FIRST DRIVE: in Toyota's new Prius
It's nearly 20 years now since the Toyota Prius first caught - and fired - the public's imagination. The idea that a car could charge a battery bank on the move and run only on electric power for sections of driving appealed to an eclectic cross section of motorist,s but especially to high-profile trendsetters.
Today, hybrids and their plug-in equivalents (there will be a new Prius plug-in) are part of the automotive fabric.
The latest Prius is a different proposition in so many ways but the same core target applies: cut fuel consumption. Toyota claims 30pc more efficiency.
It is a better looking car now, the cabin generally, is nicer, (with the exception of an awful garish white plastic tray on my test car), there's more room and a bigger boot. I found it better to drive too.
Lower seems to be a key word. The car itself is 20mm lower as are the bonnet (50mm) and centre of gravity. So are emissions - down to 70g/km (road tax from €170) - and fuel consumption (3litres/100km). By the way the 1997 original Prius managed 120g/km and 5.1 l/100km; not bad was it?
The 2,700mm wheelbase is maintained while the car is 60mm longer (4,540 mm) and 15mm wider.
Powering it is the 1.8-litre petrol engine carried over from the existing model but heavily revised. Together with electric-motor input they produce 122bhp.
Prices, which include a €1,500 VRT rebate, start at €31,450 for Prius spec with Luxury from €33,550 ex-works. It is already with dealers in Ireland; they expect 500 buyers this year.
In the cabin, the on-dash control and display zones are crisper, simpler. I liked the way they have placed the dual 4.2ins full colour TFT (thin film transistor) LCD screen and the 7ins touchscreen on different levels.
The latter, designed like a tablet, was easy to use (audio, navigation etc); you can also 'flick' actions to scroll through displays.
They say they've lowered (!) the steering column angle and where the driver sits. The redesigned front seats worked well for me.
This is the first model with the firm's New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform which helps make it a better drive too though I don't think Prius drivers have been all that bothered about that sort of performance up to now. I noted that the boom from the Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) has been muted a good deal. It was a big criticism of predecessors.
There is a new double wishbone rear suspension and the more compact nickel-metal-hydride (not lithium-ion) battery pack sits under the rear wheels. Both factors help boot space. The boot floor is now 110mm lower and capacity ranges from 412 litres with full spare to 502 litres with repair kit.
While they have maintained battery power, they have reduced size by 10pc; it can absorb 28pc more energy in the same time as before by charging more quickly.
The power control unit (PCU), aptly described as "the multi-purpose electrical heart of the vehicle" has been overhauled too. They say changes to the hybrid-system software mean you should get more from the electrics and use the engine less at higher speeds. That's for another day's test.
Standard equipment (Prius) includes adaptive cruise control, 15ins alloys, front fogs, air con, rear-view camera, 7ins multimedia, 4.2ins TFT, Toyota Safety Sense (a package of Road Sign Assist - driver warned if over speed limit; Lane Departure Alert; Pre Collision System; adaptive cruise control and auto high beam).
Luxury spec adds: 17ins alloys, dual-zone air con, heated front seats, wireless phone charger, blind-spot monitor and rear cross-traffic alert.
The Prius scores well on a number of fronts and is certainly well improved. It looks and drives better but crucially doesn't lose sight of what it was set up to do: cut your fuel bills and running costs.