By Jim Bray
It's hard to argue that Toyota's Prius family has been the most successful crop of hybrid cars since Honda first inflicted the Insight on the world more than a decade ago.
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The reasons may be many, but chief among them must be high gas mileage, perhaps coupled with the perception that they emit less foulness than the average car (foulness being in the eye of the beholder, perhaps?). This is in an era in which gas mileage is going up all over the automotive marketplace while emissions are going down – and "global warming" is being exposed as the hoax it always was.
Over the past couple of years, Toyota has expanded the Prius range to include the smaller Prius c and the small wagon Prius v, both of which I cover in this column. I hated driving them, which at least makes the cars (and me) consistent, because they've never been particularly compelling for drivers and I've whined about that at length before.
But if your desire is to wear your global warm-mongering on your sleeve, how better to do it than to drive a car that's uniquely and immediately recognizable as a hybrid, as opposed to those hybrids that look pretty much like their non-hybrid versions, such as Toyota's Camry or Highlander – or even Porsche's Panamera.
Don't get me wrong. I don't object to hybrids per se – in fact, a few weeks back I published a column on the Acura RLX sport hybrid, which I thought was better than its gas-only counterpart – but I, and many others, want a car that's not only efficient, but interesting and, all things being equal, fun to drive. And there's no reason you can't do that with a hybrid, as evidenced by an increasing number of cars these days.
This does not describe the Prius. The Prius is gutless, loud inside (thanks in no small part to a particularly annoying CVT transmission) and insulting to the intelligence of its owners. This latter point is thanks at least in part to Toyota's decision to add a backup beeper to the cars, like you hear on large trucks when they shift into reverse – except that in the Prius it only sounds inside the car, making it completely useless except to remind the driver who just shifted into reverse that he/she/it has just shifted into reverse! Huh? Does Toyota think its Prius owners are that stupid?
On the other hand, if you're having trouble sleeping, a stint behind the wheel of a Prius may just cure it.
I imagine you get the drift of this column by now: I am not and never have been a Prius fan and so perhaps am not the best one to review the line except for the fact that I can definitely bring an alternative perspective to the Prius - as a car, rather than a panacea.
I spent an interminable week in the Prius c first, which is apparently based on the Yaris and not the other Prii. Sandwiched between it and my week in the Prius v, I also got to drive the 2015 Yaris and while it may not get the gas mileage of the Prius (the Prius may not get its advertised mileage either, depending on your driving style) it's a far more interesting car to drive. And you can buy a Yaris for $16 thousand or less, equipped well, whereas Toyota's sample Prius c listed at $26,055.00 with no options. You can buy a lot of gas or carbon credits for the difference, and not have to suffer driving a Prius.
The sample was missing more than just "joie de conduire," too. There were no automatic headlights and a crummy and weak audio system and the CVT is one of the most annoying - in that when you step on the "accelerator" pedal it spins up with a whine that reminds me of when we used to try to get our kids to help with the chores around the house: do I really have to?
To be fair, the c has a nice big sunroof and once you get it up to speed it isn't nearly as annoying as getting it there is. It also has decent storage space for a little car. And it does offer Bluetooth. But over all, it feels cheap, whereas, in my never humble opinion, the Yaris merely feels inexpensive.
Prius c's gas/electric hybrid Synergy Drive, which includes a 1.5-litre inline four cylinder gasoline engine, oozes a mere 99 horsepower onto the road via the front wheels. Get up and go is about what you'd expect from such specs.
For 2015, Toyota has given the Prius c a restyled front with LED projector low and high-beam headlights and "light pipe" taillights, a nice and high tech touch, and you can choose from two new exterior colours (Electric Lime Metallic, and Tangerine Splash Pearl).
Standard features also include automatic climate control, a full colour TFT Multi-Information Display, and remote keyless entry. A tilt/telescopic steering wheel gives you redundant controls for audio and climate control, as well as for hands-free phone capability. An upgrade package includes "premium" cloth seats, height-adjustable driver's seat, 60/40 split/fold rear seat, cruise control and a couple of other minor tweaks. You'd think this stuff would be standard, but you'd think wrong.
A "technology" package adds a navigation system, "voice recognition," SMS-to-speech and email-to-speech capability, heated fake leather front seats, a backup camera, power moonroof, 15-inch aluminum alloy wheels, and more.
Both the Prius c and v are "full hybrids," which means they can run on gasoline power alone, battery power alone, or a combination. If you plan to run either of them on electric power only, you'd better be ready to have your doors blown off by pedestrians.
I preferred the Prius v to the c, though we're only talking about small degrees here. Mostly I liked it better because it has more room for stuff and because Toyota had fitted the sample with the technology package that made it somewhat more liveable, if not enjoyable.
That package adds about six grand to the price (bringing Toyota's sample up to $34,095 Canadian) but it gives you stuff like a synthetic leather-wrapped steering wheel , 17 inch aluminum alloy wheels , Integrated Satellite Radio, six not quite as crummy speakers, navigation, heated fake leather front seats, lane departure alert, adaptive cruise control, a panoramic sunroof, LED headlights with automatic high beam, and more.
Prius v's get a 1.8 litre four cylinder engine to go with the electric stuff and it puts out a more healthy but still not particularly heady 136 hp. This is more than the Yaris, though you'd be hard pressed to notice it and you still have to suffer through the howling of the CVT (the Yaris has a real, albeit old tech, automatic).
Toyota is trying to pass off the little wagon as a crossover and I suppose they can get away with that as long as you consider the now-defunct Matrix to be one as well, or any other small wagon/hatchback, most of which are far more interesting to drive and live with. For example, there's the brand new Volkswagen Golf Sportwagon that can be had in fuel-sipping diesel form for about $35,000 loaded, the KIA Forte 5 ($30,652.25 reasonably loaded), or the Hyundai Elantra GT ($26,799 reasonably loaded) etc..
None of these competitors, except perhaps for the VW diesel, will get the Prius' gas mileage, all things including driving style being equal, but any of them is far more compelling as a vehicle to drive and to live with. And today's clean diesels, and modern gas engines are so clean it's not right to think of them as dirt-spewing agents of Satan. They may not be as clean as hybrids, but they certainly aren't dirty by the standards of not too many years ago.
To each his own and live and let live. And if you like the Prius on its own merits, that's peachy. But if you're buying a Prius to make a statement or save the world, please spare us the smug emissions (hat tip to South Park).
And if you're looking for a hybrid because you can get the government to subsidize it, shame on you for forcing your neighbours to help you pay for your car whether they want to or not. I hope you're going to kick in a few grand for their next vehicle purchases, in the interest of fairness (isn't that what it's all about?).
Copyright 2015 Jim Bray
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