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We drive the Toyota Prius green car

2005-01-26 08:45

John Oxley

Imagine a world without petrol fumes or the busy noise of idling engines in a traffic queue, like a hive of bees magnified ten million-fold.

Imagine a car where you never need to shout to be heard, where the music you hear from the stereo is pure and unadulterated by the noise of the engine.

Imagine a car which accelerates away from a robot without roaring exhaust or straining motor.

Your don't have to imagine. It's now, with the Toyota Prius.

The Prius is the first hydrid car to be launched in South Africa, and it's available from 12 selected Toyota dealers in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban, and Toyota expects to sell between 12 and 15 a month.

The reason why so few dealers will get the Prius, say Toyota, is that the Prius is essentially a city car, and thus is not likely to appeal to motorists in areas that don't have traffic congestion.

So what is the Prius all about, and how does it work?

Essentially, it's a car with an ultra-clean petrol engine that also has an electric motor, and the two are linked by a very clever computer so they can work together.

That means that when you first pull away, you're on electric power, getting the benefit of 400 Nm of torque from zero revs. Later, while still accelerating, the petrol engine joins the fray, so you get the added thrust of the 115 Nm of torque from the advanced 1.5-litre DOHC 16-valve VVTi.

And when you've topped 45 km/h, the petrol engine takes over completely, and at the same time starts to top up the electric motor's batteries.

Or, if you're in thick traffic - as we were travelling between Johannesburg and Pretoria yesterday - the car will run on electric power only as you creep forward, with the petrol motor only kicking in when the batteries start to go flat.

You can even elect to run on battery power only you can do so, though your range is limited to one or two km, and top speed can be no more than 45 km/h.

Outside those parameters the petrol engine kicks in again.

Driving it

So what's the Prius like to drive?

Firstly, the controls are dead simple. There's a key card to gain access to the car, via push-button remote, then you insert it into a slot and press a button.

This makes the car ready, but you don't hear anything, 'cos nothing starts until you press the accelerator.

You put the little knob on the dashboard into drive, release the foot-operated parking brake, and zoom away.

That's it.

No sound, no fuss.

Just zoom.

On the open road the electric motor and petrol engine talk to each other and come into play when each or both is needed. There's no need for you to interfere.

The engine is linked to a continuously variable transmission, and this one works extremely well because the electric motor fills in the gaps the CVT often leaves, such as on pullaway.

If you come to a steep downhill, you can put the little knob into the 'B' slot which gives engine braking - great if you're towing - and also makes the brakes very keen. It also re-charges the battery.

It's all very clever, and it's enclosed in an attractive and extremely well-built body that is spacious, comfortable, and is quite good-looking..

The boot is big, at 408 litres, and the seats fold forward with a 60/40 split if you need more. Plus there are lots of secret places, including one where you could easily hide your briefcase or laptop.

AND it gets a space saver spare.

There's a large screen to help you select radio, and aircon functionality - or you can just do it from the steering wheel - and you can also check on the wonders of the system, which Toyota calls Hybrid Synergy Drive, with a schematic which shows which mode, or modes you're in, how much petrol you're using, how much battery power is left, and so on.

And it's all so simple, using a touch screen.

Move over BMW i-Drive.


The car is well finished, as I said, with leather and cloth upholstery and stylish finishes, though I must say I thought some of the plastic bits were a bit cheap-looking.

Outside the car looks good and turns heads, though it will never attract your "average" (if there is such a word) Ferrari lover.

How do you buy it?

Simple. You can't!

Toyota SA has realised that a car such as the Prius represents a great risk for most people. You or I don't know if the concept is going to work, if there is going to be any resale value, and so on.

So Toyota has opted to rent it to you, for just under R5 000 a month (R4 987). This covers all servicing and so on, but not petrol, tyres, or insurance.

You keep it for 4 years (taking care not to exceed120 000 km (after which you have to pay R1 a km) and you don't take it onto dirt roads so you don't damage the underbody.

However, you can take it through floods and snow, 'cos that's already been tested to the full in the US, where more than 150 000 owners are happy.

What do I think?

Well, for my daily 20 km traffic-filled grind to work it would be fantastic. No noise, no fuss. It would make life extraordinarily pleasant, and there's still more than enough performance when I want to get out into the country, with 0-100 km in 10.9 secs and a top speed of 170 km/h.

Plus, on top of that, the benefit of diesel-like fuel economy of the order of around 4.3 litres/100 km in traffic, and 6 litres/100 km in a cycle that includes lots of high speed driving.

For those who want to know, the electric motor produces 50 kW between 1 200 and 1 500 r/min and has 400 Nm of torque from rest to 1 200 r/min, while the engine, which only runs when you press the accelerator (otherwise it shuts off) gives 57 kW at 5 000 r/min and 115 Nm of torque at 4 000 r/min.

There's room for five people, and the car comes complete with dual front airbags, side airbags, and curtain airbags, as well as ABS and the latest stability control, traction control, and brake assist functions.

It really is great, and hopefully one day you'll be able to buy one!


The Toyota Prius emits less smog producing pollutants when driven:-

  • Johannesburg to Cape Town 8 times (approx. 11 700 km) than emptying a can of insect repellent.
  • Cape Town to Rome (approx 8 400 km) than using a can of air freshener.
  • Durban to Tokyo (approx 13 500 km) than using 118 ml of nail polish remover.
  • 38 500 km than spilling one cup of unleaded petrol.
  • 240 000 km than painting a 46 sq m wall
  • New York to Paris (approx 5 850 km) than emptying a 240 ml can of cooking spray.

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