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Toyota Prius+

17/06/2013 06:47 |  Comments: 

Contributing editor

8 years of working for IBM have chiselled Balázs’s English skills to a level inappropriately high for this magazine, but did much to blunt his interest towards office work and computers. Earlier a reader and seldom contributor, also a deeply affected car maniac, he left IBM and joined us for a longer term as a journalist, but he’s back again to making money – at another IT company. Luckily he kept on writing for us and hasn’t dropped his love for photography either.

I hate the Prius! Not the car but the world it has opened a door to. A place where there are no V8’s and no howling hot rods. These are the confessions of a failed gearhead: I wouldn’t mind owning one.

I guess in your early 30's it's still a bit early to be nostalgic. Still, I cannot forget a world where the food was a juicy steak, men were having whiskey and cigarettes on the plane, milk came from cows and did not grow on soy fields and coffee was sweet thanks to real sugar. Transmissions were manual, handbrakes were levers, not buttons, the sound of an exhaust pipe was better than the London Philharmonic Orchestra and an engine was a greasy V8.

Yet, I'm standing here like Hobart Floyt, Functionary, Third Class, scared of Earth Service to my bones. Their judgement is imminent, for the guilty pleasure of driving a real car became a capital offense against beloved Terra and its fair citizens. But I may get another chance from Citizen Ash, judge, jury and executioner of the Earth Service: aggressive behavior modification. And his means? The Prius+.

“Know your enemy,” I exclaimed and I jumped in the car. I was determined that I would do the nastiest review in the business: no household appliance would get the best of me! I tried to pick on anything and everything. I already knew the shape of the Prius. Such a rolling USB mouse is hard to miss. But what's this? The Prius+ actually looks good, with the addition to the back. Toyota pulled it off: they built an MPV that doesn't look like a half consumed, van-shaped lollipop.

Well, Toyota doesn't really consider it an MPV, neither an estate. It's something in between, bigger, more versatile. Their consumer surveys showed than neither the Japanese nor the US market fancies those two categories. That is why it's sold in the US with five seats and with the heavier, bigger NiMH batteries. This, however, takes away the true selling point of the Plus over the normal Prius. Truth to be told though, it does have 784 litres of trunkspace without the extra bench in the back. For the third row to fit in, the seven-seater Prius+ got a set of Li-Ion batteries that fit neatly under the driver's armrest. Thanks to that setup – behind the unwanted relatives condemned to the third row –, there is still 232 litres of space.

After being sidetracked by boring facts, let me get back to nitpicking. The gearlever or shifter or choose-the-direction-switch reminded me of the late Tomy Turbo, both in looks and in quality. Interestingly, it didn't disturb me because I wanted to hate the Prius+. It bugged me because the inside of the car is such a cozy, quality place that the lever just didn't fit in. Actually, it was a disgrace to the dashboard, which was covered with a material that looked like a seventies wallpaper, without the fifty shades of brown.

The shape of the steering wheel, or to be more accurate, the steering egg was a bit puzzling. According to a guy at Toyota, the shape serves two purposes. It's easier to get in and more importantly, it pushes the driver to hold it at 3 and 9 o'clock, making it easier to feel and correct the movement of the car, should it lose traction and go sideways. Like that ever happens to a Prius+.

Toyotologia calls their version of stability control VSC+ and it means getting automatically involved in the steering, braking and power output. If in danger, it defines the ideal angle for the steering wheel by turning down on the power steering over and under the optimum. It's nothing new in the industry, but it's still a useful option to have.

This of course is only theory, because in practice I don't know how you could lose control over such a big lug with 136 measly horses anywhere, except on pure ice. The power comes from the combination of a 1.8, Atkinson-cycle, gasoline engine and an 82 PS electric motor, propelling the Prius+ from standstill to a hundred in 11.3 very dull seconds. Allegedly. In reality I cannot imagine a situation where a Prius+ owner would switch into Power Mode (please don't laugh) and floor it. The behavior modification is that aggressive.

The Prius+ is like any good king: it preaches, praises and punishes while providing a valuable public service. No gearhead would be able to avoid looking at the current consumption after a flooring of the car. Or the charge indicator of the batteries. After a while the driver develops cameleon-like eyes: one eye on the road, the other on the seven-inch screen, checking which engine is on: the electric, the gasoline or both. Orange arrow bad, green arrow good (no superhero pun intended). The former kills the rain forests, the latter gives birth to pandas. It's that simple.

The soundproofing is also nasty. In today's cars you can hardly hear the engine at idle. At normal speed you can still just feel it. At full gas you get a lab-designed, meticulously calculated engine sound. But not in the Prius+. It has the worst engine sound you can possibly imagine, and you can hear it rather clearly at any revs. Another psychological nudge to scare off the driver from speeding and pushing the consumption down even further. Thus making the environmentally conscious father of three to grab his Mont Blanc fountain pen and sign the contract of purchase while his cufflinks gently touch the sales manager's glass table of the local Toyota dealership.

But back to soundproofing: on the bottom it's pretty much non-existent. You can even hear the dying breath of the poor frog you just ran over. Braking is by wire, the pedal's hydraulic feel is synthetic. When hitting the brakes the car takes into account everything north of hitting a wall. The amount and suddenness of the pressure applied by the driver, the current speed and a dozen other factors will determine how much the car decelerates. It decides if it should use the brakes, the generator or both. Thanks to that, the brakes wear off later, the batteries are charged and the consumption is lower. This all sounds very fancy but there's no person on this planet who'd manage to brake twice the same way.

The other thing I didn't get was the constant beeping when backing up. I don't mean the parking sensor – that has its own sound. Dammit, I know it's in reverse, I put it in ‘R'. I get it, some people need to be warned that they are moving in the opposite direction of what's commonly referred to as ‘forward' but you could at least have an option in the rather sophisticated menu to turn the bloody thing off.

But this is all nitpicking because the Prius+ is a very good...hmm...household appliance. As our esteemed colleague, Karotta put it, it's an elevator: you get in on the home floor, push a button and get out on the destination floor. As always, he's right. You may be a hardcore gearhead, and I know you will never admit it, but trust me, there are some days you wish you had a Prius. Plus or not.

Imagine a dedicated runner. He loves to jog, to run, to push himself to the limit, not caring about the pain, sweat or occasional injury. But he will still walk to the grocery store. There are just days when a person doesn't want to drive, but just simply to ‘get there' with the least amount of energy invested.

Even a gearhead has days, when he doesn't feel like driving, just wants to pick up four friends, two acquaintances and reach a certain destination, while killing the time with talking instead of getting close to the machinery. He just gently switches to ECO Mode, accepts the fact with a faint smile that the next kilometers will be as exciting as the first 200 pages of Lord of the Rings and just sets off. He swears that he would push the consumption under 5 litres and lets out a quiet sigh when the average goes from 5.9 to 5.8. He knows that the power steering communicates less with him than his ex-wife, but at least it's not exhausting, especially when it parks the car for him automatically. The only way it would be more relaxing for him, if he had a chauffeur, but he likes to stay in control, at least a bit.

And there lies the Prius+'s strength. It's the perfect way of transportation for a person who finds driving an uncomfortable necessity. Toyota's hybrid drivetrain has proven enough in the past fifteen years, and the Prius+ is only baby steps away from being perfect in its own way. Some soundproofing here, a bit of fine tuning of the brakes there and maybe a bit less nagging beeping. When that day comes maybe even I would want one. Only of course if there's a GT86 in the garage next to it.

A big thank you to our lovely model, Judit Endrődy!

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