Does the hybrid that started it all still have it all?
Car Class: Specialty (Hybrid)
Availability: Avis/Budget, Hertz/Dollar/Thrifty
Alternatives: Toyota Prius V
|Drive off||Walk away|
|Fuel economy||Road noise|
|Silent when running in EV mode||Lack of smartphone connectivity|
|Cargo practicality||Rearward visibility|
As the vehicle that started the hybrid movement way back in 2000, the Toyota Prius has become synonymous for green motoring and has been the vehicle of choice for many celebrities who wants to do their part for the environment. Now in its fourth generation, the Prius is no longer in a class of its own. Given all of its hybrid competitors, is the Prius still the symbol for all vehicles green? This week, we put on our hypermilling skills to the test in the 2018 Toyota Prius.
Regardless of trim, all Priuses are motivated by Toyota’s ubiquitous hybrid synergy drive system which mates a 1.8L 4-cylinder engine with a electric motor and nickel metal hydride battery together. Working together, system total output is 121 horsepower and an unspecified amount of torque. We have always been puzzled as to why Toyota never published any torque numbers but for a car like this, it probably won’t matter a lot to its intended drivers. Mated to a continuously variable transmission, the Prius makes good use of its available power and feels quicker than its specifications suggest. When placed in its ‘Power’ mode (the others being Eco and Normal), acceleration is immediate thanks to the boost of the electric power. Switch the vehicle to Eco mode and the throttle response is significantly muted to conserve gas. And conserve gas it did. Over our time with the Prius, we averaged an excellent 4.5L/100km in mixed driving, which is better than most, if not all other hybrid vehicles on the market.
Unfortunately, getting such fuel economy numbers requires a price to be paid and that price comes in the form of handling and road noise. The steering is numb and while the car remains predictable under most conditions, the vehicle’s limits are easily reached. This is not a car to take around on/off ramps enthusiastically. Equipped with low rolling resistance tires, which helps with fuel economy, road noise is significant even at city speeds of 50km/h and gradually gets worse as speeds increase. Fortunately, ride comfort is not sacrificed in the name of fuel economy. The Prius takes bumps and imperfections on the road mostly without any drama. And while its softer than what we preferred, it is by no means sloppy.
Owing to the Prius’ eccentric shape, visibility around the vehicle is a mixed bag. While the view through the front and sides are good due to the low hood and large side windows, the view out of the back is interrupted by the dual window design. A signature design cue that debuted with the second generation model, it does take some getting used to. Thankfully, a rear view camera is standard on all Prii to help with backing up. However, parking sensors are only available on higher trims. No, the sounds you hear when putting the vehicle in ‘reverse’ is just a reminder that you are in fact, in ‘reverse’.
Comfort and Convenience
As the base model, our Prius comes equipped with most of the essentials including a 6.1-inch Enture infotainment system with 1 USB port, single-zone automatic climate control, proximity key with push-button start, heated 6-way manually adjustable driver (the front passengers gets 4-ways of adjust-ability) and LED headlights. Like most other Toyota vehicles, all Prii are fitted with Toyota Safety Sense-P, which bundles a collection of active safety features such as automatic emergency breaking, adaptive cruise control, automatic high beams and lane keep assist. Blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert, however, are only available on higher trims.
The interior of the Prius can be best described as quirky. Unlike other vehicles, all of the gauges are situated just below the centre of the windscreen. Despite being supposedly easier to see at a glance when driving, we frequently looked behind the steering wheel during our drive only to find blank space. The other aspects of the cabin, fortunately, are more conventional with a soft-touch upper dash and front door panels. Hard plastic can be found in the lower dash and rear door panels, something that we can forgive given the vehicle’s price tag. What we cannot overlook is the lack of a leather-wrapped steering wheel, especially when it is standard on a budget hatchback (i.e. Kia Rio) costing thousands less.
As temperatures continue to drop in the Northern Hemisphere, we appreciate the standard heated front seats, of which the switches are buried deep below the shifter. Other heated surfaces, sadly, are NOT AVAILABLE on any trim of the Prius.
Ease of Use
Despite the proliferation of Apple Carplay and Android Auto in the automotive landscape, Toyota remains one of the last holdouts. As such, the Prius is not available with neither of these smartphone connectivity options. Instead, drivers have to make do with the simple Bluetooth and USB connection for phone and music respectively. Standard on the base model, the 6.1-inch infotainment displays runs an older version of Toyota’s Entune software. System navigation is simple, partly because there is not much to control (it doesn’t even come with SiriusXM) and partly due to the presence of a volume and tuning knob. The touch sensitive buttons are not our favourite, but given that there are only six on either side of the screen, we can let it slide.
Resting on top of the infotainment screen are two 4.2-inch colour information display that act as the gauges. While the display on the left always shows the current speed and trip information, the display on the right shows various hybrid information, status and settings for the active safety features. At first glance, these screens may be overwhelming for someone who has never been in a hybrid vehicle. But take some time and you should be able to understand most of the information presented. Controlling the screens is also pretty self-explanatory using the D-pad on the steering wheel.
Unfortunately, no hybrid would be complete without a wonky gear shift and the Prius is no exception. Unlike conventional shifters, the one in the Prius always returns to the centre after selecting a gear. A helper diagram is located in the centre gauge area to eliminate some of the hassle when changing gears. No park position exists in the shifter, instead, park is a button on the left and the vehicle automatically parks itself when the engine is switched off, a feature we used frequently. Like most of the other parts of the vehicle, this is something that drivers will again have to get used to.
Size-wise, the Prius is about the same length as the venerable Toyota Corolla. That said, the overall space is more akin to that in the Toyota Camry, a much larger sedan. Kudos to the engineers for making such an efficient use of the available space. While not limo-like, front and rear seat legroom is perfectly adequate for average height adults, and taller folks should have little to no problems fitting either. Headroom, on the other hand, is hampered in the rear by the sloping profile and fitting three across may also be tricky due to the vehicle’s limited width. Nonetheless, contrary to its exterior dimensions, the Prius compares well to a full-size rental.
Owing to its liftback design, the Prius boasts more than 24 cubic feet of cargo space and that can be expanded easily to more than 65 cubic feet with the rear seats folded flat. While not as cavernous as compact SUVs, the Prius definitely trumps other sedan rentals when it comes to carrying your luggage.
As the vehicle that started the hybrid movement, the Prius remains an instantly recognizable vehicle on the road today. Granted, it is never going to draw admiring gazes like a supercar would, but people would without a doubt recognize the Prius and what it stands for. If you are hoping to do your part for the environment but are not ready to go fully electric or on public transit, the Prius remains one of the top choices on the rental lots. Even if you are just looking for another mid- or full-size sedan rental, the Prius is still an excellent choice if you can land one with a regular rental rate. After all, who doesn’t want to save the Earth (and gas)?
Avis/Budget: The Prius is classified as a Specialty vehicle at Avis/Budget. However, we have been able to request and receive this vehicle on reservations ranging from a mid-size to standard SUV when the locations are low on vehicles. Unfortunately, all of the Pruises that we have spotted are the base model equipped like our rental this week.
Enterprise/National/Alamo: We have yet spot any Priuses in their rental locations in Canada.
Hertz/Dollar/Thrifty: While we have also yet spot any Priuses, we have seen several Prius V (the mini-minivan version) in base form on rental lots. Classified in a class of its own (ICAH), we have never been able to book one online due to its perennial ‘sold out’ status. That said, we have successfully requested and received the Prius V on full-size reservations.