Fleet Car: Prius - a sacred cow for the slaughter?

Hollywood's A-listers flocked to buy it, and Toyota's sought-after hybrid has achieved legendary status as the cool way to drive green.

by
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

But its fuel-saving capabilities are questionable. A three-year research study of the whole-life environmental costs of production vehicles placed this car 74th. Planet-saving executives who weigh up the specs and stats are likely to find credible alternatives.

Ah, the Toyota Prius! Loved by environmentalists, loathed by enthusiasts. Praised by owners who like its economy. And, er, criticised by owners who hate the fact that it's so thirsty ...

Few cars in recent years have polarised opinion as much as the Prius. There's no doubting the success it has been for Toyota, with more than three-quarters of a million sold and no immediate sign of a slackening in demand.

But is the bubble about to burst? Has the world had enough of the Prius? Is it as green as its fans and its manufacturer make out? Or is there a little bit of dirt on the Prius that's about to blot its copybook?

First things first: hats off to Toyota for creating an icon. Stop someone in the street and ask them to name a green car and the chances are they'll mention the Prius (while coughing on diesel fumes). But the idea that the company has made any money from the Prius is an urban myth.

Prius stands for green motoring and, in some eyes, Prius seems to stand for cool motoring. Titanic star Leonardo di Caprio started the celebrity fan-club rolling, followed by 'kookie' actress Cameron Diaz. And American funny man Will Ferrell has been quoted as saying: 'I absolutely love our Prius. In addition to being obviously economical and environmentally friendly, they drive great and are just plain sexy.'

Roll in Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Harrison Ford, Sting, Chris Martin ... the list of celebs linked to hybrid motoring is as confused as the six degrees of Kevin Bacon. Who knows, he might have one, too.

The Prius has won countless awards for being green. But it has also come in for some major criticism, most notably from Oregon-based CNW Marketing Research. In 2006, it published a three-year study into whole-life environmental costs.

Rolling home in 74th place, behind the Aston Martin DB9 and BMW X5, came the Prius. CNW claimed the dust-to-dust cost per mile of the Prius was £2.03, just 33p less than a Range Rover. The greenest vehicle in the survey, that well-known eco-icon the Jeep Wrangler, cost just 38p per mile, by CNW's calculations.

Explaining the results, CNW president Art Spinella said: 'Why do hybrids show up so poorly? It's because of the manufacture, replacement and disposal of high-energy-use items, including the batteries and electric motors and lighter-weight materials used in construction.

'On the other hand, simpler vehicles such as the Jeep Wrangler use established technologies that require less energy in the manufacture and many parts that are shared among other vehicles, again reducing the energy used in manufacture. They also have a longer life-cycle.

'We believe that basing purchase decisions solely on fuel economy or vehicle size does not get to the heart of energy usage.'

Toyota was, of course, not amused, responding to the report by saying: 'These conclusions are very different from the results of several other scientifically reviewed studies of the life-cycle impact of vehicles, which conclude that the majority of the energy - around 80% to 85% - comes from the driving stage of the car's life and just 15% to 20% from the design, manufacture, transport and maintenance. The CNW study shows the percentages to be reversed.'

The rest of the car industry seems to concur with Toyota's view. Former Ford CTO Richard Parry-Jones thinks tailpipe emissions account for 'around 85% of a car's total environmental impact'.

That hasn't stopped the knives being whipped out for Toyota, with critics citing the disposal of the batteries and the journey from the factory in Japan as environmental issues. In the US market, at least, that last point has been addressed, with the recent announcement that the Prius is to be made there from 2010.

It's clear that many Prius owners are content and proud. For the past two years, the car has topped the What Car?/JD Power Customer Satisfaction survey, thanks in no small part to the car's reliability and how well Toyota dealers perform. But although many customers also praise the car's economy, blogs and forums are rife with stories from owners disappointed that their car doesn't return anywhere near the published average mileage figure of 65.69 mpg.

The AA's former senior research engineer and fuel economy expert Peter De Nayer tests cars over his own 'real world' test route to see how figures used in ads and brochures compare to those he achieves.

Of 85 cars De Nayer tested in 2006, the Prius had the biggest discrepancy - of nearly 13.7 mpg - confirming the impression of some owners. The nature of the technology means that hybrids are super-efficient around town, where the electric motor and regenerative braking power (which helps to recharge the batteries) are at their best and the environment benefits most. Move out onto the motorway and the Prius's small petrol engine will struggle, while the batteries don't get the braking power to recharge and help the petrol engine out.

So the equation is simple: live and drive in a city and the Prius works a treat. Go anywhere else, and you stand to be disappointed with the fuel consumption.

However, the Prius has stood the test of time comparatively well. The original was launched in the UK in 2000, with the current model arriving in 2003. Demand has kept values high on the used market - for the time being at least.

Tim Naylor, spokesman for British Car Auctions, agrees: 'There is currently a groundswell of interest in alternative fuelled vehicles at auction. It seems rising fuel costs and the credit crunch are persuading more motorists to try LPG or hybrid electric, perhaps for the first time. This makes Prius a high-demand used model, and not just for its eco-features but because it is a rare car at auction. BCA's online stock locator has 13,000 cars lotted for sale today and just three of those are Prius. As a result of this scarcity and demand, Prius is averaging around 100% of guide values, whereas the current market average is nearer 92%.'

So a Prius is a sound buy today, but what about its future prospects? Alan Senior from used-car pricing experts Vehicle Information Publishing has been in the trade for more than 30 years and isn't convinced. 'The Prius is the subject of conversation for many trade buyers and retailers, and opinions are predictably divided. There have been a couple of horror stories bandied around recently about power-inverter faults with horrific replacement costs, so it won't be long before more people are talking.

'Used-car buyers are much more conservative and don't want to risk hidden expense,' he adds. 'Therefore they're much more wary of unknown technology, and for this reason the Prius scores badly on the appeal list for many. As other "green" models appear and buyers realise that they can buy cars with more conventional technology and still get similar economy - like the BMW 1 Series with Efficient Dynamics - the Prius isn't such an attractive used buy.'

Duncan McClure Fisher of warranty provider Warranty Direct agrees that age won't treat the Prius kindly. 'Electrics on most cars tend to cause problems as they rack up the years and miles,' he says. 'As Prius models get older, I can see underwriters excluding Prius electrics from warranty cover. Either that or we'll see big increases in premium.'

John Owen buys about 100 cars a week for car supermarket Fords of Winsford but wouldn't buy a Prius if its three-year manufacturer warranty had expired. 'We sell them occasionally,' he says, 'but if we were in London, things would be very different and they'd fly off the shelf. But is it really green? I know many hybrids that struggle to get 30mpg on the motorway.'

A third-generation Prius is due next year, with Toyota promising even lower emissions. Then in 2010, the first plug-in hybrid Prius will go on sale, with technology that has just won a major accolade in the What Car? Green Awards.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to the Prius comes from rivals who are playing a rapid game of catch-up. There are myriad models that offer similar CO2 savings and better real-world economy, without the unusual technology that seems to be scaring the used market. More hybrids are coming, too, including plenty with diesel power.

It seems that green choice will be the Prius's ultimate downfall, as buyers find they have more green options to choose from. Perhaps the Prius has had things its own way for too long.

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