This article was first published in 2004.
It's perhaps the highest level of praise that can be given to the Toyota
Prius that many passengers notice nothing unusual about it. Despite halving fuel
consumption and emissions over a conventional car, the Prius feels quite normal
from the passenger seat. It accelerates normally, it rides normally, it has
normal luxury levels of comfort and safety.
But what about from the driver's seat?
We decided to find out, putting the car over 5000 kilometres of roads - with
the massive drive completed in just one week. It was a cross-continent,
four-state trip that would stretch many a conventional car to the limit, let
alone one using driveline technology invented only in the last few years...
The first generation Toyota Prius was a breakthrough car - a hybrid
petrol/electric design that achieved a realistic level of sales, at least in the
US. Here in Australia, just a handful was sold to private buyers (more went to
government departments wanting to look green) and all buyers then experienced
horrendous depreciation. But nothing daunted, Toyota is at it again - this time
with a larger, better-equipped and much more powerful Prius. The detail of the
car you can read in our road test
New Generation Prius
; here we're more concerned with
putting kilometres behind us.
The planned drive was from the Gold Coast in Queensland to South Australia's
capital city of Adelaide - and return. A quick look at the map indicated an
all-up distance of around 4000 kilometres; in actual fact the trip stretched to
5,395km.... in seven days.
Not so Impressive
The first leg was not a particularly auspicious start for the Prius.
We'd been impressed with how the car had swallowed the luggage - even through
dawn's bleary eyes it was obvious that the five-door hatchback is practical and
roomy in interior layout. Open the hatch and an initial glance shows nothing
special, but there's a normally-hidden compartment beneath the floor of the boot
and the rear seat folds flat on a 60/40 split. We left the rear seat in its
upright position (for better crash safety in a sudden stop) and used the
built-in roller blind to cover the load. On this leg we had - along with the two
people - about 40kg of luggage, something which the other
Australian-market hybrid, the Honda Insight, would have found impossible to
But it was the Insight to which our minds kept returning - we'd taken that
very special car over much of the same territory that we were covering in this
first, long day... and the Insight had returned vastly better fuel economy than we
were seeing with the Prius. In fact, the incredible Honda had average 3.6
litres/100km where the complex and sophisticated LCD display on the Prius was
showing closer to 5.4 litres/100.
And after all, that's exactly 50 per cent worse fuel consumption from the
The debate raged inside the car - surely since 5.5 litres/100km is extremely
good economy, wasn't it splitting hairs to suggest that with all that technology
under the aluminium bonnet (and under the aluminium hatch - the battery pack
lives beneath the floor), the fuel economy was anything less than brilliant? But
you see, there is a breed of car which can in fact gain very similar fuel
consumption - the high pressure direct injected diesel turbos from Peugeot and
Citroen. Our test of the
Peugeot 406 HDi
resulted in an all-up average of 5.9 litres/100km, while our
more recent test of the 307 HDi
(a car very similar in size and carrying capacity to the
Prius - and much cheaper than the as-tested $45,090 Prius) showed it has economy
that varies from 4 - 6.2 litres/100.
And, frankly, the 406 or 307 Peugeots would have been much more pleasant cars
to be riding in this particular day. Outside, the tropical heavens had opened
and for kilometre after kilometre, it rained. And rained.
Mother nature also blew in gusty crosswinds - and the Prius hated it. So did
her driver. As is the case with many very low drag cars, the Prius (cd = 0.26)
is susceptible to crosswinds. Constant corrections are needed to keep the car on
the straight and narrow, and with an unfortunate (electric assisted) steering
system that lacks feedback and has a slow ratio around centre, the outcome is
tiring and tedious.
And I wasn't all that confident in the handling, either. Sitting very flat
and with excessive high-speed damping firmness, the Prius feels as if it will be
very skatey in wet conditions. And it was sure wet. I pushed the car a little
around one of the roundabouts we encountered when passing through a country town
and - zipppp - there went the front end. The stability control (standard with
the option pack that also adds airbags and sat nav) caught it, but in something
like the Peugeot, the car would not have slid in the first place.
But weren't we noticing the lack of power? - after all, the 1325kg Prius has
a petrol engine with only a wimpy 57kW and even the electric motor/petrol engine
combination can provide just 82kW. But in fact this Prius has plenty of
road performance. Off-the-line acceleration is strong (the hybrid driveline can
develop up to 478Nm of torque below 22 km/h) and rolling acceleration is very
good. Competent passing performance on single lane roads means that from a
starting point of 100 km/h, it's quite easy to be doing 130-140 km/h when you
return to your side of the road.
