The new Toyota Prius is just about the cleverest car on sale on the planet. Its hybrid petrol/electric powertrain is the result of brilliantly clever engineering and it is constructed using a number of cutting-edge technologies.
The Prius makes good old steel-bodied cars using engines which solely burn fuel seem archaic in comparison.
Driving this car should make you feel a little bit condescending to other road users, as you seep out emissions while the rest of the traffic belches along. With 104g/km of carbon dioxide the Prius can certainly claim to be remarkably clean for its size, and with combined economy of 65.7mpg it will sip fuel if you drive it in the right way in the right conditions. Toyota reckons the Prius will expel a tonne less CO2 a year than a very clean diesel car.
Its NOx levels barely register. Toyota claims they are 96% below the Euro IV level of diesel cars. So you can let these impressive figures scroll through your increasingly smug mind as you drive along.
The battery motor is one of the most advanced in a consumer-available car. It is as powerful as many 1.2-litre petrol engines and, Toyota claims, is the most powerful motor for its size and weight in the world. When you pull up at traffic lights, the petrol engine automatically switches off and a gentle getaway will use only electric power.
Then there's the aerodynamics, which are class- leading, although subjectively speaking the wind-cheating shape has imbued it with all the stylistic elegance of a video remote control. So the list of technology boasts goes on and on, and rightly so.
So why don't I like it? The problem is that despite its intelligence, it falls short on common sense in a number of areas. The powertrain is a staggeringly clever piece of kit and has more than acceptable acceleration, but the whine of the electric motor kicking in – it sounds like a baritone sewing machine – to give the petrol engine some assistance at cruising speeds can get a bit wearing.
On a very laid-back 150-mile round trip up and down the A1, A14 and M11, the car reported it had been running an average of 45.2mpg. You could get this in a diesel without trying, and yet I was consciously driving as efficiently as possible. It would seem that the old Prius' problem of getting nowhere near its claimed combined figure is still not resolved.
Having drive-by-wire brakes is very clever and energy efficient, but the brake feel is poor. Mercedes-Benz has had the same problem with its by-wire braking system.
Building in any feeling of progression instead of something not far from an on-off switch is very difficult.
You would also get the same sort of steering feel if you went down the local arcade and played video games. Combine this non-existent relationship between road and wheel with a jittery ride which seems to make a real fuss of small bumps, and the Prius is not particularly relaxing on a motorway cruise.
I wondered before writing this test whether I should make allowances for shortcomings, but the Prius is a serious piece of kit at £18,000, and should be matched against any other vehicle of its price. Having said that, it's easy to pick faults because Toyota has stuck its head above the parapet with hybrid development, while others have shied away. And you have to applaud the firm for that.
This car is much better to use than its predecessor and will find many homes with green-minded motorists. But measured against the current crop of upper-medium cars in day-to-day use, it falls short.
Delivered price, standard car (P11D value): £18,192
CO2 emissions (g/km): 104
BIK % of P11D in 2004/05: 11%
Graduated VED rate: £65
Insurance group: 8
Combined mpg: 65.7
CAP Monitor residual value: £5,575/31%
Depreciation (20.29 pence per mile x 60,000): £12,174
Maintenance (2.16 pence per mile x 60,000): £1,296
Fuel (5.90 pence per mile x 60,000): £3,540
Wholelife cost (28.35 pence per mile x 60,000): £17,010
Typical contract hire rate: £394 per month
Three rivals to consider
The P11d prices of these cars are fairly evenly matched, but if a driver is looking at them as a guide to tax cost, don't bother. The Prius has such a massive tax advantage over the others that the price doesn't really matter. Also there is a £1,000 PowerShift grant with the Prius. It comes with cruise control and the crowd-pleasing touch-screen information panel, although without satellite navigation. The Avensis and Primera do have sat-nav, but elsewhere the cars are similarly specced.
Toyota Avensis £18,040
Toyota Prius £18,192
Unconventional cars such as the Prius often scare fleets, concerned that running costs are going to be as astronomical as the ambition of the car-maker. But Toyota is nothing if not dependable when it comes to reliability and servicing costs and the Prius comes an impressive joint first here with the Primera. In truth, none of these cars will cost the earth to run, at about £1,300 over three years/60,000 miles.
Toyota Prius 2.16ppm
Toyota Avensis 2.25ppm
There was only ever going to be one winner in this category thanks to the Toyota's clever fuel-saving technology. If the cars hit their respective claimed combined economy figures (although we are doubtful if the Prius will in everyday running), the hybrid Toyota would cost £1,500 less in fuel than the most expensive, the Primera, over three years/ 60,000 miles. Such is its lead that even a Prius returning an average of about 50mpg would still be the equal or better, of the others.
Toyota Prius 5.90ppm
Toyota Avensis 7.95ppm
Depreciation costs There is not much in it when it comes to depreciation between the Vectra, Prius and Primera, with all hovering around the 20 pence per mile mark. The Avensis has a comfortable lead and would lose about £800 to £900 less than the Vectra. However, the Prius could be a dark horse. It must be very difficult to set future values for a car with very little precedent and such unconventional technology, so it could end up performing much better in three years. And remember the £1,000 PowerShift grant when you register the Prius.
Toyota Avensis 18.63ppm
Toyota Prius 20.29ppm
It is starting to look a bit of a two horse race here, and both runners come from the same stable. The two Toyotas deliver good solid wholelife costs. That's not really anything to sing from the rooftops about in the case of the diesel Avensis, but the fact that the Prius, with all of its innovation and inventiveness, should do so well is mightily impressive. Can this model finally crack the conservative fleet market and overcome buyer scepticism over hybrid technology?
Toyota Prius 28.35ppm
Toyota Avensis 28.83ppm
Emissions and BIK tax rates
The same two at the top again. The Prius is there thanks to some of the lowest vehicle emissions in the world, and would cost a company car driver in the 22% income tax bracket £37 a month in 2004/2005. The Avensis is a distant second at £56 a month, but still ahead of the other two by a margin, thanks to its Euro IV-compliant diesel engine which avoids the 3% diesel supplement. The non-Euro IV Primera and Vectra are even higher at £69 and £78 respectively.
Toyota Prius 104g/km/11%
Toyota Avensis 155g/km/17%
I wouldn't choose the Prius because I don't like the way it looks – like a reject from Blake's 7 – and I don't like the insipid driving experience. I'd have the Avensis, but I don't run a fleet. If I did, I would offer the drivers the option of both as they complement each other beautifully – conservative and radical, both offering good wholelife costs. No one car is an outright winner here, particularly as the trade is still sceptical about hybrids – but Toyota wins the test.