So, we’ve had all this hybrid stuff for over 20 years now — cars powered jointly by a mix of internal combustion engines and batteries — but has it intrinsically changed the world we live in?
Or has it changed the bad habits we have developed and which, we are told, will render our planet unfit for habitation before you can say hybrid synergy drive?
Probably not is the answer, but the facts of the hybrid matter are that Toyota has had the jump on everyone in the hybrid motoring stakes for a long time now and while every other manufacturer worth its salt has followed suit with subtle variants of the Toyota model or, in some few cases, ingenious inventions of their own, the whole saving-the-planet ideal behind the movement still remains a niche thing to the majority of the motoring public worldwide.
Of course hybrid options are now available to people across a broad swathe of segments — from superminis to SUVs to supercars — and it is now also a central plank at the pinnacle of motorsport where both Formula One cars and Le Mans endurance racing cars employ the technology to make them faster and greener.
The embracing of hybrid mechanicals in both these categories of racing was seen by the governing bodies — and the manufacturers themselves — as completely necessary to underline how both F1 and the WEC are both at the cutting edge of new technology, but also have a relevance to the everyday driver and the need for non- (or at least less) polluting automobiles.
Away from the track, though, hybrid cars are gaining a toe-hold in the public consciousness, but whether that is because they are led like sheep by a couple of Hollywood show-boaters and international political do-gooders or out of any genuine concern for the world in which we live, remains open to debate.
My own long-stated view is that Hybrid is something of a fad which will ultimately fail because it is not the definitive answer to non- (or lesser) polluting vehicles — not least because the development of battery technology is still largely at the Neanderthal end of the scale and will anyway never be the answer to the environmental problems posed by the automobile.
Ironically, given Toyota’s leadership in the development and production of hybrid cars, the Japanese giant itself would appear to have begun the move away from hybrid solutions by producing its’ award-winning Mirai concept which is, of course, hydrogen fuelled.
Hydrogen cars are still a long way off, however, and particularly so for everyday use as there are huge issues surrounding such as refuelling infrastructure and safety in general, given the volatility of the power source.
As we stand then, hybrid cars still represent the greenest solution on offer now and with 20 operational years behind it, the Toyota Prius is still, remarkably, at the head of the class in offering people a low emission, fuel efficient mode of transport. And, if that is what is required for your daily motoring, then the Toyota is hard to look past.
Our tester this week is the fourth generation of the Prius and undoubtedly one of the first things that will get your attention is that the revisions to the Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive system now sees the car capable of returning a 3.0 l/100km figure (93.3 mpg) while emitting just 70 g/km of CO2 for an annual road tax of just €170. Those are pretty impressive figures by anyone’s standards.
Headline-grabbing these figures might be, but there are still issues here about the way the thing drives. Now Toyota made much at the launch of this car about how it had worked diligently to try and make the Prius driving experience something a little more engaging than operating a sewing machine and while the distinctly anodyne nature of that experience in past versions of the car has been diluted somewhat, this is still not a car you’re going to get many (any?) kicks out of.
Sure it gets you from A to B in a suitably wafty fashion and around town it whispers its’ way about the place in wonderful style. Worth noting though in a place such as Cork — which has to be the jay-walking capital of the world — where pedestrians deem traffic to be a nuisance they have to cope with as they traverse the city, the near-silent nature of the Prius can give even the most practiced jay-walker a surprise.
The combined output of the petrol engine and the battery powered electric motors is a sensible 121 bhp, the top speed is 180 kph and 0-100 kph is achieved in 10.6 seconds.
None of those figures is likely to engender any stirring in the loins — metaphorical or otherwise. But, the thing is that Toyota has lowered the chassis and stiffened it up considerably as well as giving the suspensions a thorough going-over.
As a result the Prius now actually handles like a car and not a milk-cart. It corners really well, has excellent grip levels and the combination of these things means that you can carry speed into and out of bends like never before in a Prius.
The three driving settings — normal, eco and power — allow you a variety of choice in the way you drive the thing, but you may well find that while the sporting end of things seems like a good addition, in reality it merely accentuates noise levels without doing that much to promote swifter motoring.
Having imposed a more youthful presence in the design department responsible for the car it is understandable if the whole thing now looks considerably more sci-fi than previously but I cannot say the look of the new Prius did anything for me.
A plethora of LEDs front and rear, a jagged front end look, a sporty rear spoiler and the slanted waistline do provide a somewhat other-worldly appearance which may appeal in some quarters. Not here.
The interior too suffers from a space-agey feel and the all-white décor of the car I tested had more a public lav. feel than high-tech automotive boundary pushing. Still, stuff like the wireless phone charging system and all the tech stuff so necessary these days was all present and correct.
Have I warmed to the whole hybrid idea as a result of driving the new Prius? Well no, not really, but I’d have to admit this is the best of the genre I’ve driven, has great practicality, no range issues and considerably more driver engagement than heretofore.
There are many compelling arguments as to why we should all be driving them, but for now I still can’t find one that would make me do so.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved