Published on Sunday 8 December 2013 10:27
Ten Second Review
Toyota's Prius+ is the market's very first seven-seat MPV hybrid. That clever technology means it isn't cheap though, especially in the range-topping T spirit form we test here. Still, if the required £30,000 budget doesn't put you off, this is a very advanced People Carrier indeed.
Every time Toyota sees a rival manufacturer launching a hybrid car, it must chuckle a little inside. After all, it's been selling its Prius since 2000 and now has a massive amount of experience in engineering, building and maintaining hybrid cars. Cars like this seven seat Prius+. This car could only have been built with all of those years of knowledge. After all, so many manufacturers wrote hybrid cars off as a gimmick, an inelegant workaround or just something that would never be as commercially appealing as a good turbodiesel.
They've had to change their tune, Mercedes, Audi, Peugeot, Citroen, BMW and Porsche all now offering hybrid models, with many more car makers set to join the fray. Toyota's luxury arm, Lexus, had already demonstrated that there was a demand for bigger hybrid vehicles, so perhaps it shouldn't have come as a surprise to see an MPV like this arrive. After all, Toyota was the company that marketed the first mini-MPV, the Picnic, way back in 1995. It's got the most experience in building hybrids. A car like this was always going to happen.
So what makes this Prius+ so special? In short, it's all about the numbers. It can generate the sort of economy and emissions figures that are beyond even Toyota's entry level city cars. It really does feel as if the laws of physics have been bent and that we're somehow getting something for nothing. Sound good? Let's check out the top T Spirit version.
The heart of this Prius+ is Toyota's now very well developed Hybrid Synergy Drive system. It's been lifted from the existing Prius hatchback into this larger vehicle and instantly gives this car a massive advantage in terms of efficiency over any other MPV-style vehicle on offer. It features a 97bhp 1.8-litre petrol engine with VVT-i variable valve timing which, when complemented by an electric motor, creates a total power output of 134bhp. Now it won't have escaped your attention that the Prius+ is a significantly larger vehicle than the hatch, and while Toyota is capable of some very clever stuff, rewriting the laws of physics isn't one of their skills. So yes, it does feel a little slower on the draw than the hatch although not by as much as you'd imagine.
The torque of the electric motor does a good job of disguising the Prius+'s additional bulk. Although this is a wholly un-Prius thing to say, you'll be able to sprint this thing to 62mph in 11.8 seconds and run onto a top speed of 105mph. Those figures in a Prius hatch would be 10.4 seconds and 110mph which gives you an indication of the additional timber this thing is carrying - an additional 145kg to be exact, and a good deal more when you're seven up in the thing.
Design and Build
When Toyota announced the Prius+ I was expecting something boxy like the old Avensis Verso but with hybrid underpinning slung beneath it. I certainly wasn't expecting something quite this good looking.
Every seat in the Prius+ folds independently and those on the second row slide back and forth too. This makes access to the back seats surprisingly good for what isn't a massive vehicle. The seats step up in height as you move back, so while the view out is OK for the kids in the back, try to sit a tallish adult back here and you wouldn't be very popular.
Moving the battery to the centre tunnel also helps with space in the car, but you can't escape the fact that this is one of the smaller seven seat vehicles on the market. A Zafira Tourer it most certainly isn't. It also means that you don't get the sort of deep centre console storage you see in some cars, although there is some recompense in the shape of big door bins, an 8.5-litre glovebox, 4.5-litre upper glovebox and an accessory space on the side of the driver's seat.
With all seats in place, Prius+ has 200 litres of cargo space to the height of the parcel shelf. With the third row stowed, this figure rises to 500 litres and when all the rear seats are folded flat, a maximum 1,750 litres is available. There's also a 60-litre storage tray beneath the luggage deck which keeps your valuables out of sight or can be used for wet or dirty gear.
Market and Model
Prius+ pricing starts from around £27,000 for the T4 variant, but this range-topping T Spirit model will demand around £30,000 from you. Both are well equipped with even the T4 coming with 16-inch alloy wheels, Toyota Touch multimedia system,a six-speaker stereo with Bluetooth, rear view camera, head up display, a panoramic roof, automatic air con, rain sensing wipers and LED daytime running lights. That's quite an equipment list and it's worth bearing that in mind when you're price comparing against rivals.
Splash out for the T Spirit and you get 17-inch alloys, an 8 speaker JBL stereo, Bluetooth with traffic info, voice recognition with a text to speech function, leather upholstery throughout, and the quite wonderful Toyota Touch and Go system that incorporates an advanced sat nav with a whole host of multimedia and music library options.
Safety wise, you can expect to find anti-whiplash head restraints, twin front, side and curtain airbags plus a 'bag for the driver's knee, Isofix fittings for rear child seats, as well as the usual anti lock brakes with brake assist and brakeforce distribiution. There's also stability and traction control fitted as standard to all models.
Cost of Ownership
The Prius+ really does stand or fall on the basis of its cost of ownership. We know that it's a bit more expensive than its main rivals to buy, but can owners claw that back over a period of, say, four years and 80,000 miles? It's a close call actually. Business users will clearly be attracted to the ultra-low benefit in kind taxation, but this isn't going to be a major fleet model. I can see it appealing to a few user choosers who want a dual use vehicle that can do the family duties at the weekend and the work schlep in the week but most of this car's clientele will be private buyers.
At 38.7 pence per mile, the Prius+ compares square on with a Zafira Tourer 2.0 CDTi in comparable trim which weighs in between 38 and39 pence per mile. Factor in the better residual values of the Toyota and suddenly it doesn't look at all expensive. Day to day running costs are also nailed right down. In normal use, the T4 model will return 68.9 mpg while the bigger wheels of the T Spirit take the edge off that a smidgeon, that car getting 64.2mpg. Emissions are rated at 96g/km for the T4 and 101 for the T Spirit which may be key in the buying decision as it means the two cars are in different tax bands and only the T4 is exempt from the London congestion charge.
Early concerns about Prius battery durability have been shown to be completely unfounded by the legions of 300,000 mile private hire vehicles still running without a murmur. The batteries are zero maintenance items guaranteed for 8 years or 100,000 miles. Insurance? Both models are group 16 on the 1-50 ratings scale.
The Toyota Prius+ is an interesting vehicle. It's not one without flaws but it will certainly have niche appeal. You'd buy one if you like the look of a Prius but feel it might just be a bit limiting in terms of space. Don't buy one if you regularly pack a Zafira to the roof and fancy the lower running costs of a hybrid instead. It just doesn't have the space inside.
It's not very exciting to drive but that, in turn can be a big advantage when a lot of your time is spent nudging along in nose to tail traffic. It's soothing not to have an engine running, to glide along effortlessly on battery power and wholly civilised to be able to listen to the radio cocooned in silence.
As long as you can look past the relatively high purchase price, the Prius+ makes a lot of financial sense whether it's to business or private buyers, though if you regularly drive into the capital, the T Spirit variant may not be the right one to choose. Otherwise though, the top version of this top hybrid is a very tempting MPV package indeed.