2014 Toyota Prius Touring. Click image to enlarge
Review and photos by Greg Wilson
The current Toyota Prius (hatchback) is in its final year before a major redesign in 2015 or possibly 2016 if delayed. It’s been confirmed that a new optional lithium-ion battery will be available in addition to the base nickel-metal hydride battery pack, and the fourth-generation Prius is expected to offer at least a 10 percent improvement in fuel economy thanks to improved engine efficiency, more powerful electric motor, and reduced vehicle weight. All-wheel drive may also be offered. Official details are yet to be revealed.
One thing is for sure, the best-known hybrid car of all time will be big news in the hybrid community when it arrives.
But what if you’re in the market for a hybrid right now? Well, despite being over five years since its last major redesign, the current Prius is still at the top of its class in two important areas: it offers class-leading fuel efficiency (among non plug-in mid-size hybrids), and a stellar reputation for reliability (rated ‘much better than average’ by Consumer Reports). It also offers the practical advantages of a roomy five-passenger cabin and a hatchback body style with a large trunk that will fit three golf bags behind the rear seats. Oh, and its starting price of $26,105 is pretty reasonable in the mid-size hybrid market.
While the current Prius’ weak points are well-known – slab-sided styling, so-so interior quality, lifeless steering, uninspiring handling, sub-par acceleration, and a sometimes noisy engine/CVT combination that seems to have a mind of its own – these attributes don’t seem to bother the segment of the population that’s more concerned with fuel economy, technology, reliability, practicality, and environmental responsibility.
Not everybody wants their relationship with their car to be like a horse and rider (sorry, Mazda).
According to the EPA, the 2014 Prius hatchback offers the best fuel economy in the mid-size hybrid class (4.7 L/100 km combined) not counting cars you have to plug in. Close behind is the surprising Honda Accord Hybrid (5.0 L/100 km), followed by the VW Jetta Hybrid (5.2), Ford Fusion and Toyota Prius v wagon (5.6), Toyota Camry Hybrid (5.7), and Ford C-MAX Hybrid (5.9). Among diesel cars, the closest competitors are the VW Passat TDI and Jetta TDI (6.9 L/100 km).
2014 Toyota Prius Touring drive mode buttons & dashboard. Click image to enlarge
During my week with the Prius (dry weather and about 15 degrees C), my fuel economy averaged around 4.9 L/100 km, but individual journeys varied from 3.8 L/100 km to 6.0 L/100 km. On a 33 km journey that was mostly ‘downhill’ from North Vancouver to the flatlands of Richmond (80 percent city/20 percent hwy), my fuel economy display showed 3.9 L/100 km. The same journey in reverse showed 4.6 L/100 km for an average of 4.25 L/100 km. The dash display may be a little optimistic: the EPA’s ratings are 4.6 L/100 km city and 4.9 L/100 km hwy.
2014 Toyota Prius Touring fuel economy. Click image to enlarge
The Prius driving experience is decidedly uninspiring, although I must give Toyota credit for improving the brake feel in the current generation car. In past Priuses, the standard regenerative braking system made the brake pedal feel way too sensitive. Now, the brakes feel almost normal and the Prius stops very quickly thanks to standard four wheel disc brakes and its relatively trim curb weight of 1,413 kg. Consumer Reports’ tests show the Prius stops from 60 mph in a commendable 40.5 metres in the dry.
The Prius offers four driver-selectable driving modes: Normal, Eco, Power and EV mode. Normal is the default mode, Eco reduces throttle input and suppresses the air conditioning to save fuel, Power mode increases throttle input for better performance, and EV mode allows the Prius to run on electric power alone for a couple of kilometres at low speeds. When driving, a real-time hybrid powertrain display on the dashtop shows when the car is operating in each mode. The gear selector also has a ‘B’ mode which acts like a lower gear to help slow the Prius down when driving down a steep hill.
As a “full hybrid” the Prius can run on electric power alone under light load, a combination of electric and engine power when more power is needed, and engine only if battery power is depleted and charging is needed. An electronic controller automatically switches back and forth as required and the transition is most noticeable by the sound rather than the feel of the engine starting. At traffic lights, the 1.8L Atkinson Cycle four-cylinder engine automatically turns off then restarts automatically once you remove your foot from the brake pedal. This is the main reason the Prius gets better fuel economy in the city than on the highway.