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First Oz drive: Toyota launches green machine

It looks normal: If not for the hybrid badge many people would never realise the significance of Prius.

Toyota promises Prius will deliver reduced fuel consumption and polluting emissions

4 Oct 2001

NEARLY three years after it went on sale in Japan, Toyota's much-hyped Prius "hybrid" sedan is now being offered to environmentally conscious Australians.

"Hybrid" means the Prius combines petrol and electric power for motivation, producing a significant cut in both fuel consumption and pollutants compared to a traditional petrol engine.

It is the second hybrid to go on sale in Australia, following Honda's Insight coupe that appeared here in April.

But the Prius differs in the design of its hybrid system because the petrol engine doesn't run at light throttle openings, while the Insight uses a small electric engine to supplement the power of its 1.0-litre petrol engine.

The Prius has the advantage over the two-seat Insight of being a full five-seat sedan of basically the same dimensions as a Corolla.

Not that at $39,990 it's priced like a Corolla. However, it still undercuts the Insight by nearly $9000 and is far more practical as well.

That's why Toyota is being reasonably optimistic in its sales projections for Pruis, forecasting between 25 and 30 sales per month. Just 28 Insights have been registered in the last six months.

At the heart of the Prius is the Toyota Hybrid System (THS) driveline that consists of a purpose-developed 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine, a continuously variable transmission (CVT) which also functions as a power-split device, a generator, an electric motor and reduction gears to the front axle.

The 33kW electric motor handles light-throttle driving, with the 53kW variable valve timing (VVT-i) engine chiming in as speeds rise. The electric motor churns out a massive 350 Newton-metres from 0 to 400rpm, while the petrol engine contributes its maximum 115Nm at 4200rpm.

That translates into leisurely acceleration, with a 0-100km/h figure of 13.4 seconds claimed, but the fuel consumption figures are much more impressive: 4.6 litres per 100km on the city cycle and a miserly 4.2 L/100km on the highway cycle. That's 61 and 67mpg in the old language! Toyota claims that in city driving emissions of carbon dioxide - which is the primary greenhouse gas emitted from vehicles - are approximately half those of a similarly-sized vehicle, while emissions of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide are cut by 80 per cent.

Cleverly, energy that is not required to propel Prius is converted to electricity and stored in a sealed 274 Volt battery for later use, and kinetic energy generated by the braking system is also converted into electricity and stored.

No less than 12 computers make Prius work, controlling the drive system including transmission, battery, inverters, cooling systems, steering, ABS brakes and dual airbags.

The Prius we get is actually a facelifted model, the most significant change being a reduction in size of the boot-mounted battery pack, which boosts space by 30 per cent to 392 litres.

The reason we get the updated version is the length of time it has taken Toyota to satisfy Australian Design Rules with Prius, stumbling blocks including the window wipers, transmission lever and most significantly, the unique braking system.

Apart from a massive amount of technology, $39,990 delivers a quite well equipped small car with standard semi-climate control air-conditioning, remote central locking, power windows and mirrors, six-disc CD audio system, alloy wheels, ABS with electronic brake-force distribution, driver and front passenger airbags and lap-sash seatbelts all-round.

The only option is DVD-based satellite navigation, which will set you back a hefty $3800.

The Prius won't be that easy to find, with just 40 Toyota dealers out of the 260-strong network selling it for now. Toyota claims servicing and insurance costs are about the same as a Corolla.

PRICING: Toyota Prius CVT auto $39,990


Toyota claims the Prius is as easy to drive as a normal car, and based on a short initial impression that certainly seems to be the case.

Inside, there are some unusual points, like the centre-mounted digital speedo and gear indicator and steering column-mounted gear lever. But anyone who has driven an Echo or Tarago would be familiar with these items.

Fire Prius up by turning the key and there's silence as the electric motor kicks into action. The petrol engine doesn't activate until around 20-25 km/h and even then it's hard to detect until you start using plenty of throttle.

Apart from that, there's nothing outstanding to report. It goes, stops and handles pretty much like - a car. It even runs on standard unleaded petrol.

The technology is impressive, but transparent. The Prius is a car that could happily serve in the role of family car.

If not for the hybrid badge on the rump, many people would never realise this is anything more significant than just another Toyota small car.

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