The Prius started off in a class of one. And now here it is, into its fourth generation, and what are the cars it has to beat? Conventional non-hybrid hatchbacks.
Hatchbacks like the Mazda 3 1.5 Skyactiv-D SE-L Nav and VW Golf 1.0 TSI Match Bluemotion Edition against which it’s tested here. That’s a diesel and a small three-pot petrol, so both are like the Prius in that they aim to keep the emissions down and the fuel efficiency up.
The Prius we have here is the 1.8 VVT-i Active. But what matters most is that this latest version of Toyota’s iconic green car aims to take a quantum leap forward in terms of how it is to drive.
It manages, too. Without becoming anything like a hot hatch, it’s more precise and responsive as well as having a smoother ride to go with the refined hush of its hybrid powertrain. This, too, is better matched to its CVT gearbox than before, though it still works best when you’re being gentle on the gas.
So it’s a distinctive ‘engine’, and the Prius is like nothing else inside, too. It’s chic and modern, high on tech and well provided for in terms of space, so long as you don’t try carrying anyone too tall in the back.
The Golf, meanwhile, is the classiest of the group, as you might expect, with a feeling of stoutness and strength to go with a design that makes the best use of the space available. Quality and practicality are write large throughout.
Coming behind VW’s best is no disgrace. And the Mazda 3 is well enough built to pass muster. But it’s neither as comfy nor as pleasing in terms of perceived quality to compete here.
What it does have is good, well controlled handling, making it a nice car to drive when you’re in the mood for fun. This comes at the expense of an unsettled ride, though, and while the diesel engine heaves it along well enough it needs a bit of a boot to get it going – and when you do that, the decibel level goes up too.
Ride and refinement are, by contract, two of the Golf’s strong suits. In fact, more or less everything about the way it drives is a strong suit. Its engine isn’t too noisy, despite being the smallest here, however it is the quickest – as well as being the most engaging to steer and handle. If you like driving, it would be very hard to choose either of the others.
And we do like driving. So we like the Golf. We like sitting in it, putting stuff in it, driving it… it’s an all-round champion, and we like that about it too.
Not that this is a one-horse race. Because there’s more to admire about the Prius than ever. We like all the usual running-costs stuff, which apply whether you’re a private buyer or business user – but more than that, we like how much better it is to drive than any Prius before it.
It’s very, very good. Not quite good enough to beat the Golf, but closer than ever. To put it another way, if your view on alternative fuels has always been ‘yes, but’, there’s not a lot of ‘but’ left. Soon, it’ll just be yes.
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