Toyota’s latest plug-in hybrid seemed to answer all the shortcomings raised by its predecessor, although it’s not without compromise. Four seats and a small boot mean this car will likely only suit business buyers more than interested families. However, that’s not to suggest it isn’t without merit, since its high level of technology, refinement and economy is hard to beat.
When I first had the chance to drive the new Prius Plug-in around the Catalonian coastline (Issue 17), I was immediately impressed at how good it was as an electric car. It has more torque than virtually any other plug-in hybrid in its price range, which meant tackling the busy Barcelona streets was a doddle.
Travelling out of town, the electric range all-but ran out, consequently starting the engine. It’s whisper quiet. Toyota’s now infamous electric CVT – despite all its faults – offers a charismatically smooth operation that beggars belief. It’s genuinely difficult to tell when the engine has turned on thanks to a seamless hybrid transition, until you come to a stop.
At this point, pressing the throttle pedal results in a lack of response, when compared to electric mode. Likewise, acceleration is accompanied by the familiar sound of an Atkinson cycle four-pot singing its heart out, while the car inches forwards at an altogether different pace. That may be slightly over-dramatising the point, but the hilly route from Barcelona to northern Catalonia meant the engine was perhaps more audible than on flatter ground.
Back in the UK and with the car for a week, I was keen to find out how it fared on British roads. I’m happy to report that it felt better, as our pot-holed roads actually aided the car in masking other engine noises. Smooth Catalonian tarmac, ironically, highlights sounds a British driver would never notice.
Although economy will take a hit when travelling beyond electric range of 30-real-world miles, the Prius Plug-in is a delight along motorways. Toyota has spent a lot of effort tinkering with suspension and sound insulation, which has paid off. The current generation non-plug-in Prius is a great relaxing drive too, but the Plug-in bests it in almost every regard, apart from cornering, thanks to improved wind resistance and improved interior acoustics.
Around bends, the battery weight can be felt and there’s no point hurrying the car, which quickly loses its footing. It is sportier than previous Prius, but it’s still no hybrid racer. The car provides a luxury relaxed and cossetting ride, but unlike a Bentley it doesn’t have bags of power in reserve. ‘Sport’ mode is best avoided, although if you’re in a rush it improves throttle response and combines the engine with the dual electric motors to provide some semblance of hybrid power.
EV City mode, on the other hand, works well and helps keep the car in an electric-only drive and lowers the power output, which is perfect for city driving where 30 mph is typically the upper limit. I’m disappointed to report that Toyota’s Road Sign Assist recognition system has failed once again. On several occasions it informed me that I was in a 40mph zone, when I was in a 30mph area. It’s best ignored and the stored sat nav speeds are far more reliable, in our experience.
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