Emission impossible

Driving while attempting to preserve the environment is a notoriously difficult manoeuvre to pull off. It’s even more difficult than driving while attempting to open a foil-sealed packet of dry roasted peanuts. In the end one has to admit that eating peanuts and driving are largely inimical activities; and so are driving and preserving the environment.

And yet the environmentally conscious driver still exists, clinging on bravely between the contradictions, trying to do the right, or at least the better, thing by the planet, even if only in a series of variously botched compromises between his or her conscience and the desire to own a car. Such as neglecting the model that tears curtains out of the ozone layer in favour of the one that merely pock-marks it.

Here, though, comes the newly revamped Toyota Prius — a good compromise, indeed the best compromise going, if it’s a compromise you’re after. There is no point pretending that it is minty clean. Nor that its exhaust fumes smell of sage and toothpaste. Nor that, in its perfumed wake, rare wild flowers bloom at the roadside. It is to driving what 20 Consulate was to smoking: mentholated — indeed, cool as a mountain stream — but still a fag.

Nevertheless, read the figures and weep: the Prius emits less carbon dioxide and burns less petrol than any car in its class, all thanks to a Toyota-patented system, hybrid synergy drive, in which the performance of the 1,5-litre petrol engine is supplemented by an electric engine. Unlike your toothbrush or your iPod, the battery is constantly recharging as you drive, so you never have to plug it in overnight or position it in a special dock. It’s permanently primed and eager to go about its important work of saving the world.

Appearance has, without doubt, been a major problem for hybrid cars to date; they come out looking oddly stretched and tubular, as if the innovation in the engineering needs to find some expression in the bodywork. To the measurable advantage of the Prius, Toyota has now twigged that, just because you have personal reservations about carbon dioxide emissions, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you want to drive about in a cigar-shaped eco-wagon. Heck, you could mistake the Prius for a real car.

The Prius is a proper five-seat family hatchback, with proper doors and seats and seat belts, and with proper windows bringing proper light to a proper interior. There is nothing but clear, flat floor space between the two front seats, handy when scooting from the passenger seat to the driver’s seat, or for taking appropriate evasive action during a hijacking. For a car that is the future, it feels reassuringly like the present, or even the recent past, which is probably where the majority of motorists are most comfortable.

There are one or two unusual pieces of protocol to get used to, but nothing forbidding. You plug in the key, push the start button, and select drive using a clear plastic toggle on the dashboard. You then drift quietly from place to place. Commonly, hybrid engines require time and patience to gather speed. But Toyota has solved that, too, and the Prius actually accelerates. When you come to a halt, the car cuts out after a few seconds to preserve energy; the engine then fires again when your foot returns to the accelerator. This brings whole new phases of silence to your journeys which are quite eerie at first, but rapidly become part of the car’s beguiling stresslessness. Responding to its calm, I found myself driving in a courteous and relaxed manner, which might not have been the case in, say, a new 3,0 litre sports utility vehicle.

Before, there were excuses for not sparing the planet, but they just got harder to find. Buy a Prius, or the panda gets it. — Â

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