Toyota Prius goes overlanding
Toyota’s Prius represents the sharpest end of hybrid. In the city, especially in heavily congested traffic, the futuristic Toyota really comes into its own, offering both electric and petrol propulsion. But what happens if you take the Prius out of the concrete jungle? What happens if you take it so far out of its comfort zone, to places in Africa where no Prius has ever gone before? This, actually.
The expressive Italian tourist sitting across the table was laying into Spanish people with some colourful language. Maybe a Spanish casanova had left her stranded at the altar. On the television on a far wall, the Springboks were just managing to maintain a slender lead over the Wallabies. A young couple were watching the game, too. But the pretty young blonde damsel insisted on walking past our table at least once every five minutes. This was quite distracting.
The bar lady served a half-full shooter glass of Jagermeister – annoying when you pay almost R50 per tot glass. The sandy parking lot outside Nata Lodge’s main reception and bar area was pretty full. Here a kitted Toyota Hilux, there a Land Rover Discovery, over there a Ford Ranger with a camper body, a game-viewing vehicle at the fuel pump. But there was one anomaly: a peculiar blue hatch-like vehicle, parked next to a burly Nissan Pathfinder. An automobile that looked as if it had driven straight out of a science fiction novel into the sandy parking area of Nata Lodge. It was as out of place as a water-bottling facility in the desert. And it was ours.
The theory of hybrid. And Cecil
The seed for this adventure was planted some time ago, on another trip through Southern Africa. We had pondered: what is the least likely vehicle to go on a cross-country adventure? The Toyota Prius hybrid was the most obvious candidate. So we decided to put that theory to the test and take the latest Prius on a 2 500km odyssey through Botswana and Zimbabwe, with the Hwange National Park our target.
Last year, Hwange was at the centre of international news after American dentist and recreational hunter Walter Palmer killed Cecil, a famous Hwange lion that was part of an international research project. Hwange is massive. But it is also unfenced, so the entire region is one huge game park. To get to Hwange, we’d have to obviously negotiate plenty of tar-road driving, as well as some dirt roads, some of them running through the greater Hwange area.
Many Toyota fanatics would tell you this is exactly why they drive a Toyota: there’s someone who can fix a Toyota or has access to Toyota parts in just about every little settlement. This Prius is another kettle of Toyota… its drivetrain is so advanced that a normally reliable ‘Toyota mechanic’ in rural Zim would just shake his head in disbelief when he opened the Prius’ lightweight bonnet. So before we get to the actual drive, let’s talk about this technology. The Prius first went on sale in Japan in 1997, and it was introduced here in 2005, in its second generation. Since 1997, more than 3.6 million Prius vehicles have been sold across the globe.
Its petrol-electric drivetrain has traditionally worked best in heavily congested city environments, where the electric power is more influential than it is at higher speeds. However, the latest Prius features a completely reworked hybrid drive system, and one of the upgrades, says Toyota, is more electric propulsion at higher cruising speeds. The 1.8-litre VVT-i Atkinson cycle petrol engine delivers 72kW of power at 5 200r/min and 142Nm of torque at 3 600r/min. The engine features numerous refinements and updates, all aimed at increasing the vehicle’s efficiency.
The hybrid system’s electrical components have also been refined and updated. The 53kW and 163Nm electric-drive motor is fed through the latest nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery, which is smaller and denser than before and is also ultimately more efficient. The battery is charged via two all-new motor-generators that are smaller and lighter than before. That battery, by the way, lives behind the rear seats, and has no impact on interior packaging.
A brand new introduction – and a first for a hybrid – is a multi-shaft transaxle. The transaxle consists of four components: the two electric motor-generators (termed MG1 and MG2); a single planetary gear; and a reduction to the final drive. MG1 serves primarily as a generator, converting any surplus power from the petrol engine into electricity, which is sent to the NiMH battery. MG2 is the electric drive motor, but it also acts as generator when the regenerative brake mode (selected via the gear lever and active when the vehicle coasts, harnessing energy from the brakes). MG2 also drives the Prius during pull-off at lower speeds, EV (electric only) mode at low speeds, and when reversing.
All that sounds rather complicated, and that’s because it is. Thankfully, from a driving point of view, it’s not complicated at all. New computer software controls the whole hybrid business, and it controls both petrol and electric power to provide the most efficient propulsion possible – all the driver has to do is accelerate, brake and steer. There are three driving modes to choose from, selected via a dash-mounted button: Normal, Eco and Power. Normal is the default mode; in Eco the drivetrain aims to burn as little fuel as possible; and in Power, the electric motor and 1.8-litre mill provide 90kW of spritely performance; certainly not blistering, but spritely indeed, with Toyota claiming a 0-100km/h sprint in 10.6 seconds and a top speed of 180km/h.
At the same time, Toyota claims average fuel consumption of less than four litres/100km. As mentioned though, hybrids are supposed to be more efficient at lower speeds. So driving at 120km/h, the petrol engine is, theoretically, called into action almost constantly, burning more fuel as a result. In a traditional internal combustion engine set-up, it works the other way around: in stop-go city driving, the internal combustion engine is less efficient than when it is driving at a constant 120km/h in top gear on the open road. It uses less fuel at a constant 120km/h than in stop-go city driving conditions.
The long slog north
We had left Randburg at sparrows… ahem, really early, heading north on the N1 highway, aiming for Lephalale and the Stockpoort border post. With the Toyota’s cruise control activated at a true 120km/h, the computer sorted out the details of applying throttle. The Prius is equipped with a fancy head-up display (HUD) system that indicates speed and real-time energy usage. While using the right foot to maintain that cruising speed, that energy usage meter had regularly peaked in the red zone – maximum usage. Interestingly, with the computer managing the inputs, the meter was constantly pegged in the green zone, suggesting that it was doing a better job of saving fuel/energy than the driver.