Already we simply loved the accessibility of performance - the constantly
variable trans and electric assist making intelligent, responsive and seamless
So, paradoxically, it wasn't the unseen complexity of the regenerative
braking, engine switch-off when coasting, electric motor and constant variable
transmission that we were noticing most on this first day, but instead
deficiencies in car building basics like steering feel, wet road handling and
The kilometres rolled by - we were heading down the coast to Ballina, before
ducking inland across the Great Dividing Range to reach Tenterfield and then
join the New England highway for the trip south. (The New England Highway is a
much more pleasant and safe road than Highway 1, which between Brisbane and
Sydney carries a lot of traffic and can be very slow.) At Tenterfield we stopped
for a break - no fuel was yet needed as we expected the car to have a near-1000
Unfortunately, the on-the-go predicted range is unknown; despite having an
LCD screen that displays not only the average fuel consumption in 5 minute
increments, but also the amount of regeneration and the instantaneous
consumption, the Prius has no predicted range display nor even data such as
average speed. On a trip of this sort, the lack of predicted range is a real
negative - in fact, we damn-near ran out of fuel as the LCD bars on the fuel
gauge suddenly dropped rapidly over a few hundred kilometres.
But we scraped in with a few litres in the tank and that first fuel stop
revealed an average consumption of 5.4 litres/100 over the 830 kilometres.
5.4 litres per hundred? Hmmm, at this stage I'd take the turbo diesel
Changed in the City
Goulburn was the destination that first night - and we were still a very long
way short. Sydney arrived in the early evening and even with the traffic
relatively free-flowing, the character of the Prius underwent a sudden change.
Despite not feeling out of its depth on country roads, the city is obviously
where the Prius has its design heart - in urban conditions the technology makes
its presence far more strongly felt. It becomes obvious (to the driver, at
least) that the engine is off whenever the Prius is stopped at a red light; the
numerous regenerative braking icons popping up on the LCD show clearly how much
power is being put back into the battery in these stop-start conditions; and the
car can now be felt to be running on battery power alone in slow moving and
slightly downhill stretches.
I was loathe to reset the fuel consumption display and lose the tank average
(another deficiency of the system - you cannot measure trip fuel consumption, as
you can on the Insight) but in city conditions the overall tank average declined
and declined. In fact the 'last 5 minute' fuel consumption bar showed that now
the Prius was sometimes averaging as low as 2.6 litres/100km!
In urban areas, there's probably not a car in the world with this carrying
capacity and performance that can come close in fuel consumption. (Nope, not
even those pesky turbo diesel Peugeots.)
And the performance!
Like a jack-rabbit bolting out of its hole, the Prius rushes off the line,
the engine rapidly coming to life and the electric motor torquing hard. Across
an intersection or crossing a line of traffic, the Prius is quick - fast
enough that the standard traction control system often activates to avoid
In stop-start conditions another positive comes to light: unlike the last
model Prius (and also the Honda Insight), an electric motor is used to drive the
air-conditioning compressor. As a result, the air-conditioning in this Prius
remains functional even with the engine off - as it so often is in city traffic.
It's another reason why it doesn't matter much to the occupants which mode the
hybrid system is operating in.
Back on the Highway
The night stretched on.
We'd been changing drivers but by now we'd been sitting in the Prius for well
over 14 hours. The taking of more frequent stops as the day wore on, the heavy
rain that had slowed us, and the 1-hour change in time zones with daylight
saving - all meant that we were running a few hours later than we'd expected... we
reached Goulburn about 11 pm. We'd intended staying in a cabin at a caravan
park, but the park was dark and quiet. I pressed the 'EV' button (which causes
the Prius to run silently on only battery power) and crept out of the park and
into the entrance reception area of a nearby hotel that was fortunately still
open and receiving guests.
With well over a thousand kilometres completed on this first day, I had mixed
feelings. The average fuel consumption of the second tankful had improved
marginally to 5.3 litres/100, but the lack of a 'range' display, headlights
which are aimed too high (and don't have any in-cabin adjust), steering which
lacks feel and a ride which on bumpy, short wavelength bitumen corrugations can
become very unsettled - all detract from the car's abilities.
But the hybrid driveline? - no complaints at all with its power, response or
level of noise and vibration.
The next morning - not so bright and early - we were on the road again,
turning off the freeway and cutting across the country on typical Australian
two-lane bitumen country roads. We'd be on these pretty well all the way to
Adelaide - roads which require overtaking performance, stability and driving
ease. The first stop was Wagga, this tank having taken us another 710km at an
average of 5.3 litres/100km.
After Wagga it's not long before the road soon stretches over an infinitely
wide expanse of emptiness - the Hay plain. Here the cruise control (operated by
a steering wheel stalk fitted to every Toyota/Lexus product for about the last
14 years!) did all the throttle work for kilometre after kilometre. The digital
instruments - positioned at the lower edge of the windscreen and so easy to
focus on as they're just a small eye movement away - include a large speedo; the
cruise control accuracy is sufficient that the speed display sat unchanging at
110 km/h for hour after hour.
