Ministers abandon Jaguars for green and trendy Toyota

It is the vehicle of choice for Hollywood A-listers such as Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz ­ and now cabinet ministers are being issued with the hi-tech, environmentally friendly car that can cut pollution and beat the congestion charge.

Ministerial Rovers and Jaguars are being replaced with the Toyota Prius, a "hybrid" car runs on both a petrol and an electric engine ­ the two working in tandem.

At lower speeds, the Prius automatically switches engines to run purely on electricity, thus red- ucing carbon dioxide emissions and saving money on fuel.

Since it was launched as the first mass-produced hybrid car in 1997, the Prius has begun to eclipse the militaristic Humvee as the ultimate must-have status symbol for pop-culture stars ­ especially those who would like to project a green-conscious image.

Among those to own one are Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez, Gwyneth Paltrow and Dustin Hoffman.

Charlize Theron and Orlando Bloom also jettisoned the customary stretch limo to arrive at this year's Oscars in a chauffeur-driven Prius, although their green credentials were slightly marred by the fact that they arrived in one each rather than sharing the journey.

Eight ministers in the Labour government have so far taken delivery of the £17,000, five-door hatchbacks since the Government Car Service began offering them as an alternative to traditional marques.

The vehicles, which come with their own self-recharging batteries, have been purchased in an attempt to meet a Cabinet Office target of achieving a year-on-year reduction in C02 emissions from the 80-strong fleet of government cars.

The Prius has a futuristic concave roof and significantly lower C02 emissions than other cars.

They emit 104g per km ­ less than half the amount of some other five-door cars. At low speeds and when stuck in traffic jams the car automatically switches to electric.

When the petrol engine is being used on the motorway and at higher speeds, the car automatically recharges itself. In the place where most drivers have their CD, the cars have a state-of-the-art monitor, showing when the vehicle's in-built battery needs to be recharged.

The Environment minister Elliot Morley is an enthusiastic convert to the Prius.

"It's excellent," he said. "When you accelerate, the petrol engine kicks in with the electric battery so you get good acceleration.

"It's also really quiet. The downside is when you are driving, people can't hear it coming. I almost ran over someone in the House of Lords who didn't know I was there."

Ministers say that the cars will symbolically be driven at the G8 summit at Gleneagles in July when climate change will be high on the agenda. And the green technology means that the Prius is exempt from the London congestion charge.

So far, 1,000 models have been sold in the UK this year, and Toyota expects to sell 3,000 by 2006. Such is their popularity that the waiting list for delivery of the latest model is two months.

Toyota, which makes the automobile and is planning to develop a hybrid petrol-electric 4x4 vehicle, said it was "very pleased ministers are using our cars",said a spokeswoman. "They are setting an example on the environment."

However, some ministers may take a little more convincing about the benefits of a Prius. The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, otherwise known as "Two Jags" because of his favoured vehicle, is still in possession of a Jaguar limousine.