The fourth generation Prius promises many improvements, and represents a significant step forward for Toyota. The experts at Car & Driving find out more.
Ten Second Review
Toyota has changed things again with its fourth generation Prius. Not content with the extraordinary success of this pioneering hybrid model to date, the Japanese brand has ripped up its own rule book and redesigned the entire platform on which this car sits, underpinnings that'll also be used for many of its future products. This MK4 model Prius is the first model to feature the revised architecture, benefiting from improvements in space, safety and handling.
The Toyota Prius hybrid needs very little by way of introduction. By the time of the introduction of this fourth generation version, over three-and-a-half million Priuses (or 'Prii' if you work for Toyota) had been sold worldwide over nearly two decades. Design changes in that time have hardly been radical but what was once a rather frumpy lump has evolved into a sharp looking, modern family hatchback that merits strong demand without needing to rely on its environmental credentials. We're told that this MK4 model Prius is a significant step forward from its predecessor, mainly because it features a hi-tech modular chassis that Toyota plans in the future to use across a wide range of its products. An important platform then - and this Prius is the first of the company's cars to use it, the very different fundamentals necessitating a ground-up re-design.
Hybrids are known to be much heavier than traditionally fuelled cars because of the big pile of battery-cells that provide the electric power. What is crucial to handling though, is where the extra weight is positioned. Toyota's modular architecture allows the centre of gravity to be lower and closer to the middle of the Prius, which translates into a better balanced ride for passengers but not a car you would ever describe as 'sporty'. It takes a fraction longer to get going than the model it replaced, reaching 62mph in 10.6 seconds, but the emphasis is now on making this car appeal to business users, so a comfortable, economical ride takes precedence over speed. That being said, efforts have been made to make the Prius a more pleasant car to drive. The nickel-metal hydride battery pack gets the electric motor turning first and only when the Prius starts to pick up speed does an updated version of the familiar 1.8-litre petrol engine from previous models fire up and seamlessly take over. The engine can be switched off if you need to run entirely on batteries, say, through Central London's Ultra Low Emissions zone. If you can afford more, a Plug-in model is being offered that can go up to 39 miles on electric power alone.
Design and Build
It will certainly stand out in Central London. The new styling is bold with more than a flavour of Toyota's hydrogen Mirai model, particularly towards the rear end. Like previous versions of the Prius, the design won't be everyone's cup of cocoa but, apparently, form follows fuel-efficiency. The body is said to scythe through the air with very little resistance and while the blacked-out rear pillar might play tricks on the eyes, the hump-backed shape that has become something of a Prius silhouette remains. The side profile suggests more of a saloon than a hatchback, but the flat surface on the rear acts as a spoiler that helps create the 'sudden drop' common in low-drag designs. Inside, the cabin has been refreshed but continues with the theme of mounting all the useful displays and information in the centre of the cockpit rather than putting the dials directly in front of the driver. Instead of an instrument binnacle behind the steering wheel, the speed and other info is shown on an upper information display mounted just below the front windscreen. This gives a much greater sense of space inside the cabin than most rivals. While the wheelbase remains the same as the previous generation, the longer body and repositioned battery pack lend themselves to improved luggage space. The boot is over 500-litres in size and if extra space is needed, the rear seats can split 60/40 and fold down. This might not be quite as impressive a space as you'd get from, say, a comparably-priced Ford Mondeo Hybrid but, given the compromises that petrol/electric cars have to make in the pursuit of fuel-efficiency, it represents a significant improvement on the previous model, by almost 60-litres.
Market and Model
It's not just the design and engineering that has changed with the fourth generation Prius: the price levels and trim names have also been revised. Aimed at a more business-class customer, Toyota has dispensed with the 'T' numbers and 'Spirits' of the past, replacing them with more mature names to reflect the more mature prices. Around £23,000 will be required if you want to get on the road in the entry level 'Active' model. For this you'll get 15-inch alloys, driver's seat lumbar support and Dual 4.2-inch colour TFT information displays, along with the healthy list of standard equipment. All models get LED lights, 'Smart Entry' to unlock and start the car without using a key, 'Electric Driver Seat Adjust' and Toyota's 'Touch 2' multimedia system that keeps you entertained at the swipe of a finger. Another £1,000 will buy you into 'Business Edition' where soft-touch cabin trim and a leather steering wheel will make you feel a bit more special, while 'Smart Entry' extends to boot-opening in this trim. If you spend another £2,000 for the 'Business Edition Plus' variant, you'll be rolling along on 17-inch alloys, finding your way with Satellite Navigation, letting the car do the parking with Toyota's 'Simple Intelligent Parking Assist' (SIPA) system and listening out for the front and rear parking sensors. Splash out a further £1,500 on the top-level 'Excel' trim and you can recline in leather, while listening to the 'JBL Premium Audio' system. You won't need to adjust the wipers if it starts raining as the Prius 'Excel' will take care of that for you. Whichever, trim you choose, there a variety of option packs available to upgrade style, convenience and comfort. All models come with 'Toyota's Safety Sense' Package of autonomous functions that scan the road and alert the driver, or even intervene, if imminent danger is sensed.
Cost of Ownership
When the Prius changed the game back at the start of the Millennium, the winning trait wasn't beautiful design or blistering performance. It was extraordinary fuel-economy. That's what the Prius has championed throughout its regenerations but in more recent times, a plethora of plug-in hybrids and pure electric cars have threatened to make this one redundant. Here's Toyota's response. At 94.2mpg on the combined cycle, the Prius still out-performs even the most frugal diesel competitors, also managing up to 70g/km of CO2. To give you a comparison, if you spent £3,000 or £4,000 less and bought a Honda Civic 1.6 i-DTEC diesel, you'd manage 78.5mpg and 94g/km of CO2. If you are genuinely concerned about the environment, it seems then that a Prius is the pious choice. Being a Toyota, quality is ingrained in the car-building process, so costly faults are unlikely to arise but just-in-case, the Prius comes with a 5-year/ 100,000 mile warranty. Despite the modest increase in price, the residuals should remain relatively strong when it comes time to sell it on.
As eco-competitors like Vauxhall Ampera and Honda's Insight have come and gone, Toyota's Prius has retained its appeal amongst family buyers wanting to make an environmental statement - and sharpens those credentials in this much improved fourth generation guise. It still faces challenges from a raft of plug-in hybrid, electric and highly efficient diesel powered cars but arguably, the only ones that really come close to the quality and refinement of this MK4 model Prius are the other hybrids in the Toyota and Lexus ranges. This car's use of the company's new modular 'Global Architecture' has enabled it to set a fresh benchmark for high-quality, low-cost family motoring. Lower, wider and longer than previous generations, the design now features improved handling and space - though there's a price to pay for that. The business customers that Toyota is increasingly seeking here should be receptive to this though, and better-heeled family buyers will want to try one too. As ever, it seems, there still is nothing quite like a Prius.