The Toyota Prius was launched in Japan in 1997 and has been on sale in Singapore since 2000. Although the petrol-electric car is no longer a novelty, it is still relatively uncommon.
Cost could be a factor. Most Japanese and Korean cars of the same size are more than 30 per cent cheaper. Even at the Prius' current price of $157,888, buyers can pick up a Mercedes-Benz B180 or a seven-seater Volkswagen Touran instead with change.
Its road presence got an unexpected boost this year when SMRT bought 600 units as taxis. Apart from SMRT, Premier and Prime also have Priuses in their fleets.
The stamp of approval by taxi operators is a boost of confidence, given the high mileage that taxis chalk up.
Life! got to test-drive a Prius taxi over 11 days this month. SMRT waived the rental of the taxi and paid for the fuel, while fares went to The Straits Times Pocket Money Fund.
The Prius was driven as a regular taxi, covering at least 250km and 12 hours a day, and picking up more than 160 fares and 250 passengers over 11 days.
It got lost in the sprawling Tampines HDB estate, joined the Central Expressway's rush-hour crawls, survived heavy downpours and even went off-road when a passenger wanted to go into an unpaved Changi South construction site.
The four-month-old Prius had clocked 56,041km when Life! took over the wheel, which meant that it was already run in. Over 11 days, another 2,739km were added - about the distance from Singapore to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Or what a typical Singapore driver would take 50 days to cover.
The distance and the range of driving situations made it a de facto long-term test drive, compressed into 11 days.
The taxi is a third-generation Prius which went on sale in Singapore in 2009. It is 4.48m long, with the same 2.7m wheelbase as the new Toyota Altis, which means it has ample space.
The Prius taxi threw up two surprises.
The first was its passenger car-like characteristics. The ubiquitous Hyundai Sonata and Mercedes-Benz E200 taxis here are diesel-powered sedans that are not commonly available as private cars.
In contrast, the Prius is powered by a 1.8-litre petrol engine and an electric motor, exactly as it would have been had it been bought as a private car.
The second surprise was its high equipment level. SMRT did not pare down features to cut cost. Frills include keyless entry and ignition, daytime- running lights, reverse camera and an integrated 6-inch touchscreen entertainment system with Bluetooth pairing of mobile phones.
It even has head-up display of the taxi's speed and eco-driving mode, a feature more common in luxury cars.
There is ample storage throughout the cabin, including a clever two-tier glove compartment.
Boot space is more than adequate. I did four airport runs for five passengers and their luggage without any problem.
Apart from the taxi meter, the only other reminders that the Prius is a taxi were the rubber floor mats and spartan, hardwearing black vinyl seats that look like they can withstand long-term abuse.
The cockpit is lined with what Toyota calls eco-friendly hard plastics, but thankfully it still retains a futuristic feel. The digital instrument display lacks a tachometer. The car uses a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which renders engine speed readings redundant.
The palm-sized gear shift lever on the centre console resembles that in a BMW, and short flicks put the car into various transmission modes. Parking gear is activated by pushing a button near the gear lever while an old-school foot pedal engages and releases the parking brake.
The petrol engine and electric motor pump out an uninspiring but adequate 134bhp and 142Nm of torque; and they are paired with an equally dull CVT which does not have any virtual ratios to mimic gear changes.
On the move, the car lacks urgency but it does not struggle to keep pace with traffic. It sprints from 0 to 100kmh in an acceptable 10.4 seconds, thanks largely to the motor's ample low-end torque.
The Prius cab offers four drive modes. In its purest form, it can run as an electric vehicle (EV) at speeds of up to 50kmh, but the range is limited by the level of battery charge. There is an Eco mode which reduces throttle response, while a Power mode heightens it and adds urgency to the car, especially on kick down.
In city driving, the car is best left in the default normal driving mode, which automatically switches to the EV mode at low speeds.
The suspension is cushy, absorbing humps and bumps to pamper passengers.
But the Prius is not without flaws. The steering feels disconnected and the brakes are spongy.
The first few degrees of depression of the pedal slow the car while the next few degrees do absolutely nothing.
It takes a moderately hard stomp to bring the car to a stop.
And for a car that is 14cm shorter than the Altis, the Prius surprisingly has a larger turning radius (5.5m versus 5.4m). The extra 10cm may not appear much on paper but it risks the bumper kissing the kerb on tight two-lane U-turns. I discovered scuff marks on the front bumper after the cab was inspected when it was returned to SMRT, incurring an $80 repair bill which the firm graciously waived.
On the move, the car is quiet, although not at Lexus levels. Its petrol engine shuts down when the car is stationary, cutting fuel consumption and reducing the vehicle to an un-taxi-like silence.
But a rattling sound from the parcel shelf bothered me throughout the 11 days. The noise would not go away whether the cover was extended or retracted. I resorted to stuffing tissue paper into the gaps to reduce the rattle.
The spilt glass tailgate is a novelty but impractical, obstructing the already small rear view.
Nonetheless, the Prius shines where it matters: fuel economy. The car used up 115.76 litres of RON95 petrol for the 2,739km I drove, which translates to 4.2 litres per 100km or 23.7km per litre. This is close to Toyota's official figures of 4 litres per 100km or 25km per litre.
The fuel cost me $260. A less fuel- efficient car - say a Toyota Wish which has a 57 per cent higher fuel consumption of 6.6 litres per 100km - would have meant a petrol bill of more than $400.
For taxi-drivers, the fuel savings mean lower cost and higher earnings. Over the 11-day drive, only once did my daily petrol bill exceed $30, and it happened after I clocked close to 300km in a long shift.
But to achieve the desired fuel economy, the Prius cannot be driven like any other car. The Power mode should be shunned and the driver has to allow lots of room for coasting or engine braking, especially on expressways. This allows the battery to be charged for use in stop-start city traffic.
In a nutshell, the car lives up to its green credentials and it has few competitors. The Honda Insight, its closest rival, is a smaller car with a 1.3-litre petrol engine and a fractionally higher (reported) fuel consumption of 4.4 litres per 100km. The turbocharged Volkswagen 1.6 Touran offers a punchier drive and seven seats on a comparable 4.6 litres per 100km, but it runs on diesel which means it cannot match the Prius in refinement.
The taxi is not for sale but the car is available from Borneo Motors at $157,888 until Wednesday.
But those sold on the current Prius had better hurry. The current model is coming to the end of its product cycle and a fourth-generation model is already on the horizon.