When the original Prius and its Honda rival, the Insight, were first launched, many were impressed with their technology and green credentials. Using an electric motor to augment or temporarily replace a conventional petrol engine was a great idea. Unfortunately both cars were rather compromised, the Honda by its 'squeezed from a toothpaste tube' styling and impractical two-seater layout and the Toyota by its dull driving manners, cramped cabin and distinctly lacklustre lines.
Toyota's second generation Prius changed all that and gave the company leadership in this sector. It was improved in early 2006 with changes to the styling of its headlamps and rear light clusters and a restyled front grille. Inside the cabin, comfort for passengers was enhanced, with an adjustment to the hip point for those sitting in the back. Post-2006 buyers also got smarter upholstery colours, a soft-touch paint finish for the dashboard and the introduction of a leather-trimmed steering wheel across the range. Fresh options for '06-onwards cars included full leather trim, new metallic paint finishes and, on T Spirit models, a rear parking monitor and Intelligent Parking Assist (IPA).
The MK2 Prius mirrors the first generation model's technique of being able to run on its petrol engine and then switch to exclusively electric operation when conditions are favourable. Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive offers impressive emissions and strong fuel economy performance for a car that in MK2 form competes in the Avensis-sized Mondeo sector. Sometimes the Prius' silent running takes a little getting used to, but under many high-density traffic situations, this car offers totally emissions-free motoring.
High tech models often have a tendency to produce a few glitches, but the Prius has been remarkably trouble free, Toyota ironing out some of the quirks that afflicted the original car. The skinny tyres wear rather quickly and the regenerative brakes take a little getting used to, but apart from that a fully stamped up service history should see you fine. Most examples should be very well looked after but some will have been used primarily as urban scoots (they neatly sidestep the London congestion charge) and as such may well bear the scars of life on the streets.
(approx based on a 2004 Prius) Toyota parts once had a reputation for costliness, and spares for a 'specialist' vehicle like the Prius would once have had you hiding behind the sofa. The news now is much better, an exhaust costing around £375 and a replacement headlamp will be in the region of £170.
A more powerful 50-kilowatt motor that operates at higher voltages offers 50 per cent more electric power than the Mk1 Prius, while sleek aerodynamics and an efficient petrol engine mean the car will accelerate to 60mph in less than 11 seconds, peak power being rated at 113bhp. That's comparable with a number of leading diesel cars but fuel economy is far in excess of what even the most parsimonious medium range diesel can manage, the MK2 Prius bettering 56mpg in town. Carbon dioxide emissions are rated in the lowest possible banding.
Much of the same could be said about the MK1 Prius, but during its six-year life, Toyota only shifted 110,000 worldwide - a number which represents an average UK annual sales figure for the Ford Focus. The Mk2 Prius proved to be far more successful - to the point where for most of the model's early UK sales life, demand far exceeded supply. Buyers responded well to the sharky coupe-like styling and a neat front end. Yes, the wheels look a little too small but the shape will no longer mark you down as some sort of bearded eco-warrior. With split folding rear seats and a hatchback, it's even agreeably practical, the body boasting a drag coefficient of 0.26.
The Prius is the first car to feature a fully electronic 'brake by wire' system. Mercedes had dabbled with this set-up but Toyota offer a more sophisticated arrangement that allows for the brakes to recharge the battery packs under braking. Customers have been traditionally wary of these techniques, preferring to squirt some goo up a pipe instead, all the while conveniently ignoring the fact that their steering is probably electronically controlled. Kudos to Toyota for sticking their neck out and offering a system that may some day find its way into all cars.
The innovation doesn't stop there. As well as a push-button ignition system, the Prius also features a by-wire gearshift system that dispenses with the traditional floor-mounted gear lever. Instead the Prius opts for a dashboard-mounted joystick that drivers tap back and forth to shuttle through the gears. It's easy to operate, it looks funky and it frees up a little more space inside the car. A novel electrically operated air conditioning system also debuted in this Prius. Unlike conventional set-ups that draw their power from the engine's fan belt, this system can provide an uninterrupted supply of chilled air, even when the petrol engine has shut down in favour of the electric motor.
If you visit Central London on a regular basis, the Prius is probably the best car you can buy. Otherwise the picture is a little more mixed. It's still the most convincing petrol/electric hybrid car out there but if you're looking to save money on fuel, you'd probably be better served going for a modern diesel family hatch. Environmental considerations aside, the Prius has a tough time making a case for itself. Still, factor in its green credentials and it could be just the ticket.