A funny thing happened in between testing the facelifted Toyota Prius i-Tech and actually putting my fingers onto the keyboard to write about it: the model stopped being showroom stock and turned into a virtual purchase.
Last week, Toyota New Zealand announced that the flagship Prius i-Tech would be available exclusively to online purchasers. It's the first time that a new car has been sold only on the Internet in this country. As an incentive, buyers get a $6000 discount (to $54,990) and three years free servicing to celebrate their new car from cyberspace.
Toyota claims that 90 percent of the purchase can be completed online, although naturally you'll have to visit the dealer to collect the car.
It's a bit of an experiment with a car that's only a niche concern: Toyota sells around three of these top-line Prius hatchbacks per month, although the revised price does look good against the standard $49,990 Prius.
The i-Tech adds 17-inch alloys, eight-way power-adjustable driver's seat, seven-inch colour information screen, satellite navigation with hard-drive storage and leather-accented upholstery. It's quite a compelling list of extras for another $5000. The solar roof panels and remote-controlled air conditioning fitted to the pre-facelift Prius i-Tech have been moved onto the options list. Shame: the solar roof in particular looked great and was a real conversation piece.
The basic hybrid powertrain is unchanged in the facelift model: 1.8-litre petrol engine, 650-volt electric motor/generator and a 202-volt nickel-metal hydride battery. Combined fuel economy is 3.9 litres per 100km.
There have been some minor cosmetic enhancements, including a new front bumper, daytime running lights, new rear lamps and trim changes inside. There's a new centre console design and the Prius trip computer now features the fuel consumption record and savings data function from the smaller Prius C. All pretty much detail stuff.
But significantly, Toyota has tried to give the Prius a bit more driver appeal: the bracing for the steering system has been stiffened, there are more welding points in the body to enable a softer suspension setting (to address the often-crashy ride) and additional soundproofing materials.
None of which changes the fundamental character of the Prius. It's instantly recognisable and still regarded as a glamour car for many, but the Prius hatchback is not a car you drive for enjoyment in the conventional sense. The steering is numb, the handling inert, the brakes wooden-feeling thanks to the regenerative function and the CVT gearbox removes any engagement you might have with the powertrain.
Admittedly, driving a Prius does bring its own kind of pleasure. I'll confess I'm still fascinated by the seamless way the petrol and electric motors work together, I don't mind the moon-buggy styling at all and the i-Tech has plenty of equipment.
The relentless development of the hybrid power pack has resulted in a car that will now quite comfortably cruise away from a standstill at up to 40km/h – even faster if you tread very carefully on the throttle – and I can't deny that makes you feel smug. As does the stop-start function, although that's no longer a hybrid preserve – it's become quite mainstream on otherwise-conventional cars.
Nonetheless, the time is right for Toyota to do something different with the Prius i-Tech. This particular Prius shape is, to date, the world's biggest-selling hybrid, but it's no longer unique.
That's because Toyota has turned 'Prius' into a separate model line. The hatchback has been joined by the smaller supermini-sized Prius C (which is fantastic and actually quite good fun to drive) and the larger Prius V seven-seater, which looks very similar to the hatch but adds some serious space and versatility. In other words, there are now better options if you really want a Toyota hybrid. I'd suggest you try the other you before clicking the buy button on a Prius i-Tech hatchback.