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Toyota Prius


With all the buzz about town and an everyone's eye on higher fuel prices, how lucky would you be if you were a Toyota Prius?

Almost everyone, apart from the boy racers, is talking about you, there aren't enough of you to go around and you have a reputation for being astonishingly green.

Whereas four or five years ago hybrids were considered something of a plaything, now they're regarded extremely seriously. The Mayor of Auckland, Dick Hubbard, drives one, local councils are using them - and if you live in London and drive a hybrid you don't need to pay the congestion tax faced by petrol and diesel cars.

With a long-term reputation for conserving fuel, I can hardly be accused of climbing on the economy bandwagon in the wake of the recent escalation in petrol and diesel costs.

My fascination with petrol/electric hybrids extends back several years. Though we've been reading much more about hybrids in 2005, the technology is far from new.

Toyota showed a prototype of Prius 10 years ago at the Tokyo show, and had the first model on the market in Japan by December 1997.

That car had 300 patents listed against it - and the much improved second-generation model posted a further 370. Clearly something new was going on.

Though hybrid sales for both Toyota and Honda were slow initially, they gradually gathered steam and by late 2002 100,000 Prius cars had been sold.

It's been a long road to profitability but this has now been achieved, despite the Prius not sharing componentry with other Toyotas. As hybrid versions of other models are introduced, the economics will improve.

With a six-month wait list in Australia, there's talk of hybrids being built at Toyota's Altona plant in Victoria, and also in China.

So far Prius production has been restricted to Japan yet within five years Toyota reckons one in nine new cars will be electric/petrol.

Last year 132,703 Prius five-doors were built and cumulative production in eight years has topped 300,000, of which half have been sold in Japan. But the US, gripped by fuel hike fever, is currently the largest market.

Even before the current oil price increase, Toyota increased Prius production by 50 per cent to 15,000 a month earlier this year.

There's a two-month waiting list in North America and in New Zealand demand is also strong, although you'd scarcely put the car on the best sellers' list.

To help satisfy the local market, Toyota is importing used import hybrids through its Signature chain, and early examples can be acquired for around $12,000.

 A typical 2000 model year Prius with 84,000km on the clock is $20,000.

At $43,500 for a new example, Prius equates to a huge amount of technology at a reasonable price. Now you can option up to the i-Tech version that costs $6500 extra and has eight airbags instead of two.

All this safety gear helps earn the car an impressive five NCAP stars for occupant safety and two stars for pedestrian safety.

In addition to the side and rear curtain bags, the more costly Prius has vehicle stability control, Bluetooth wireless system, steering wheel audio controls and a smart entry and engine-start system that allows auto locking and unlocking of doors once the key is within range of the sensors.

The high spec car has a JBL audio system with six disc CD changer and nine speakers.

Though the Prius' forte is urban running, the car is remarkably good on the open road and can be pedalled along with vigour.

There's satisfaction in stop-start motoring and traffic jams aren't so tiresome because the car is almost always running on electrics at crawling speeds and when at rest. So it's a great Auckland car.

The official combined fuel figure - which averages city and open road running - is an impressive 4.3 litres/100km (65.7mpg). In last year's Energy Wise Rally, Chris Amon managed an even better 4.02 litres/100km (70.3mpg), but our week-long average of 5.1 litres/100km (55.4mpg) is more representative of fuel costs.

I regularly overrode the automatic system and punched the EV (electric vehicle) button during slow-speed manoeuvring because the test car seemed more inclined to run on petrol than electric power.

From cold the 1.5-litre in-line four-cylinder engine wants to feature in all the action, so there's minimal electric running until things warm up.

The modest 57kW output and 115Nm of torque at a high 4000 revs from the petrol motor fails to reflect the actual performance which is frisky enough.

The CVT clutchless transmission is smooth and seamless, easing the Toyota to 100km/h in 10.9 seconds and on to a top speed of 170km/h.

Complex controls, requiring more than usual familiarisation, are scattered about haphazardly and there's an uneasy vagueness selecting the Neutral, Park, Drive and B (for engine braking and battery boost) control lever that protrudes from the dashboard.

Vehicle speed sensitive steering is too light but the Prius steers and points accurately and body roll is restrained. While you might argue a good diesel car can closely emulate the fuel consumption of a hybrid, the petrol/electric car outperforms others in its treatment of the environment.

It has the lowest nitrous oxide and hydrocarbon emissions of any internal combustion car, and saves one tonne of carbon dioxide a year compared to a similarly powered diesel, and one-third the carbon dioxide level of an equivalent petrol car. But what about long-term running costs? Toyota says the battery pack, which costs more than $6000, should be good for 400,000km.

By the time the pack needs replacing the industry estimates efficiencies of scale will have lowered the battery cost to a mere $1500.

Remember three-hour VHS video tapes? They cost $40 when first sold in New Zealand, but within a few years were one-tenth that price.

Amidst the good news for the hybrid, however, has come a chink in the armour. Earlier this year came reports of Prius owners in the United States finding their cars were stalling, and by October Toyota had received 428 similar complaints.

They resulted in the company notifying 75,000 Prius owners in the US that 2004 and 2005 models could have a bug in the software that causes the car to stall or shut down.

 Though Toyota says this isn't a recall, the two-hour, no charge repair job remedies the warning light fault that activates the fail-safe mode and switches off the petrol engine. Toyota says the problem isn't related to the hybrid system itself.

The Prius is sensible, responsible transport. Rear vision is good, the 4.4 metre long car has good interior space, excellent rear seat legroom and build quality is faultless.

Instrumentation is highly visible and the consumption and energy monitor is a useful tool. The lack of coolant temperature, oil pressure or rev counter gauges is unlikely to upset most owners.

Best of all, you actually feel as though you are making a positive effect on the environment.

Review by Donn Anderson

Auto Trader New Zealand