2 Jan 2013

Is the Toyota Prius actually a great car?

Perceived wisdom says the Toyota Prius is not a car that petrolheads should like.  Alex Wakefield has been running a Prius for two years.  He thinks otherwise.

Hello. My name is Alex and I have a confession to make. I'm really rather fond of the Toyota Prius.

Please don't flick to another article. I know what you're thinking - after all, you're enjoying a website called Speedmonkey. I enjoy it too. Like you, I'm what is probably best described as a petrolhead. Ever since I can remember, I have loved cars. Buying, owning, driving, motorsports and all the elements that encompass the motor car as we know it today. Except Vauxhalls. I don't like them, but that's a different topic for another day.

I've been driving since 1996 and at the last count, have had 28 cars in that time. I've had coupés, saloons, estates, sporty cars, city cars. Petrol and diesel. Manual and automatic. I've taken my cars to shows, race events and worked some of them into the ground, and the Prius is the best one I've ever had.

The Prius first appeared just over ten years ago and was something of a joke outside Japan and California. It was technically intriguing, but really nothing more than a mild diversion from the conventional cars we all had at that time. The most interesting thing about it was that Toyota lost money on every car it sold. Toyota brought the Prius to the UK after a while, but despite claimed fuel economy advantages, it's compact saloon body style put paid to any interest beyond dealer demonstrators and the odd tree hugger prepared to shell out a tidy sum for some eco-credentials.

It wasn't until the second generation car appeared a few years later that people began to take notice. The designer's brief to ensure it was aerodynamic meant it had a distinctive appearance, but now the Prius was recognisable as something you might actually use every day. A medium sized hatchback (compact to those in the USA), with five seats and a proper boot. A customer base primarily comprised of early adopters, fashionistas and Toyota dealers suddenly expanded to include a growing horde of private purchasers, fleet managers and, importantly, film stars.

It became both fashionable and sensible to have a Prius. The USA took the lead. California legislated for Prius drivers to use multiple occupancy lanes and at the same time, left wing celebrities began to urge Americans to think about ditching foreign oil during a period of intense conflict in the Middle East. Demand surged as Americans discovered it was possible to live a normal life, whilst also maintaining an impressive miles per gallon return. Taxi drivers joined the ranks and even more people got to experience the future.

The inertia felt on the other side of the Atlantic seemed not as great in Europe. Some resistance was always going to be felt, as a car capable of 50mpg or more wasn't news over here. Much of Europe favoured the diesel car as the preferred method of conveyance and the Prius burned petrol. It was automatic, which meant it cost more and offended the masculinity of thousands of taxi drivers and it was launched in the UK just a few years after the nations's enormous fleet of company cars had effectively been converted to diesel, by new taxation measures.

Ironically, it seems that it was London's much hated congestion charge, introduced by then mayor Ken Livingstone, that started the Prius buying trend in the UK at least. Hybrid cars were exempted from having to pay the daily charge and sales soon started to take off. For most it was an exercise in spending money to save money, and at first only those with enough cash to fork out for a Focus sized car with a Mondeo price tag could join in. But the throngs of London's private hire industry soon cottoned on to the prospect of making savings, together with the PR opportunity afforded by the environmentally friendly label. London's busy streets were soon filled with Prii. As sure as night follows day, the suburbs followed, and then the provinces too.

Whilst everybody was making jokes about how to pronounce the plural of the car's name, whether or not 'Prius' rhymed with 'pious,' and where one might plug in the charging cord, the car silently gained fans and customers. The obvious advantages of fuel economy and low taxation were not lost on those with money to spend and these elements, coupled with the usual Toyota virtues of quality, reliability and customer service ensured the momentum continued into the car's third generation in 2009.

History lesson complete, this is where I come in. By day, I am an insurance loss adjuster, and my employment takes me all over the country. One of the attractions for me was the possibility of having a company car. In fact, to be honest, this was the only attraction to begin with - a 'free' car every few years, fuel and all maintenance paid for. A tax bill at the end of the month that paled into insignificance when compared to the potential cost of actually owning a car. I couldn't wait to get started, but my enthusiasm was was dampened when I inherited a pool car, a mucus green Peugeot 307 SW.

As my 9 months with this awful vehicle passed, I began to pore over the company car lists and assess my priorities, I tried everything that appealed. My employer's scheme allowed a choice of Ford, Honda, Peugeot and Vauxhall, and my experience and contempt for the latter two brands meant it was down to either a Mondeo or Civic. I chose the Civic IMA Hybrid, the Prius' competitor because by then I had realised that my priorities were reliability, comfort, convenience, automatic transmission and tax avoidance.

