GOTEMBA, Japan -- The minute you grab the wheel of the fourth-generation Toyota Prius hybrid, you feel the difference.
The steering is heavy, precise, deliberate -- not light, loose and dead like the steering in the outgoing version.
And the positive contrasts multiply after you slide the joystick to drive and silently peel off for a ride.
From the planted driver’s seat to the crisp handling to the thrum of the engine, Toyota has made good on its promise to deliver a flagship hybrid that’s not only greener but meaner.
The re-engineered hatchback, which goes on sale in Japan next month and in the United States early next year, easily eclipsed its predecessor during a recent test drive at Toyota’s Fuji Speedway in the foothills of Mount Fuji. In spite of myself, I even unconsciously parroted Toyota’s favorite marketing mantra.
This car is indeed “fun to drive,” I caught myself saying.
Sure, any car is fun when it’s let loose on Fuji’s curvy short track, unhindered by speed limits, stop signs or traffic. But the improved performance of the new Prius was all the more apparent when compared with the current-generation car also on hand to drive.
Surprisingly, the peppier performance doesn’t come through punched-up power.
Chief Engineer Koji Toyoshima declined to give a combined net horsepower figure for the hybrid drivetrain, encompassing the gasoline engine and electric motor. But he confirmed it is indeed lower than the outgoing car’s 134 hp.
It certainly feels more powerful. And the key word is “feels.”
For starters, the overhauled engine loses that thrashy, overworked whine so noticeable in the third generation. The electric motor chips in more power earlier while accelerating, and the engine comes in more seamlessly with a deeper rumble.
Bolstered soundproofing no doubt helps muffle the noise. It also lends the cabin a more serene, upscale aura.
Handling is noticeably nimbler. On the short track and even on surrounding service streets, the new Prius attacked corners and curves with cheerful confidence and control. By contrast, it sometimes was unnerving to push the old Prius so far, for fear the more top-heavy, jouncy car wouldn’t hold its grip.
That’s thanks to the new car’s lower center of gravity, double-wishbone rear suspension and increased body rigidity. All that helps compensate for the fact that the new Prius weighs more.
Finally, new brakes supplied by Aisin Seiki affiliate Advics Co. provide surer and smoother stopping power, improving on the outgoing car’s sometimes-jerky hold. Advics CEO Satoshi Ogiso, who oversaw Prius product development before joining Advics earlier this year, said the goal was to create smooth and linear braking, both while applying and releasing.
One disappointment for U.S. fans will be the lack of the four-wheel drive option being offered in Japan. The so-called E-Four electronic 4wd version of the next Prius hasn’t been tested in extreme cold and winter conditions outside Japan, Toyoshima said. It may make it overseas eventually, but not yet.
To be sure, the new Prius is still no sports or luxury car. But the upcoming fourth generation surpasses its predecessor on all fronts, nudging the needle closer to both sports and luxury. Customers may finally start looking at the Prius for more than its mpg.