When three automotive journalists collectively can't figure out how to start a car, the prospects are a bit worrying, at least for the magazine they work for (that is, the one you're holding). Rohin said 'I started it in the morning, but I don't remember how.' I gave it a go, with no result. Aneesh, meanwhile, was highly amused by the goings-on and was busy making videos on his cellphone, no doubt to post on YouTube. To cut a long and embarrassing story short, I sat in that car scratching my head until I discovered that you have to step on the accelerator to fire up the IC engine, which cuts out after warming up, and then step on it again to get it moving - at start up and very low speeds, the Prius switches to its electric motor, because said motor is far more efficient at providing the sort of torque needed than an IC engine. I reveal to you these details of my ignorant bumbling because many Prius first-timers are likely to do exactly the same thing – no, really.
The Prius needs no introduction, by now. It's the world's largest-selling hybrid, and it was the best-selling car in Japan last year, bar none. Last heard, it was the 13th-best selling car in the USA, where it's a favourite of the Hollywood brigade, and now it's here, in a country that could most certainly use vehicles that emit less noxious fumes. I'm not going to go into too much detail about its hybrid technology, except the basics. There's a 1.8-litre, 100 bhp, 14.5 kgm petrol engine, turning an 80 bhp, 21 kgm electric motor (there's actually two, one for propulsion and the other a generator) which charges a 36 bhp, nickel-metal hydride battery, for a combined hybrid system net output of 134 bhp. The hybrid system monitors when it's appropriate to use IC power and when the battery should kick in, and you can manually select options as well. That's really all you need to know. As for us, we drew up a long list of the things you wouldn't (and shouldn't) do with a Prius, and then promptly went and did some of them. HEAD FOR THE HILLS
A hill-climb in a Prius? Well, there's a nice hill outside Mumbai that we use quite often, so why the heck not? Off we went, then, and I drew up at the bottom of the hill. The 2010 Prius has mode selector switches on its console, allowing you to choose between 'Power”, 'Eco' and 'EV' (battery only, usable only up to 55 kph and if the battery has enough charge) modes, and the first run was with the aircon running and the Prius in Power mode, which significantly boosts throttle response in the midrange. Standing on the gas pedal produced a satisfying amount of wheelspin, as the planetary-type CVT swung into action and the instant-on torque of the electric motor helped fling the car forward. As I raced up the hill, I was genuinely impressed by the suspension's behaviour around corners (the Prius shares its platform with the Corolla, among other Toyota products) – there was very little body roll, the car stayed relatively flat and true even through sharp bends and I even managed to get it to shake its butt a little. Tail out in a Prius - whodathunk?
The electric power steering was marginally too light, but still provided very acceptable levels of feedback and sharpness, and I was never in any doubt that the car would go where I pointed it. I completed the climb in 4 minutes 15 seconds, a respectable time, and the car did the course in 4 minutes 25 seconds in Eco mode, where throttle response is reduced in order to maximise economy. So, it ain't an Ariel Atom, but can you have fun in a Prius? Yes, you can – and we're surprised too.
LIFE'S A DRAG
When you have a fuel-saving, low-emission, eco-conscious car on your hands, the most natural thing in the world is to find a suitable piece of land and drag it against a Mercedes-Benz with a 2.5 litre V6 engine producing 204 bhp. We're all nuts here, but even I had a few doubts about the legitimacy of the exercise as I lined the Prius up, in Power mode, with a grinning Rohin in the Merc. The imaginary Christmas lights lit up, we both floored our respective throttles and... the Prius, with both its motors spinning furiously, actually nosed ahead of the Merc for a bit, before the German's outright power blew the Toyota away. For the record, the Prius did a standing quarter mile in XXXX seconds, which isn't half bad. In Power mode, it did the 0-60 and 0-100 kph dashes in 5.7 and 11.7 seconds respectively, which puts it in the Corolla/Fiesta 1.6 S ballpark.
