TOYOTA has been ploughing a furrow for hybrid electric and petrol power since the last century.
Only Honda among the mass producers has been doing its bit. Purely electric power sounds good, maybe sounds good in the showroom, too, but one trade analyst tells me that despite £5,000 grants, UK sales have yet to reach four figures and only 150 or so have been sold to Joe & Jane Public. Demand for the trio of small electric cars made by Mitsubishi for itself and Citroen and Peugeot has gone down the plughole. Huge discounts are being offered to make the lofty retail price palatable.
Nissan won the car of the year title at the end of 2010 with its all-electric Leaf. Renault grabbed the technology for its Fluence EV saloon (flawed by the battery intrusion in the boot and handling to match) and the more practical Kangoo EV van. I have yet to see any of these cars on the road, other than press demonstrators.
The private buyer needs either a bomb-proof household electrical system or to fork out £1,000 for a dedicated charging post. All this is supposing the range between charges of 70 or 80 miles is sufficient.
Against this background the Vauxhall Ampera (& twinned Chevrolet Volt), which won the current Car of the Year gong, seems more sensible. It has battery power, with a small petrol motor to recharge the battery. It means you will not come to a halt unless you run out of petrol.
Toyota’s Prius range (and the big brothers in the Lexus range) use the car’s petrol engine to top up the battery too, but unlike the Ampera they will not run far on electric power alone. Say a few miles. The exception is the Prius Plug-In, with a mains rechargeable battery which can give around 15 miles on electric power, subject to there being no steep hills without corresponding declines to reboost the battery.
Toyota’s other new hybrid is the Prius+. It is a confusing name. If it was called the Prius + 2 or the Grand Prius you’d get the clue that it is a seven seater. It makes a decent job of that, with two chairs lifting easily out of the boot floor, and head restraints long enough to compensate for the low backs. The centre three seats slide so you can adjust all the seats to fit in seven average adults.
The rest is latest Prius technology, the 1.8 petrol engine and the electric motor feeding through an integrated CVT gearbox.
So far it is the world’s only seven-seater hybrid and unless I needed those extra seats and wanted a hybrid I’d give it a swerve. The CVT gears drone, the suspension crashes about on lumpy roads (i.e. the roads most of us drive on) and the handling is dull.
On the “plus” side at 96g/km the £26,195 entry model is the only seven seater exempt from the annual road tax and the London congestion zone charge and over extensive mileage including lots and lots of motorway driving it gave 55 miles a gallon. Its official average is nudging 69mpg. «
Verdict: Yes, that was £26,195. Slow, noisy and no fun to drive, but it seats seven and has the economy of a diesel without the toxic pollution of a poorly maintained oiler