"The Toyota Prius is undoubtedly the world's most famous hybrid – and for good reason. It's economical, practical and reasonably fun to drive too."
With more and more eco-friendly cars popping up on UK roads, the Toyota Prius remains the world's best-selling hybrid. Over a decade since it was first introduced, the Prius offers a name and reputation that is still hard for other cars to match. The standard model still has CO2 emissions that are among the lowest on the UK market, so that means 89g/km, which makes it road tax free. Plus, you can even drive short distances using only the electric motor to further save money, so trips to the petrol station will become rarer, too. Performance is good, although it goes without saying that this isn’t a car for driving enthusiasts, as the steering lacks feedback, and you only get one choice of gearbox – an automatic CVT – that is luckily very smooth. The Prius may still look a bit clunky, but everyone knows the dimensions of a Prius when they see it, which is half the battle for any car on the high street. The Prius comes in three specifications – entry-level T3, mid-range T4 and top-spec T Spirit, while 2012 also the introduction of the Prius Plug-in, which allows you to charge the lithium ion batteries from a household mains socket. This is the most efficient Prius yet and takes economy and emissions to the next level, by returning 134.5mpg and emitting only 49g/km of CO2. If you need more space but want to keep being kind to the environment, the Prius+ is a seven-seat MPV version of the standard hatchback.
MPG, running costs & CO2 emissions
Let's face it, you may have to shell out up front when you buy a Prius, but you know that in return you will make mammoth savings on the day-to-day running costs. With fuel economy of 72.4mpg and CO2 emissions of 89g/km, the Prius is one of the cheapest cars to operate on the road. That means that it can travel up 715 miles on a single tank of petrol and is exempt from road tax. If you want to avoid paying the London Congestion Charge, however, you’ll have to opt for the Prius Plug-in, with it's 46g/km emissions and impressive 134.5mpg fuel economy. Servicing isn’t cheap but costs are improving all the time as EVs and hybrids become more common.
Interior & comfort
Not many cars are quieter than the Prius around town. In fact, driving in silent electric-only mode is frankly quite eerie, like you’re sneaking up on other drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. However, put your foot down hard and the CVT automatic gearbox tends to hold the revs for too long, which begins to make quite a racket. The suspension is also rather firm as the batteries for the electric motor create quite a lot of extra weight, so the Prius is a bit bumpy when driven over rough, potholed roads. There's plenty of space inside for four adults, with passengers in the back getting a surprising amount of head and legroom. The top-of-the-range T Spirit model also gets an optional solar-powered ventilation system to keep the Prius cool when it's parked. That's thoughtful and eco-friendly.
Practicality & boot space
Shoving big batteries and an electric motor into existing cars does tend to make some hybrid models a bit limited for extra space, but the Prius doesn’t tend to suffer from this problem. The boot offers a pretty generous 446 litres of space (more than in a Volkswagen Golf), which expands to an impressive 1,120 when the 60:40 split-folding rear seats are folded flat. You also get a handy storage space beneath the boot floor for stashing valuables out of sight from prying eyes. Up front, you get a large storage cubby in the centre console, plus a double-level glove compartment. Only the small door bins disappoint.
Reliability & safety
Toyota may have dropped four places to come ninth in the 2013 Driver Power customer satisfaction survey, but that doesn’t mean it makes unreliable cars. It came fifth in 2012 and not much has changed, except perhaps customer attitudes to the level of performance they expect from hybrid cars now that more are readily available on the market. As a reflection of this, the Prius itself dropped 17 places in the top 100 cars to rank 26th, again because of performance. The good news is that since the car was introduced there have been no reported reliability issues. There have been concerns about the life of the batteries, however, but Toyota claims that they are designed to last as long as the car itself – and if anything does go wrong, you’ll be dealing with a manufacturer with an industry-leading reputation for customer care. It's safe, too, getting the full five stars in the Euro NCAP crash safety tests and coming with seven airbags, electronic stability control, traction control and brake assist are all fitted as standard.
Engines, drive & performance
The Prius is powered by a 1.8-litre Hybrid Synergy Drive, which pairs its 98bhp engine with a 36bhp electric motor for a combined power output of 134bhp. In the real world, that means it's actually faster out of the blocks than a model of similar size powered by a conventional engine, going from 0-62mph in only 10.2 seconds. What's more, you can drive the Prius for short distances – a couple of miles – using only the electric motor, but if you lean on the accelerator too heavily, the petrol engine will kick in. As you’d expect from a conscience-friendly eco car, the handling isn’t spectacular but the steering is light (if uninvolving) enough to make driving in town easy, while any body roll is nicely controlled.
Price, value for money & options
The Prius has never made having a conscience a cheap option, but even the entry-level T3 model comes with decent accessories like automatic air-conditioning, alloy wheels and electric windows fitted as standard. Top-of-the-range T Spirit cars get sat-nav, a reversing camera, a Toyota Touch audio system with Bluetooth and USB connectivity, and even the option of a solar-panelled sunroof that can be used to heat or cool the car while it's parked. However, if you select this option, you must bizarrely revert to the 15-inch alloy wheels that come as standard on lesser cars. A small price to pay for stepping into a cooled car on a hot sunny day. However, like many expensive options on pricey cars, don't expect to make back any money when you come to sell it on the used car market.