It would have been a mistake for Toyota to depart too far from the gentle-if-slightly-clunky-riding, soft-handling dynamic template loved by airport taxi drivers, Nobel laureate physicists, religious leaders and Hollywood film stars everywhere; likewise, stiffening the chassis too much.
And so, doubtless not by chance, refinement of the Prius’s established handling character, rather than a total reinvention, is what Toyota has landed on.
Despite the fundamental redesign that has gone on under the skin, the car feels familiar on the road: better-handling, and a lot more wieldy and easy to drive than it used to be.
It’s firmer-riding over bad surfaces, too, but still ultimately laid-back and unimposing. The car’s driving experience, while much more precise and responsive than its old standard, remains significantly more isolating and detached than the European hatchback norm.
And although that means it’s never likely to appeal much to keener drivers, it should allow Toyota to claim some success in moving the car’s motive character out of left field without greatly changing it.
The biggest change is to the way the car steers. Gone is the vague, slow-witted steering of the previous Prius, replaced here by a system of predictable and pleasing directness, and coherent weight that builds with lateral load. Although largely bereft of feel, it communicates about as well as can be expected of a modern electromechanical set-up working through economy-minded 195-section 65-profile tyres.
The suspension springing is both firmer and shorter of travel than it used to be and that provides the bedrock on which the car’s new-found sense of understated agility is built.
The Prius has a predictable and obedient front end, good body control and good cornering balance at road speeds. At low speed, that quickened steering rack combines with a tight turning circle to make the Prius at home in tight car parks and during three-point turns.
Although there is still plenty of long-wave compliance in it, the ride is now medium-firm, a bit hollow and under-damped over little lumps and bumps and more reactive over bigger ones than the old car’s was. But ‘firmer than before’ still leaves the Prius in a pretty civilised and well-mannered place relative to the hatchback class in general.
An encouraging dynamic showing extends as far as giving the new Prius a firm grip on the road and decent body control when you extend it to extremes. On track, there is more body roll to report through corners than you get on the road, although not too much of it and not enough to corrupt your line.
The car turns in crisply and goes where it’s pointed, with decent balance and surprisingly little in the way of understeer, even when driven hard.
Challenging lumps and bumps confirm the suspicion that the car could be better damped, because the body tends to fidget and pitch several times in response to one good-sized vertical disturbance.
The powertrain and braking systems let the side down a little. The powertrain runs short of torque as the battery becomes hot and depleted, and the brakes have little progressive feel to help you stop the car smoothly. But at least the chassis now deserves better.