Prius comes into its prime

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Toyota says its Prius isn’t just for green crusaders anymore and we’d have to agree. With the introduction of the roomier, better-looking and sweeter-handling third generation car, it looked to be a more convincing alternative to a conventional family hatch. The most recent facelift takes things a stage further with still smarter front-end styling, a stiffer bodyshell, more equipment and improved comfort.

As before, it brings a hushed dimension to urban motoring while returning 72mpg on the combined cycle and 89g/km emissions.

With its groundbreaking hybrid powertrain, celebrity endorsements and futuristic looks, the Prius is a Toyota people can get a handle on and get excited about. The latest model is tasked with extending its appeal out of the green niche market and into the mainstream. We tried a top spec T-Spirit model to assess its chances.

While other manufacturers lowered tentative toes into the water of hybrid technology, the Japanese marque was setting a new world record for the individual medley. The Prius has more hybrid competition these days, but it remains a remarkably effective package.

This is a cutting-edge car in any number of respects but if you forget the thinking behind it and the complexity of its running gear, the opposite impression takes hold. From a driver’s perspective it’s incredibly simple. You can forget about keys, ignitions, clutches and gears. Get in, hit the power button, prod the jewelled joystick of a gear lever into drive and you’re off. It happens in near silent electric mode at first, but with the petrol engine joining in when required.

The petrol engine in this Prius is a 98bhp 1.8 which can generate up to 134bhp with its electric assistant going at full chat. It makes for lively performance on the road and, if you did sprint from 0-60mph (hardly the done thing in a Prius), you could get there in 10.5 seconds. Toyota has made the bodyshell marginally stiffer, giving it a slightly softer suspension for a more comfortable ride and a firmer steering column for better steering feel. That said, the Prius still feels quite a lump if you try to drive swiftly on a twisty road but, again, that isn’t really the point.

On the motorway, there’s a lot of wind and road noise which spoils the calming effect of the beautifully hushed drive system, but the Prius is in its element around town where the serene and noiseless progress puts you in a good frame of mind to cope with the inevitable traffic chaos.

The Prius is a “series” or “parallel” Hybrid which enables it to be run exclusively on electric or petrol power or on any combination of the two.

The latest facelift comprises a remodeled front bumper – which adds another 20mm to the Prius’ overall length – and a larger front grille. The headlights have been given clear lenses and the LED daytime running lights relocated to beneath the indicators in the bumper while the fog lights shift to the lower part of the grille.

Rear legroom is good, but the swooping roofline means anyone over six feet tall will struggle for headroom. The battery pack is located under the boot floor and this means that the luggage space available is quite shallow but there’s plenty of length and a 445-litre capacity is far from stingy.

The cabin itself is standard Toyota stuff, very well built but lacking a little sparkle on the design side. At least the neat blue gear lever offers some respite from the muted plastics. The wide dash top display screen is another point of interest with its series of graphics showing the operation of the hybrid system or various measures of how efficient the Prius is being and has been.

On the exterior, the classic aerodynamic Prius shape is retained (how else would everyone know you were driving a hybrid?), but the shapely headlight clusters, more pronounced wheelarches and a sharp crease running down the flanks make it a more engaging thing to view.

Prices for the revised third generation Prius begin at around £21,000 for the entry-level model, rising to nearly £25,000 for the top-spec T Spirit model we’re looking at here, representing an increase of around £300 over the outgoing range.

The headline figures with the latest Toyota Prius are its 72.4mpg combined cycle fuel economy and 89g/km emissions. Unlike a conventional car, the official economy measures show the Prius giving similar returns in town and on the open road as the advanced powertrain adapts to the conditions.

Whether you can mimic these figures in real world driving is a different matter, but there’s no doubt that the Prius is one of the most fuel-and-tax-efficient vehicles around.

Toyota’s gradual evolution of the Prius hybrid has grown its appeal beyond environmentalists, congestion charge dodgers and publicity-hungry celebrities. Crucially, there aren’t any major drawbacks to owning a Prius any more, and that more than anything could see Toyota’s hybrid revolution gather pace.

CAR Toyota Prius T-Spirit

PRICE £24,910

PERFORMANCE Max speed 
110 mph; 0-62 mph 10.4 secs

MPG 70.6 combined

CO2 EMISSIONS 92g/km