With the throttle floored, we saw 190 kph on the speedo, which is better than some sedans out there. This much is clear, then – the Prius will hold its own against and out-perform most cars in India today. The problem is, it does so in such a clinical, hyper-efficient way that there's no seat-of-the-pants feel to speak of. Sure, you'll get to 190 kph, but you won't have the pleasure of hearing an engine hit its redline, or the thrill of dropping a couple of gears and blowing past an offending vehicle. All you get is the drone of the CVT, which, over a long distance, is lulling to the point of being soporific – it's like driving the world's fastest hair-dryer. There's also a fair amount of tyre and wind noise at speed, owing to some sound-deadening having been removed to reduce weight. When you need to stop, the brakes will do the job well enough (don't worry, the Prius sold here isn't part of the global brake-related recall), but the pedal is so devoid of feel that initially, you're not quite sure of the amount of braking force you need to apply – and during emergency braking from 100 kph, the Prius' rear end fishtailed momentarily. Overall, though, this is as sound a car as any.
THE ROUGH STUFF
The Prius was built primarily for civilised city and highway use, so the obvious place to test its suspension and ride quality was an off-road course, with plenty of dust, rocks, undulations and a water body. On the smooth tarmac leading to the course, the Prius rode as well as can be expected of a car sharing the Corolla's platform – that is, it was comfortable without being too soft and springy. Minor bumps and potholes were largely kept out, but the car did thud through some larger craters. On the course, it was quite sure-footed in the powdery dust and, although I heard a few sickening crunches, nothing actually happened to the underbody (I hope). I came very close to yumping it as well, abandoning the plan at the last moment when I realised that although the Prius would make the yump, it would land in a water body, leading to my death by drowning and possibly electrocution. Still, at least you know you can elevate the Prius if you want to – but you can't hold us responsible for the aftermath.
Back on tarmac, the Prius is a comfortable, spacious car to be in, with plenty of leg and head room and supportive leather seats. The driving position is ergonomic, with controls falling easily to hand. You get an impressive complement of goodies and safety equipment – a decent music system with an AUX port, electrically adjustable mirrors (you have to shut them manually, though), steering-mounted controls, a heads-up display, lots of cubbyholes for storage, airbags and so forth. The cabin's a cross between a Corolla and an Innova, with acceptable levels of trim and plastic quality. Is it a Rs 30 lakh cabin, though? Not by a long shot. There's a huge hatch space too, to stow pretty much anything. A practical, everyday car, then? Very much so, especially if you're the sort who believes that a Rs 30 lakh hatchback is a practical buy.
I have seldom seen a man more perplexed than the fellow manning the PUC van we stopped at. Having stuck the measuring device into the Prius' exhaust and observed the reading, he scratched his head and said '<I>Iss mein toh carbon hai hi nahin<I>' ('there's no carbon in this at all'). In fact, he wrote a figure of 0.4 per cent (against the permissible CO limit of 0.5 per cent) on the certificate, until he realised the reading was actually 0.04 per cent. Needless to say, the Prius came in under the other parameters by whopping margins. What we have here is a car in which all that technology really works when it comes to reducing emissions, not to mention increasing fuel economy. The Prius returned almost 17 kpl during our test, and this in Power mode with the loud pedal floored most of the time – for a car of its size and weight, that's brilliant. With more gentle use, there's absolutely no doubt you'll get figures upwards of 20 kpl. Of course, a well-driven Fiesta diesel can match those figures, but I'm just being fussy here.
All right, we didn't actually paint the Prius in Gulf colours, but there's no reason it can't be done. By itself, it's a... well... it's, er... 'interesting' looking. That hopeful SLK-like power bump on the hood and the double-bubble roof can't hide the fact that the Prius isn't the world's most eye-catching car (to be fair, it looks a damn sight better than some other cars sold here). You'll certainly get looks if you're in one, but they'll be more curious than admiring. Still, it looks the way it does out of necessity, because it needs to be as aerodynamic as possible. If we bought one, we'd pimp it out for sure – there's no reason why you can't be green and sporty at the same time. In the end, though, the question is this – would you buy a Toyota hatchback for roughly Rs 2 lakh less than a Mercedes-Benz C-Class, simply to save on petrol and cut emissions? Frankly, I don't know if there's a definitive answer to that question – if you buy a Prius, you probably have a Merc stashed away in the garage anyway. What I can say is that the Prius is a unique, stand-out automobile which deserves high praise – get used to it, because it's the future. Skeptical? Porsche just announced a hybrid 911 GT3, and the next Ferrari will be a hybrid.