Toyota Prius: Across a Continent

5,395 kilometres in a week of driving

by Julian Edgar, photos by Georgina Cobbin, Julian Edgar and Toyota

Click on pics to view larger images

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 accommodate.

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 Toyota...

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 decisions.

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 cross-wind stability.

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 kilometre range.

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 Peugeot, thanks.

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 wheelspin.

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 Adelaide.

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 Hill

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 the hybrid driveline), but it did start to tilt the scales much more heavily in favour of the Prius.

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.

The Return

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).

Conclusion

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.

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