Hybrid electric vehicles were really not on the minds of the automotive public even as little as ten years ago. The original first-generation Toyota Prius ran up until 2003 but never really caught on – you don’t see very many of them on the roads. It is possible to attribute this low take-rate on the radical technology advances at the time, making for some hesitant consumers. Gasoline has been the default, and often, the only option for many people for many years. By and large, this is still the case, but Toyota has made some serious in-roads with their Hybrid Synergy Drive technology. In order for us to investigate further, Toyota lent us a Blizzard White 2013 Toyota Prius.
I had never driven a hybrid electric car prior to this road test, but have always been interested in extracting the most out of each litre of gasoline. Not only does this save money, but this driving style, referred to as “hypermiling” can sometimes make for a more challenging (fun) drive in nearly all scenarios, no matter what you are driving. Hypermiling involves several methodologies, but each can be as loosely or as strictly applied to your driving style depending on what the goals are. More on this later…
The 2013 Prius represents Toyota’s latest entry into the ever-growing gasoline-electric hybrid marketplace. While this generation of Prius was introduced in 2009, Toyota refreshed the standard Prius model in 2011 by updating the headlights and taillights, and revising the front bumper design. Then, Toyota made it part of the Prius family by introducing the larger Prius V and smaller Prius C. The Prius, at least after the first-generation, has always been a recognizable brand within the Toyota lineup. The function-first wedge shape (technically known as the Kammback style, it improves aerodynamics), and Hybrid badging sprinkled around the exterior, ensures that onlookers will know what you are up to. Not a sexy or beautiful design by any means, but not offensive either: the usual Toyota style. One interesting note: the base Prius comes with 195-section tires on 15” wheels! A common size ten years ago, but has largely gone out of style with automakers.
The Prius’ external shape lends itself to good interior space. Headroom is especially generous, and cargo room is surprisingly good considering the battery also lives behind the rear seats. My particular Prius tester was a base model, so it lacked some of the toys like heated power seats and navigation, but otherwise came well-equipped with smart-key access, push-button start, cargo privacy cover, power doors and windows, and Bluetooth integration. The rear Kammback shape of the Prius means there is a horizontal bar right in the middle of your rear view, almost like the old Honda CRX. Rearward visibility isn’t too bad, and having a standard back-up camera helps.
The Prius is powered by a proven 1.8L four-cylinder motor (codenamed 2ZR-FXE, utilizing Atkinson Cycle combustion) that produces 98hp on its own, paired up with an array of batteries and an electric motor. Together, they produce an overall output rating of 134hp. This Hybrid Synergy Drive powertrain is mated to a continuously variable transmission that manages the power delivery from the gasoline engine, electric motor, and most of the time, a combination of the two. Fuel efficiency, as expected, is very aggressively rated, at 3.7L/100km in the city, 4.0L/100km on the highway, and 3.8L/100km in a combined cycle. Many hybrid electric vehicles boast better fuel efficiency numbers in the city than on the highway – because in low-speed, low-load situations, the gasoline engine is permitted to shut down completely.
Some people have reservations about long-term durability of these new-fangled hybrid electric vehicles. Seeing any car being used for taxi duty is a good indicator of durability. In Toronto, the big Ford Crown Victorias of old have been largely replaced by hybrids. While the 4.6L V8 is known durable, useful for quick getaways and hauling stuff, it is just expensive overkill for what taxis are usually doing: transporting passengers. Taxis are usually either idling or travelling at fairly low speeds in dense urban traffic. Toyota claims that they are seeing well over a million kilometres in some larger urban centres. With this in mind, Toyota warranties the battery unit for 8-years or 160,000km, whichever comes first.
The Prius is almost universally derided in the auto enthusiast circle for being the antithesis of the sports car. It certainly doesn’t help that the stereotypical Prius owner often can also be described as the antithesis of the auto enthusiast. Somebody who doesn’t care about going fast, somebody who doesn’t care about having the premium status symbol, somebody who doesn’t care for gratuitous fuel consumption. I went into this test with some simple, and honestly, low expectations. I knew it would be excellent on gas and would be a supreme bore to drive on a day-to-day basis. So what did I do? I turned everything into a game, of sorts.
I wanted to see if it was possible to beat Toyota’s ratings for fuel efficiency. This is easily what made the drive more interesting. Hypermiling can sometimes be a stressful experience – I didn’t want to go to the extreme where I not only wore myself out, but annoyed the drivers around me with inconsiderate road sharing habits.
The centre-mounted info display at the top of the dashboard was the key to reaching my goal. There is a bar-graph that roughly corresponds to where the throttle position is, and what the powertrain is doing at any given time. This bar-graph is divided up into four sections: Charge, Electric, Eco, and Power. The first section indicates to you that regenerative energy is being generated, whether by coasting or by braking. The second section (EV for Electric Vehicle) indicates the Prius is propelling itself using stored battery energy. This leads into the third section (Eco) which indicates the gasoline engine is active and either charging the battery or providing additional power to the front wheels. The last section (Power) indicates that the gasoline motor is providing propulsion power but in a less efficient manner, as acceleration is preferred over fuel economy.
I tried to spend as much time as possible in the EV section which kept the gasoline engine off. When I needed more acceleration power, I increased the throttle travel into the Eco mode, which got me up to speed sooner. Upon reaching the speed limit, I would then coast (off throttle), which would turn off the gasoline engine, and regenerate battery energy. This method is called pulse-and-glide driving. Spending more time in the “glide” portion of the equation increases fuel efficiency. The other key to efficient driving is to look far ahead in traffic and anticipate any required changes in speed. Instead of racing up to the next traffic light, slamming on the brakes to a stop, coasting from a distance away (off throttle) means you may reach the light as it turns green again, eliminating the need to come to a full stop. Of course, this may aggravate drivers behind you, so it is important to keep an eye on what’s going on in all directions.
Another useful item I found was the dedicated Eco button beside the gear selector. Normally, I shy away from activating any special “Eco” mode as this just dulls the throttle to the point of almost uselessness. In the Prius, however, the Eco button gives you much more control in keeping the powertrain in EV mode. I was able to keep the gasoline engine off for longer periods of time, which, again, lowers overall fuel consumption. There is also a dedicated “EV” button beside the gear selector that tells the car to prefer battery power at low speeds. I only found this button useful in places like parking lots. If you demand too much acceleration, the EV mode de-activates on its own.
With these driving methods employed over one week and 550km, I was able to extract 4.0L/100km in mixed driving. Impressive, but not quite the 3.8L/100km that Toyota estimates. However, the Prius also has a per-trip reading that is displayed every time the car is shut off. On a 30km commute from my house into downtown Toronto, I was able to get a 3.4L/100km reading! This involved lots of downhill coasting and lots of time in battery-only mode. So, in the right conditions, it is possible to beat Toyota’s estimates.
As I said earlier, the Prius is not at all exciting when it comes to driving dynamics, but when you approach it with an open mind; you realize that it needs to be treated differently. This is where I will consider the Prius “interesting”, in its own special way. For $26,355, the Prius isn’t the cheapest (nor simplest) way to chase maximum fuel efficiency, but I came out of my week with it with a different kind of respect and admiration for Toyota in their chase for innovation.
2013 Toyota Prius Gallery