SOMETIMES fortune deals a hand that couldn’t seem more premeditated if fate itself was pulling the strings. Case in point – the latest Toyota Prius.
Launched early last year, only months after the Volkswagen Group’s diesel emissions cheating scandal has left every oil-burner literally under a cloud darker than the soot that purportedly spews from their stinking exhaust pipes, the fourth-gen petrol-electric hybrid has suddenly found itself standing as one of a handful of legitimate non pure-electric eco alternatives to normal petrol cars.
Additionally, the Prius was the first to receive the hotly anticipated Toyota New Generation Architecture (TNGA), which is set to underpin many models in the maker’s vast empire. Espousing lighter, stronger, quieter and more spacious engineering, with a switch to a pair of double wishbones after years of a torsion-beam rear suspension. It’s highly promising stuff.
Finally, all that TNGA goodness provided an opportunity for the reborn hybrid icon to usher in some fresh design thinking inside and out, to further help it stand out as the green car of choice for the masses as we head towards an uncertain future. Like we said, it’s as if Toyota’s strategists couldn’t have timed the Mk4’s debut better.
But the best laid plans… more than 12 months on and the fourth Prius since October 2001 has yet to fire. And this is despite headline improvements like industry leading fuel economy (3.4L/100km is the official average), improved space and significantly more active safety gear, such as autonomous emergency braking, as part of higher standard specification levels that more than offset a $2500-plus price jump in the base version.
If you’re wondering why, consider seeing an ophthalmologist, because the Prius’ styling – while commendably aero at just 0.24Cd – is provocative at best, and a poke in the eye at worst. That insectoid snout would make Mothra squirm. We reckon it blinds people to the huge steps the series has made in terms of handling, body control, comfort and refinement.
With previous iterations woefully devoid of steering feel and ride finesse, I vowed I’d never own one. That’s why I put my hand up for a long-term Mk4 after experiencing the range at the most recent round of COTY testing. In many ways, and despite the grotesque looks, the redesign represents one of 2016’s biggest improvers.
The three-month wait for our i-Tech to arrive from Japan was worthwhile. I chose Graphite metallic to help neutralise the challenging aesthetics, helped out by the attractive toy car-like 17-inch lightweight alloys that the upper-spec version brings (up from the tiny 15-inch items).
For an $8K premium, the i-Tech also nets satellite navigation, leather seats with electric driver’s side adjustment and heating elements for the front pair, digital radio, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert systems. That’s on top of the standard $35,690 Hybrid’s active cruise control with auto braking, lane-departure warning with steering-nudging input, auto high-beam, seven airbags, rear camera, keyless entry/start, head-up display, LED headlights, 10-speaker audio and full multimedia connectivity including a wireless charger for Android phones. Too bad I use another platform.
Oddball, low-Cd styling makes sense alongside sister the Mirai - one of the first commercial hydrogen fuel-cell cars.
In the first month of getting to know YGJ-73P, I am struck by how soft and cosseting the sumptuous front seats are, amused by the bisected rear window, annoyed by the foot-operated park brake (I’ve stopped using it in protest – I guess if it rolls into something the styling might improve), pleased by the build quality and delighted by the economy. Likewise, the performance is ample and ride nicely absorbent. However the steering is a tad too low-geared and feel-free while the brakes are too snatchy and wooden in feel – a typical Toyota hybrid trait. Still leagues ahead of before though.
So things are falling into place for the Prius. This should be interesting.
First published in the June 2017 issue of Wheels Magazine.