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2017 Toyota Prius First Drive Review

What is it?

This is the new generation of the car that became famous by being the pet of Hollywood and the butt of most motoring jokes. And now, the Indian government has pulled a fast one on it too! This is the latest version of the Toyota Prius, a car that single-handedly put hybrids on the global map. Now hybrids are nicer to the environment compared to your regular petrol or diesel powered cars because these are more fuel-efficient. And therefore logic dictates that these should be made more accessible through tax rebates.

That, however, hasn’t happened. In fact, under the new GST taxation regime, hybrids are now level with luxury yachts and personal airplanes in India, which makes the new Prius pretty expensive and inaccessible for many. So, it clearly gets off on the back foot. But, can it fight these odds by being a brilliant, must-have car?

Well, for starters, it’s much nicer looking than the car it replaces. Not that one buys a Prius for styling – it’s the badge that’s the real draw – but its more futuristic design, a less geeky persona and larger dimensions do make it a tad more desirable. There’s certainly a higher probability now of people buying the new Prius over the older one for reasons other than just their guilty conscience.

It also gets a more up-to-date drivetrain – a 1.8 petrol engine that works alongside a 53kw synchronous motor. The petrol engine is rated at under 100bhp, which isn’t very powerful. But, with the motor adding another 70 odd bhp, the total output isn’t half bad. But, it’s the total torque (142Nm from the engine and 163Nm from the motor) that truly should help the new Prius live up to its makers billing of it being more exciting to drive. 

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How is it on the inside?

Let us hold off on the question about driving for a few more paragraphs and talk about the car’s interior first. It’s an unconventional cabin this, with more curves dominating the proceedings instead of slab side practicality. So, the dash top is pretty much useless for holding anything, including maybe even an idol. But, it looks refreshing.

The large touchscreen system along with the centrally mounted instrument console further gives the Prius’ interior a distinct feel. These have some interesting readouts too. It shows you how well you are using the battery power against conventional IC power through an animated display and the car judges your driving as well by giving you a score out of 100 for each trip you make. The best I could manage was 65.

There are other unusual bits too. The dash mounted gear shifter is a cutesy blue thing; there’s more white plastic on the inside of this car than on a Chinese phone; and the glass area all round is more concept car-like than one that leaves you with a robust, solid feel. But, not everything on the new Prius in unusual. It has large and comfortable seats all round, decent interior room for a car its size, and there’s an agreeable list of features that come as standard too.

There’s keyless entry and start, a multi-functional steering wheel, a digital climate control system, cup and bottle holders on the central tunnel and door pockets, and that central touchscreen display also doubles up as an infotainment system with Bluetooth connectivity.

Quality however, given the price of the car, is sub-standard. The soft grain plastic on the dash top is par for the course, but everything else – the plastic used for the door pads and central console, the lack of plush fabric for the seats and even the quality of display of the infotainment system – leaves you feeling like you are in a car half the price.

How does it drive?

Remember we said the new Prius comes with the promise of being an exciting car to drive? Well, it doesn’t start off that way because you just can’t tell if it is fired up. The Prius begins rolling on electric power – you can see that on the central display – and the duration of the same completely depends on how well you can feather that throttle.

For me, the engine came on the moment I left the parking. No wonder all I could do was score a 65 on the Prius’ judge-o-meter. But the good thing is, this hybrid is so quiet even after the engine comes on, that the serenity one associates with driving electric cars, stays. So, if it’s refinement and quiet motoring you most desire, the Prius is a no brainer.

It also comes with four driving modes. There’s the EV mode that behaves more like the touch-me-not plant. Anything but the most ginger input to the throttle is coupled with a beep and message that tells you that the EV mode is no longer functioning. I gave it up after two tries.

The Eco, Normal and Sport mode on the other hand, are more usable. In Eco, the throttle response is dull and boring. In Normal, the responses are more alive, no doubt, but the Prius still feels heavy and a bit laboured. In Sport mode, however, it feels like a hybrid. There’s hardly any delay in the throttle response and it doesn’t feel anaemic or slow when driven flat out.

But, it isn’t blisteringly quick either, the torque from the motor notwithstanding. To put things in perspective, the Prius completed the 0-100kmph acceleration test in 11.82 seconds in Sport mode. The kickdowns – 20-80kmph and 40-100kmph runs carried out in Normal mode – took 7.65 seconds and 10.05 seconds, respectively. The only other petrol automatic that does similar numbers (only slightly better) is the Ford Figo AT.

Meanwhile, we also like the new Prius’ low speed ride quality. It goes with the car’s character of being an effortless commute machine. It rounds the bumps well, handles mildly broken tarmac quietly, and there’s enough travel to ensure the passengers never get thumped around.

But, if it’s dynamic fun you want, there are better Toyotas on the market. The steering on the Prius feels disconnected. And even though the car seems to have a quick initial turn-in, once its near 1430kg weight enters the fray, the handling turns soggy. Brakes, again, take getting used to. Thanks to the regenerative setup – it charges the batteries every time you go off the throttle or step on the brakes – the feel at the pedal is inconsistent and mushy.

Should I buy one?

Here’s the thing with the new Prius ­­– given the lack of support from the government in terms of taxation, it is expensive. What’s more, one can buy more conventional cars for similar money that offer better features, more driving fun, and even higher practicality and comfort. What these conventional cars lack, however, is a statement. So, if I had an M3 in my garage to burn both fuel and rubber over the weekends, and I had judgmental friends at the club, I’d buy the Prius as my second car in a heartbeat; you know to handle the daily commute and put a lid on the club gossip.

Where does it fit in?

In terms of hybrids, there’s the Toyota Camry, the Honda Accord and the Volvo XC90 to give the Prius company. But, for around Rs 40 lakh ex-showroom, which is what the Prius costs, I can also have the Mercedes C-Class and its friends or even the Land Rover Discovery Sport, which I think is quite an all-rounder.

Photos: Kapil Angane

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