ALL EYES ON THE BiG PRiUS; Toyota believe it could be third time lucky for their ultra-clean hybrid car, which is aiming to become a major player. in the family car market, writes STEWART SMITH.
THERE can be little doubt that Toyota are the leaders in the field when it comes to hybrid cars.
Not only have they been researching and developing hybrid drive systems for more than three decades, but they also account for 80 per cent of global sales in the sector.
After their petrol-electric Prius was launched in Japan in 1997, it became the first dual-fuel car to really catch the imagination of buyers looking for a more environmentally friendly motor.
It promised lower fuel costs and less CO2 emissions while at the same time providing owners with a car that was practical and good-looking.
In reality, the original Prius was very much a niche car, bought by film stars, politicians and public figures who wanted to be seen to be green.
The eco-friendly Toyota has been steadily gaining ground in recent years, though, and sales of the second-generation model more than doubled between 2004 and 2008.
The third-generation Prius will go on sale in the UK in August, and Toyota have high hopes that it will become more than just the tree-hugger's choice.
They believe it will prove a genuine rival to mainstream models in the family car sector.
And it certainly has the figures to attract attention.
For starters, the car's hybrid synergy drive system has had its power increased from 112 to 134bhp. At the same time, CO2 emissions have been cut from 104 to 89g/km, which means there's no road tax to pay.
Overall fuel economy has been improved by 10 per cent, despite the fact that the Prius now has a larger 1.8-litre engine in place of the old 1.5-litre unit.
According to Toyota, you can expect a return of 72.4mpg on an average run.
During my test drive, I found that about 65mpg is probably a more realistic figure, which is still exceptional for a petrol-engined car.
The Prius has three "on demand" drive modes.
EV mode uses the electric motor only, from start-up and at speeds of less than 44mph. You can opt for this system when driving around town, but the range is just more than a mile.
In ECO mode, throttle response to aggressive acceleration is reduced and the air-conditioning is adjusted to support better fuel economy.
Toyota say this mode can help drivers to cut fuel consumption by 10 to 15 per cent.
Power mode boosts output to improve acceleration and give a sportier drive, but obviously affects fuel consumption.
You might think the changes from one mode to the other would be noticeable, but I found the switchovers to be seamless and smooth.
With its sweeping lines and streamlined design, the new Prius looks a lot more striking than its predecessors.
The styling isn't just for show, but also about maximising aerodynamic efficiency, which in turn ensures improved handling and fuel efficiency.
The Prius is a heavy motor, and you will realise that it isn't quite as nimble as conventional cars of a similar size when you take fast corners.
The cabin is very comfortable and spacious. Seats are firm but supportive and the layout of the controls is excellent.
I particularly liked the head-up display, which allows you to look straight ahead and know what speed you are going at.
Boot space has increased over the previous model and is pretty generous.
The new Prius will be available in three trim levels. Prices for the T3 and T Spirit are unchanged at pounds 18,370 and pounds 21,210, while the T4 comes in at pounds 19,990.
The head-up display, smart entry and start, automatic air-conditioning, seven airbags and front fog lamps are standard on all models.
Options include the pounds 1450 solar sunroof, which runs in combination with a remote air-con system. Activated by pressing a button on the key fob, it can lower cabin temperature for up to three minutes before the car is occupied.
Toyota aim to sell about 4500 new Prius models in the UK by the end of the year, and 7200 in 2010, which would give the car a 5.9 per cent share of the "upper medium" car market.
The Toyota costs a little more than other comparably sized motors - and its hybrid rival the Honda Insight - but is a lot cheaper to run.
And, at a time when running costs play on the mind of more and more motorists, this might just help the Prius to finally become a major player.
Factfile: Model: Toyota Prius
Engine: 1.8-litre petrol plus electric motor Power: 134bhp Top speed: 112mph 0-62mph: 10.4 seconds Fuel economy: 72.4mpg CO2 emissions: 89g/km Warranty: Three years/ 60,000 miles Price: pounds 18,370 to pounds 21,210 On sale: August 1