The Prius has always been an engineering tour de force. What it hasn’t ever been, is a genuinely economical model in all conditions and in all markets. Designed mainly for tax laws in Japan and car pool lanes in Northern California, for European buyers Toyota‘s eco image poster child has never lived up to the hype. Until now.

The first thing to mention about this, the fourth generation car (project code: 680A), is that it looks like nothing else. Well, there’s one exception to that, which is the Toyota Mirai. Even people who don’t really look at cars may notice that the Mark 4 has changed a lot compared to the previous model; something you could also say about every Prius released since the 1997 original.

Styling I could talk about for multiple paragraphs but I won’t, this being a personal thing. Instead, what no-one can disagree about is the silence of this car, which is one of the most appealing aspects of all four generations of Toyota’s best selling hybrid vehicle. You get in, press a POWER button, once you take a few seconds trying to find it, as it is slightly awkwardly positioned below and to the right of the steering wheel. Here too are buttons for automatic parking, ESP off, HUD (heads up display on/off) and automatic high beam.

The distinctive curves of the exterior are reflected inside, with the tops of the front doors taking on an unusual form. The dash-top digital display no doubt saves TMC some money as it’s positioned centrally though the readouts would be switched for LHD markets – the speed is on the driver’s side and the clock and various warning lights are closer to the passenger. Some controls such as the heated seat buttons are curiously positioned almost out of sight below the dashboard on the transmission tunnel. 

A stubby lever for the CVT – blue, like the Power button and detailing applied to the Toyota logo on the tailgate, sits low in the centre of the console. It has R, N and D positions on the right and B (engine braking) down and to the left. So any time you are descending a hill, just slip it across and down and you can feel the car slowing and sending kinetic energy into storage.

The silvery white gloss plastic gear lever surround is matched by a big tray and cupholder recesses below it and these break up would be an otherwise dark grey interior, though the headliner in the review car was finished in a light plastic-foam material. TMC clearly wanted to address this potential criticism as there are further contrasts in the form of shiny black trim on the doors and around the infotainment screen.

A bad piece of design is hinging the central armrest on the passenger side, which means that this person can’t gain access to the cubby box without reaching awkwardly over the top of it. Also, unlike in some cars, it’s fixed: better if it slid fore and aft.

Compared to the old Prius, the new one is smooth at all times, with one exception, which is when you don’t want to use the foot brake. Let’s say you’re sitting at a standstill for a few seconds as you can see the lights will soon change, so you press a P button, though likely it isn’t intended to hold the car, as a slight jerk reminds you. So, best to use the proper brake and then press it down again with your left foot to release and away you go. If you want to use any recovered energy, touch the EV button, or else select Normal, Power or Eco from the control beside it. 

This is an expensive car in the UK and TME’s other regional markets but in Japan and the USA, it’s far more affordable (the press car had a list price of £27,450 before options, which is US$40,370). That creates a problem for buyers across Europe as some parts of the interior look as though they were designed down to a price: the grainy black plastic covering the B-pillars and scuff plates is hard while the same stuff on the door pockets somehow manages to feel flimsy. And the speaker covers aren’t too premium either, looking as though they were chiselled off a 1980s ghetto blaster.

The boot carpet should also be singled out for criticism. Its texture has all the charm and plushness of rubbish tip rats’ fur. Even more depressingly, lift the thin material and you are greeted by two large pieces of styrofoam into which have been cut channels for the wheel brace and associated gear for changing a flat tyre. But, there is no spare: just a kit. See my moan in the recent VW Golf 1.0 TSI review for the reasons why I find these puncture repair systems so abhorent. 

Rear head and legroom are terrific, and the boot, unlike that of most previous models, is very roomy. The tailgate rises unusually high too, so access is commendable. You also have good views out though I’m not sure that the split rear window works any better than the same did in the Honda CR-Z and first Citroen C4 three-door as the wiper can only clear part of the top glass. This is doubly bad as the way air is encouraged to flow down the sides and over the car – witness the channels in the metal – this lower window gets filthy from water thrown up by the tyres. These are from Yokohama’s low rolling resistance Blu Earth series and full marks to the Japanese Tier 1 for saving owners rim repair bills: these tyres have a ridge which will come into contact with a kerb before the wheel itself does. On the press car, the alloys were an especially attractive silver and black five-spoke design and these helped to make the Prius look almost sporty.

Despite my criticisms, I would have a Prius in a heartbeat, and that surprised me before I drove the car. The wildly revving noise of all previous models made for unpleasant aural progress but TMC’s engineers have clearly had a word with their CVT supplier and the transmission is now silent. Also, this is also the first Prius which I have found to be economical, the car returning an average of 58.1mpg. Most of my driving was at low speeds though I did put in some sprints on motorways. Clearly, the software calibration whereby the vehicle tries to run on the energy stored in its batteries as often as possible works. And even when the petrol engine fires up, it’s so quiet you can barely notice. OK, this is still not a car for enthusiasts but for anyone who can admire engineering excellence and spends much time in stop-start traffic, it’s a treat.

What’s next?

TMC has high hopes for 680A, the plug-in variant. It was formally presented to the Japanese media a few days and is due to be built by Toyota Motor Kyushu from October. Revealed back in March at the New York auto show, this car will debut in the USA for North America’s 2017 model year. The model name in that region is to be Prius Prime but in other markets, there are or will be all manner of names: Prius PHV (Japan), Prius PHEV, Prius Plug-in Hybrid, Prius Plug-In or Prius Rechargeable.

The car is 2.4 inches longer, 0.6 inches wider and about an inch lower than its predecessor. It also has quite different styling at its front and rear ends compared to the standard Prius. In Japan and Europe, the new model will have solar panels on its roof. These, Toyota claims, can increase the car’s range by up to 10%. The panels, which are laid on reinforced glass sheeting, prevent the Prius Prime from passing the USA’s rollover laws, so the solar roof won’t be available in that market. The car’s chief engineer says TMC does not yet have the technology to laminate the photovoltaic cells in a resin which won’t shatter in the event of a rollover. However, the OEM and its suppliers are working on a solution.

TMC is hoping to sell 60,000 units a year of the plug-in Prius. Of that total, roughly half should be in Japan and the other half in North America. Sales in other markets such as Europe should be marginal.

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