The next fuel stop was at Ouyen - another tankful had been despatched at 5.3
litres/100, this time over a distance of 560km.
Adelaide was now in sight - having passed from Queensland through to New
South Wales, and from New South Wales into Victoria, the South Australian border
was close. We'd planned on stopping at Mildura for the night but the better
driving conditions (the rain and wind had stopped) meant we felt far less
fatigued than the evening before, and so we continued right through into
It was a good opportunity to dial-up the street and house number on the sat
nav system and let The Voice guide us to our destination. The system is
DVD-based and uses the touch-screen LCD as the interface - an approach that
works very well, although it inevitably results in a fingerprint-smeared screen.
Easy to use and very quick to update, the navigation system is excellent -
although the software isn't perfect, with some street errors and an occasional
odd route selection.
Still, if a decade ago someone had suggested that I'd be driving across
Australia in a hybrid petrol-electric vehicle guided by a voice coming from a
satellite navigation system - and all available for the price of a normal car -
I'd have thought they needed their head read....
The next day was a day of leisure, a short trip from Adelaide to the southern
coastal hamlet of Port Elliot, where I'd be staying for a few days. On the way
there was a very steep climb - Willunga Hill. The road is wide and dual lane
each way and the speed limit is 100 km/h. Many cars struggle up it - it's
amongst the steepest main road hills that you'll find. I was intensely curious
to see how the Prius would climb it - by now carrying only one occupant and
perhaps 20kg of luggage.
At the base of the hill the LCD display (able to be configured to show a
variety of data including exactly how the hybrid system is operating at any
moment) showed its normal 'half' level for the battery - would that be enough, I
wondered? I booted the electronic throttle and from a starting speed of 100
km/h, watched the nose rise and the climb begin.
Here's where the go-slow starts, I thought.
The LCD showed the electric motor working to assist the petrol engine... and
the car accelerated. Yes, accelerated up this very steep climb. 110 km/h, 115,
120, 125. I turned on the headlights and watched the sparse traffic pulling to
the side to let me through. At 128 km/h the Prius was giving its all:
periodically the drive to the electric motor halted for an instant (perhaps to
allow it to cool) as we raced upwards at full throttle, my eyes watching the
battery level draining away. But well before the battery was empty and the
electric assist exhausted, we'd reached the top of the hill and I again returned
to the speed limit.
It had been a stunning performance: real-world highway power which, even
after driving the Prius for over 2000 kilometres, I simply hadn't expected.
When I lived in South Australia, Willunga Hill had been one of my litmus test
roads. And any car that can get 5.3 litres/100 km, has the potential to
comfortably carry four people and their luggage, and can rocket me up that steep
incline at 128 km/h is A Good Thing.
I won't say that the highway climbing performance suddenly outweighed the
lack of steering feedback and sometimes jiggly ride (after all, there's nothing
to stop Toyota giving the car a great ride and steering and
driveline), but it did start to tilt the scales much more heavily in favour of
Over the next few days I drove the Prius in normal domestic use, ferrying
passengers (none who noticed anything unusual about the car except it was quiet
and roomy) and doing the normal everyday suburban driving things. The Prius
performed flawlessly, the firm ride less noticeable in these conditions and the
steering feel much better when away from long, high-speed highway sweepers. I
still disliked the interior use of plastics (they're everywhere, hard and
unattractive... designed to make the inside of the car look futuristic, I s'pose)
but other than that, in this driving environment it was hard to find anything to
be negative about.
In normal use the Prius is an excellent performer... and the fuel consumption
showed its characteristic pattern of being better in urban conditions than on
the long haul, with a daily average of about 4.5 litres/100km.
But it was soon time to point the curved nose back in the direction that we
had come - this time to be a three day trip with more stops for photography and
with less kilometres being travelled each day. To be honest, I wasn't
particularly looking forward to the journey - especially not if I had to chase
the steering through every gust of wind for 2500 kilometres.
However, my concern proved unfounded - with a heavier load aboard (same two
people but this time with perhaps 80kg of luggage), the Prius both rode
much better and also seemed to have less susceptibility to crosswinds.
All the way home fuel consumption for each tank remained within the 5.1 - 5.5
litres/100 range, except for the last 208km where the car achieved 4.8
litres/100 (the result of a long descent and then fuel-efficient urban
travelling through Brisbane).
Is the Prius a viable car in which to do a long interstate trip?
Without question the answer to that is 'yes'.
However, this is primarily a city car where in that environment, its
engineering and design strategies can be taken full advantage of - resulting in
extraordinarily good fuel consumption and excellent, usable performance.
And since in Australia the vast majority of people live in - and drive around
- a few major cities and use their mid-sized cars for just an occasional country
road journey, the Prius suits them down to the ground.
Head off to your Toyota dealer and plead a test drive - even with its faults,
it's still one of the most fascinating cars you can buy.