Prius Moment Is English Eye-Opener

Telegraph editor Charles Clover enjoyed a pleasant surprise when we persuaded him to swap his 11-year-old, oil-burning Mercedes estate for a petrol-electric Toyota Prius.

Published: 02-Nov-2005

To date, the Clover family's contribution to tackling global warming has been limited to 1) not buying a 4x4 and 2) buying a diesel VW Passat that did more than 45mpg but blew up because it was so complicated the dealer failed to service it properly.

So, while the adults of the family believe fuel economy is desirable in a warming world where diesel costs 93p a litre, we have been sceptical that there really was a practical, greener alternative to our 11-year-old diesel Mercedes estate - except, perhaps, a newer one.

When petrol-electric hybrid cars first appeared, we ignored them. For family purposes they were too small, too experimental and, for us payers of school fees and buyers of secondhand cars, too costly. We felt vindicated when people who drove the MkI Toyota Prius in 1997 said it was slow and had a small boot.

But while driving the MkII model recently, I enjoyed a Damascene moment rather like the one when you first drive a diesel car and realise it is, to all intents and purposes, a car, with the useful bonus that it has better fuel consumption than anything you had driven before.

The latest Prius, 2005 European Car of the Year, is capable of sprinting from 0-60mph in just over 10 seconds - two seconds faster than the old one. And being a hatchback, it has adequate load-space.

It's a bit like those other blobby cars you see everywhere, but why buy a Nissan blob or a Ford blob when you could have a Toyota blob with a whole load more to feel superior about?

Two engines - one petrol, one electric - for instance. Air-conditioning that draws no energy from the petrol engine. The children thought the on-board computer with Bluetooth and DVD-based sat-nav was reason alone to have one.

But is the Prius any good at what it is meant to do best? The bumf cheerily boasts it will do 65mpg. The man who delivered it swears he got 70mpg on holiday. My heavy right foot meant I got 47.9mpg on one trip and more like 44mpg overall.

A hybrid requires a light-footed driving style to maximise its benefits, but even my untrained method returned figures similar to modern diesels, and the Prius scores extra green points because its particulate emissions are lower.

Our family's driving doesn't really play to the Prius's strengths, as it involves a lot of motorways: hard work for a relatively small-engined petrol car with a heavy battery in the boot.

The Prius is built for the mega-city: lots of braking to charge the battery, sitting silently at traffic lights watching the formation of other people's smog then gliding away on electric power. Even so, we were impressed to average 44mpg at not always legal speeds with the air-con full on - that's 10mpg better than our Merc.

To niggle, the Toyota feels a bit tinny, compared with a Merc. And will that 1.5-litre engine (never mind the battery) last 11 years and 230,000 miles like our 3.0-litre (non-turbo) diesel? Isn't there rather a lot to go wrong? The Telegraph's motoring editor adds that the Prius tends to wander slightly on motorways, which can be tiring.

However, when the Clover family put the matter to a vote, the verdict was that if one of the latest models came up at the right price, we would have it like a shot - even if we had to buy smaller suitcases. What sold me, I confess, was the potential amusement to be had from showing up 4x4 drivers in the school car park. If we lived in London we would have an even better reason, as the Prius is exempt from the congestion charge.

But couldn't they make it a foot taller at the back, give it a bigger boot, a tow hook and somewhere to put a roof-rack? The truth is that, despite wonderful rear leg room, the Prius is only just big enough to qualify as a family car.

How long before someone designs a hybrid family estate, a tad larger than the Prius but nowhere near as extravagant as the Lexus RX400h hybrid 4x4 (tested in these pages on June 4), which can only claim to save fuel if your previous car was a truck. Now that hybrids do the job, it is time to expand the range.

 

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