As the world’s first mass-produced petrol-electric hybrid, the Prius’s place in history has always been assured. But few would have predicted the cultural and political impact it has made on the world – particularly in the US.

Having owners as varied as Hollywood liberals and former CIA chiefs, the Prius has become much less a product and more a statement spun to endorse everything from environmental awareness to a reduction in foreign oil dependency. Any car pointedly driven by characters in both South Park and Family Guy has achieved notoriety well in excess of the usual gauge.

Yet a car it remains – and one with more competitors than ever.

Since 1997, when the first generation was launched in Japan, the hybrid and alternative-fuel market has snowballed – aided greatly by the momentum of innovation.

Some of this progress, not least the efficiency enhancements enacted on the humble internal combustion engine in the past decade, has helped date Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive.

So the fourth-generation model’s arrival seems well timed. Right out of the box, Toyota can be bullish about the headline figures: 70g/km of CO2 and 94.1mpg represent a significant improvement – sizable enough to launch the latest Prius beyond any of its family-sized rivals not blessed with an electrified powertrain. Include the addition of plugging in a Prius into a charger and the proposition looks even more enticing with a combined cycle of 283mpg and an CO2 output figured at 22g/km. Those gains are the result of extensive revision and refinement of the existing technology.

In contrast, the car around the hybrid system is genuinely all new and based now on the Toyota New Global Architecture.

The manufacturer has also been bullish about the reconfiguration of the Prius’s hitherto anodyne dynamic performance. Certainly, Toyota knows the Prius must be more now than a virtuous principle on wheels – but has it done enough still to stand out from a larger crowd?

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