Toyota Prius

The Toyota Prius has been an extremely successful car for two particular reasons. The first is that it is seen by many people as an extremely 'green' vehicle; and secondly it is very economical to run. Not only does it have excellent fuel economy but it also benefits from lower road tax rates. It is expensive to buy from new but since a lot of them have been sold, and there is now heavy competition in the hybrid market, prices for used cars are very reasonable.

There are two basic designs; a hybrid, pure and simple, and a plug–in model.

Is it powerful?

Well, the hybrid model doesn't just have one method of propulsion, but two. The first is a 1.8 litre petrol engine which is beautifully smooth and balanced. On top of that there is an electric motor. Between them they produce 123 brake horse power . Zero to 62 mph takes 10.6 seconds; not bad but there are many faster cars; and top speed is around 112 mph. This car was not designed, however, for speed as much as economy.

The plug-in version actually has an additional electric motor; this can offer a range of up to about 39 miles, and up to 84 mph, on electrical power alone. Switch to hybrid mode and it runs on a mixture of electrical power and petrol again.

Is it good to drive?

It takes a little getting used to at first. It is rather unnerving to put pressure on the throttle of a car whose engine is not running, and feeling it move smoothly and silently on its electric motor! When that's been overcome, however, it is easy to drive and quite comfortable. It has a low, curved bonnet which provide excellent forward visibility. The standard hybrid can seat five people but this drops to four in the plug-in version, as both internal space and boot space are sacrificed to make room for the additional batteries.

Is it economical?

How does around 90 miles to the gallon sound? Plus, with a manufacturer's five-year warranty your three-year-old purchase should still have another couple of years of trouble-free motoring at least. One of the major advances that was introduced with the Prius was a system of generating electrical power from the braking system. Although the vehicle is primarily driven by petrol this also charges up the batteries which can take over when it is more economical to run on electrical power. However, during braking additional power is fed into the batteries, giving an even greater range. To put the icing on the cake, the aerodynamic shape of the car cuts down wind resistance, and therefore fuel consumption, considerably.

Is it reliable?

It is not unusual for cars at the cutting edge of technology to show teething problems. The Prius has been no exception to this rule and the following faults have been recorded:

1) some vehicles suffered from power loss caused by overheating within the inverter assembly. This caused the vehicle to enter a 'fail safe' mode in which it should still be capable of being driven for a while under reduced power. However it was also possible for the hybrid system to shut down completely, causing the vehicle to come to a halt.

2) welding problems on a side airbag inflater were found to have cracks which could potentially inflate the airbag.

3) there was a possibility of a fuel leak in vehicles with a full tank because of potential faults with a fuel evaporative emission control unit.

4) running on the electric motor under stress conditions; for instance up a long, steep hill; could cause a fuse to blow which could result in greatly reduced power or even a complete stoppage.

All these above faults should have been repaired already under warranty; but it may be just as well to check.

Should I buy one?

New ones are expensive. Second hand ones are much less so. You would get first-class economy in a comfortable car which was easy to drive. The performance, however, could be considered adequate rather than mind blowing so if you are a speed freak it is not for you. However, those who wish to save money and also help the environment at the same time may find this car the perfect transport for their purposes.