Our cars: Toyota Prius+ - November
Week ending November 30
Driven this week: 75 miles
As a city-dweller with two young children, I've been looking forward to the arrival of our Toyota Prius+ MPV. As the name suggests, it offers the economy of hybrid technology but with a slightly taller roof, a bigger boot and, folding up from under the boot floor, two more seats that make the Prius+ the world's first hybrid seven-seater. What's more, the middle row comprises three same-sized seats that individually slide, recline or fold, with Isofix points on the two outer middle-row seats.
Like the standard Prius, the Prius+ combines a battery-powered electric motor with a 1.8 petrol engine. However, the Prius+ uses a more compact Lithium-ion battery that's housed under a console between the front seats. Quite how efficient this battery proves on my daily commute in London traffic I have yet to discover, but the results from our True MPG tests look promising, with a figure of 58.7mpg compared to the car's official average of 64.2mpg. That's better than any diesel family car's return and the Prius+ doesn't give off the nitrous oxides and particulates that cause health problems in built-up areas. This is why it's our 2012 Green MPV of the Year.
Our Prius+ comes in the higher 'T Spirit' trim. Over the lower 'T4', this adds an uprated touch-screen stereo with more speakers, plus sat-nav with internet connectivity, and black leather seats. Given that T4 cars can add the same sat nav system for £850 and leather seats for £1700, that effectively means you're paying an extra £750 for the better stereo; whether you think it's worth the extra is up to you. Mind you, even T4 cars are extremely well equipped, including Bluetooth, electric rear windows and a head-up display. There's a host of active safety features, too, plus seven airbags (it's disappointing, though, that curtain airbags don't reach to the rearmost pair of seats).
Driving the Prius+ has taken some getting used to. To drive on electric power alone, conditions have to be just right – mainly when there's enough charge in the battery. This means driving as smoothly and gently as possible so that the petrol engine kicks in only when it's really needed. I had expected this to be frustrating on my busy school run, but in fact the Prius has forced me to chill out a bit, which is no bad thing.
That said, extra oomph it's always available: combined with the seamless CVT automatic gearbox, the petrol engine is pretty quick to develop decent power. A 'Power' button increases the throttle response even more, though I've only needed this when joining fast roads or overtaking.
On the whole I've been driving in 'Eco' mode, which develops power slowly but steadily and reduces power to the air-con system. There's also an 'EV' (electric vehicle) button which activates the electric motor only, as long as there's enough charge available.
The Prius' has its limits for city driving, however. While the steering is pretty accurate and the car handles nicely, there's a touch too much travel in the steering wheel, which makes swift cornering a bit off-putting and means fiddly manoeuvres can be labour-intensive. What's more, the reversing camera is no help at all when reversing – there are neither guidelines to help you make sense of its distorted fish-eye image nor any audible sensors, which seems like a big oversight for a car whose hybrid technology works particularly well round town. On the plus side, the rear of the car is almost flat and the rear windscreen is a decent size, so I'm getting used to reversing it without using the camera at all.
The Prius+ is performing its family-ferrying duties well so far. The door sills just low enough for my boys, aged four and 18 months, to see over, and the panoramic roof helps brighten the dark interior. The boot is on the shallow side (it has to accommodate those rear seats, after all), but it's as long and wide as many smaller estate cars'. However, I doubt whether I'll be using the rearmost seats very often because this will mean having to fiddle to remove one of my kids' child seats to provide access. For me in particular, this turns the Prius+ into more of a hybrid estate car, but it's no less useful for that and, with any luck, will prove effective for lowering my fuel bills round town.