Two weeks later, one of my colleagues turned up in a Prius. It transpired that just a couple of weeks after sending my order, our fleet manager had added Toyota to the list of preferred suppliers and was encouraging take up of hybrid cars in order to reduce outgoings as petrol prices soared. Never mind that the diesel engined cars would take you further on a gallon, the lease company was offering good rates because of the amazing residual value of the cars after the lease expired. Prii multiplied in my work car park, silently, catching out the unwary as they glided silently past at low speeds on battery power alone.

Jokes in the office soon stopped when everyone started to boast of their minuscule tax bills, of how relaxed they felt driving through town, of the built in live navigation and then some more about how little tax they paid. Soon only the most obstinate drivers persisted with manual diesel cars and a very good friend of mine took delivery of our first third generation Prius in Summer 2010. We went for a spin and I fell for the car's charms. It was comfortable, loaded with equipment, well built, low tax and congestion charge free. It also had a reverse camera, and the ability to park itself.

What was surprising though, was that it was quick. Not fast. Quick. It would consistently catch people out at traffic lights. The car has a few driving modes: 'EV' for pure battery power, good for 30mph max and a few miles of pedestrian scaring. 'ECO' for tardy throttle response and improved MPG. There's a normal mode for general use but the best button says 'POWER' on it. Push it and the car changes character remarkably, responding to the fly by wire gas pedal quickly and positively and blowing away diesel tailgaters as they search for the next gear down.

When my colleague left, I asked to take over his car. The Civic was decent enough but its comparatively backward powertrain didn't leave enough room in the boot for anything bigger than one suitcase. The Prius was handed over to me and I've now been driving it for a couple of years. During that time, it's covered over 60,000 trouble free miles, needing only routine servicing from my excellent local dealer. In short, everything you'd expect from Toyota. It has been incredibly competent, taking me all over the UK and on road trips into Europe. It has acted as my mobile office, removal van and private method of conveyance. Nothing surprising.

Except the fact that I love it. I've developed a strong defensive nature when it comes to this car. Being a petrolhead, inevitably I come in for some flak. I dare say that had I not had an opportunity to drive a Prius, I'd probably be on the other side of the fence, on the attack. 'The real world fuel consumption figures are nowhere near as good as the claims,' I'd say. I'd be right too, as I typically get 45mpg in POWER mode. But drive like a saint (a no brainer when the whole country panic buys fuel due to the hint of a tanker driver strike) and you really can get 70mpg. 'The nickel in the battery is mined on the other side of the world and turned into batteries at enormous cost to the planet,' I might say.

And that would probably be right as well. But not of any interest, because I'm distracted by the way the car just goes about its business without missing a beat. 'What about end of life costs?' Don't care, it'll be gone by then and I'm quite happy to admit the car is not perfect. By then, it's likely all Prii will be range extender hybrids. Rather than the current arrangement, in which the batteries are charged by a combination of a 1.8 litre petrol engine and regenerative braking, the latest version allows you to charge a larger capacity battery and run the car on electricity alone for much greater distances and at higher speeds - enough for most to do their daily commute on battery power alone, and at tiny cost. The anxiety of a pure battery powered car is done away with on account of the car still having the petrol engine for longer trips.

It's a great idea and now GM, Ford and the fashionable Fisker Karma are getting in on the act. My work car park now features a couple of Vauxhall Amperas and soon charging points will be installed. The tax advantages on those new cars are even greater and I've no doubt that their numbers will multiply, particularly as our fleet now has either Vauxhall or Audi as the only choice. What's happening here, right now, is the biggest change change in our motoring habits that has ever been seen. In the space of less than ten years, this technology has gone from being a technical curiosity on the margins, to dictating how we will drive in the future.

The shortcomings of the hybrid car are well known, or at least they used to be. As more are made, these will continue to be overcome. Any car brings with it environmental concerns. A pure electric car will of course run on electricity generated from burning coal, but these latest developments have moved the game on so quickly, that it must only be a matter of a decade before what we have taken for granted for the last century is turned on it's head.

If you'd told me that ten years ago, I would have scoffed and also harboured some anxiety. But having lived with hybrid technology, used it, and actually enjoyed it, I am genuinely optimistic about the future of the car. The fact is, we can't keep on burning oil. It seems ludicrous that such a precious resource is used in this way. We'd all rather we could somehow burn water or compost. Just like it's no longer funny to make jokes about Sköda, the Prius and its ilk are now serious and are at the forefront of the car industry. We lust after Supercars and limousines, but in another decade, even they will be using this technology. The manufacturers are as we speak, working frantically to bring this to market.

I know it sounds perverse, but it is possible to love this kind of car. We can keep our V8 engines and lightweight supercars for the weekend, for everyone to enjoy. But as my experience has shown, the future of the family car is secure and still a bright prospect. Hopefully, with continued tax advantages for yours truly.