Fuji Speedway sits in the shadow of a veiled volcano, a temple filled with the spirits of long-dead racers. In the old days, when aerodynamics was a half-understood alchemy, they’d come off the straightaway at maximum velocity to shoot into the curved embankment, a man-machine marble of steel and bone, muscle and fuel. Many died in glory; some lived in victory.

Sacred ground indeed, but what a very odd place to launch a modestly-powered hybrid.

Most enthusiast drivers regard the Prius in the same way a five-star Michelin chef regards a microwave. It’s a perfectly functional piece of equipment, but one which you’d rather not use. That’s a shame, really, as the original Prius managed to create an entire new segment of vehicle. Over the past 18 years, they’ve sold an incredible 3.5 million of the cars, nearly all of which have served faithfully and without incident.

Is it exciting to drive? Not really, no, but consider the complexity of the machine and its great success. It works as a taxi. It works as a commuter. It has few drawbacks in terms of passenger space, sips fuel, and even has solid resale. The Prius is a known quantity on the road (if not the racetrack), and here’s the new one.

We’ve had three generations of Prius thus far, each adding a slight element of personality to what essentially appears to be a wheeled Dustbuster. But if the changes had thus far been evolutionary, the fourth-generation Prius takes more of a leap in styling. The nose of the thing extends forwards, like a catfish’s pursed lips, and there’s an X-shaped silhouette formed by the angular headlights.

Like sea urchin sushi, it’s an acquired taste from pretty much every angle. The side-profile attempts to disguise a certain bustle-backed rear with a floating glass C-pillar, and the rear is dominated by long thin vertical taillights – that X-shape again.

However, if it’s not exactly pretty, it is at least more daring. There’s less tarmac food-processor going on here, and more effort made to differentiate the Prius from the ordinary internal-combustion-engine-powered jellybeans of modern traffic.

Inside, the Prius is obviously doing all it can to get rid of its automotive hairshirt reputation. The old car’s innards looked very much like they’d been plucked from your recycling bin, and what with the central gauges and monochrome green display, were more than simply dated. This new car is immediately nicer, though not as conventionally attractive as either Ford or Chevy’s hybrid offerings.

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