I’ve just spent six months with a new-generation Toyota Prius and I’ve learnt a thing or two in the process. The Prius is a pretty good place to have a good old think, because while it does have a pretty pumping stereo, it’s as quiet as a cathedral in traffic.

The first, not entirely happy lesson, is that when it comes to hybrids, motor manufacturers in South Africa still have a hell of a lot of educating to do. A lot of ordinary car-owning people — many of whom stopped me at rare moments in petrol stations, or in mall car parks — simply do not get this hybrid thing. Questions I’ve fielded more than once are: How long does it take to charge? Can you use it in the rain? Can you take it on a gravel road? Why don’t you just buy a diesel, they’re just as efficient?

When you explain that you just put petrol in it like an ordinary car, that it works in the rain, that it’s actually rather good on a gravel road because of its comfort-biased ride and tyres, and that in my experience it is at least 40% more efficient than the absolute best similar-sized turbo-diesels in an urban setting, eyebrows are raised.

It plays to the car’s reputation as being in some way compromised, a car that’s fuel-efficient but limited in other ways. My experience is that this is absolutely not the case. Not only has the Parker Prius done the urban humdrum home-school-office-school-home-office-shops-home thing, it’s also done hundreds of kilometers on hot and dusty gravel roads in the Boland and the Karoo, survived a wet and wild Cape winter and has done plenty of long freeway journeys. In other words, it’s a car, and we’ve used it like one.

The second lesson is that it can still be divisive. I’ve had a few dirty looks and a couple of aggressively revved V8s from folks who think that such a car is breaking some law of petrolhead-dom. Very few people have no opinion at all about the Prius. Nobody has ever driven one, though.

The third lesson has been that luxury expresses itself in different ways. The Prius is nice enough inside but let’s be honest, it’s not an S-Class. It also lacks certain toys, such as satellite navigation, and while it’s never in any way let us down, it’s no ball of fire either. However, at the end of a long day there is something nice about getting into something this unusual and quiet. There’s a lot to be said for having to fill a car up maybe eight or 10 times a year, depending on the kind of mileage you do, and, additionally, I think I’ve seen more McLarens and Maseratis on Cape Town’s roads than Priuses.

The fourth lesson is that it might not be as ugly as everyone says it is. I’ve had plenty of complimentary comments. One fellow said it reminded him of a 50s Cadillac.

The fifth lesson is that it’s a pretty big car. It is, for example, just 19cm lower and 11cm shorter than a BMW X3, a car I’ve chosen because it is a lovely, sensible family car you see a lot of on our roads. This isn’t a little eco-bubble, it’s a proper good-sized family motor. Even the boot is capacious, itself less than 50l short of the capacity of the same X3. It’s comfortable too.

The Prius was the first car to be launched on something called the TNGA, or Toyota New Global Architecture, a scalable platform that’s good enough to carry the soon-to-arrive in SA Toyota CH—R and, no doubt, much more to follow. And, dare I say it, power limitations of the drivetrain notwithstanding, you can feel this quality in the corners. The Prius is a good, nimble car. So, then, an uncompromised, entirely usable family car, no smaller or less useful than a Camry or a Corolla or what-have-you, and at least as good to drive

It's just so fuel-efficient. I have tried, repeatedly, to come close to what the Prius achieves in various diesel and petrol cars. Our rattly 10-year-old diesel Jeep Commander averages about 17l/100km on an average school-run day. A BMW 435i did 15l/100km. A diesel Kia Soul returned around 9l/100km. A (smaller) Volvo V40 D3 did about 8.3l/100km. Such is the difficulty of our commute (up and down Kloof Nek, wiggling through Gardens and Oranjezicht, crawling through the CBD, and then do it all again backwards) that nothing else — even those little three-cylinder one-litre turbo motors you find in various Fords and Opels — can manage under 10l/100km.

Except the Prius, that is, which does it all at around 5.2l/100km, and which then laughs in the face of freeway runs and returns the silliest numbers. A trundle to the Southern suburbs and back the other day cost me 4.2l/100km.

That takes me to the sixth lesson. I’m a huge car far, an unreconstructed petrolhead. I love a V12 like the rest of them. But these are almost entirely useless things in Cape Town’s abysmal traffic. My average speed since taking over the car has been 18km/h. Ain’t nobody burning rubber in this town.

A final learning after six months in the Prius is that Prius owners love their cars and can become evangelical. I have to admit; I feel the urge too. But it’s not a perfect car. It is, to me, a funny-looking thing and it lacks overtaking shunt. But it does, without the shadow of a doubt, offer a stunningly practical answer to urban realities. As a second car it makes a pretty strong argument for itself. So, go test-drive one. You might surprise yourself.


Alexander Parker is Group Motoring Editor, TMG.

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