $26,840.

It’s easy to alter one’s driving habits while behind the wheel of the Prius. Minimizing gas engine startup and maximizing charging opportunities for the battery pack brings new challenges to a driver trying to reduce fuel consumption. But occasionally I’d find myself driving so slow as to elicit a “gas on the right” comment from my wife who couldn’t understand why I was loafing through my neighbourhood at 35 km/h, just so I could enjoy the silence of electric propulsion.

The Prius may not be fun to drive by any traditional measure, but there’s a certain satisfaction to driving around town for a week and spending a mere $12.50 at the pumps. Now that’s a good time.

autoreviews@mymts.net

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