Near Vaalwater, we encountered a different challenge: rain. Although we had missed the bulk of the downpour, there were a lot of big puddles around. The Toyota’s low rolling-resistance tyres (skinny 15-inch items) and big water puddles wouldn’t necessarily get along, so we skimmed around the standing water as best as possible. Finally, we arrived at the Stockpoort border post, and crossed into Botswana. This crossing is tiny and very quiet, but there is a dirt road of about 50km to deal with before reaching the main A1 road that would take us north-east to Nata. We deflated the tyres to 2 bar (down from 2.6), to better deal with the expected corrugations.
But we needn’t have worried. The dirt road was in surprisingly good shape, and clearly some maintenance was being done. Also assisting in the ride department was the Prius’ new suspension set-up, which served up a surprisingly comfortable ride. The Toyota’s MacPherson strut front suspension has been improved, but the all-new double wishbone rear suspension is the big news. Ride comfort and handling have benefited greatly, and Toyota reckons there’s an improvement of more than 50% in impact shock damping.
The electric power steering system, often criticised in the past for being mostly void of any driver feedback, has been redesigned and recalibrated, now offering much sportier, involving feedback. Our trepidation about tackling the first stretch of gravel soon turned into relieved surprise – the Prius was handling it well, feeling very much at home. We soon joined the main A1 drag, and back on tar we could cruise at a comfortable 120km/h – and the last few hundred kilometres to Nata were dispatched in good time. Just outside Nata, we turned off the main road, onto a sandy dirt road, a photograph in the offing. And it became very clear: ground clearance could be a major stumbling block on our aspirations to reach the remote Hwange park.
It only has 140mm of clearance, with long overhangs. We had to put the left wheels on the sandy middelmannetjie, to prevent the belly scraping on the sand. Later, in between a fiery Italian lady, a rugby game, a blonde that likes to walk around a lot, half-full tot glasses and some cold ones, we had several of those ‘what were we thinking?’ moments. This expedition was possibly a bridge too far for the Prius.
It gets real. Very real
We hit the road north towards the Pandamatenga border between Botswana and Zimbabwe before the sun peaked over the horizon. It was a stretch of 180km, and ahead of us lay a long day. The plan was to cross into Zimbabwe, make our way to Hwange, and spend the best part of the day exploring the park before heading back the same way, ending at Nata Lodge. In retrospect, this was a bit of a foolhardy plan, considering the challenges we faced. The first challenge arrived in the form of a roadblock on the main A3 road, heading towards Kasane. We will cover this incident – and a subsequent one at the Plumtree border – in more detail in a separate article.
Suffice to say that, in a clear case of entrapment and an obvious focus on vehicles not registered in Botswana, we were ‘arrested’ for bogus reasons and delayed by more than an hour. It was only after we managed to exchange R700 for 400 pula (yes, we got comprehensively ripped off) and handed it over, that we could continue. It’s a heck of a racket, and a well- rehearsed one, too. With our rands depleted, courtesy of Constable Joseph and her henchwoman, we were in trouble. We had $12 left, and there were no ATMs in a 100km radius. With the time at our disposal, we had no choice but to aim for the Pandamatenga border and hope for the best.
At the Zimbabwe border, we found out that we were $10 short – we had already taken out insurance for Zim, but we had to pay both carbon tax ($11) and road tax ($10). Amazingly though, one official offered to pay it for us – we could refund him on the way out of the country again. What an amazing difference in attitude to the rude Botswana police. We tackled the 40km dirt road that leads to the A8 main road.
We didn’t go far before we spotted the first game: a lone giraffe, followed shortly by a large herd of elephant. And then another herd of elephant. And a third. That 140mm ground clearance was turning into an issue where the middelmannetjie was high, causing us to crawl around the worst areas, moving some of the bigger rocks off the road; again putting the left wheels on the middelmannetjie where it was impossible to circumvent the problem area. Thankfully, the twee-spoor road was generally okay, and we made it to the tar road in one piece.
Mostly, anyway… a plastic underbody panel had come loose, and we suspect it had been damaged in one of the big water puddles we hit the previous day. This rocky road had obviously worsened the problem, ripping off a piece of the plastic. On the A8, we were quite worried about two things: we did not have any cash left, and the Zimbabwe police have a rather bad reputation for extorting money from foreign tourists. It was already 11:30am by then, and if were delayed much more, chances were we wouldn’t make it back to the Pandamatenga border by 5pm.
And so we arrived in Hwange, the first big Zim town. Our first priority was to get hold of some US dollars – there are numerous $2 tolls on the A8, police are said to issue $20 spot fines, and we still had to pay our way in Hwange National Park, too. There are plenty of ATMs available, but none of them dispense cash. For cash, you go to one of the two supermarkets in town, buy at least $15 worth of goods, and add a cash payout to the card deal. We eventually managed to get $30 cash – the shop was not keen to give us more. It was just after 1pm when we left Hwange. We were very late. Finally, we arrived at Hwange National Park after nearly 100km on the A8. It was clear that there was no going back to Nata – where our Front Runner tents were still pitched – on that slow-going dirt road. We’d have to stay over.
We landed up booking into a chalet (that was in dire need of some maintenance). After settling the account (the park has a card machine) we went game viewing on the sandy tracks, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of Cecil’s cousins. Instead, we found hundreds of elephant. And giraffe, zebra, blue wildebeest, a fish eagle, a crocodile, and plenty of impala, too. Cecil’s family and friends though, were clearly not in the mood for socialising with our outlandish Prius. That afternoon, sipping on a cold one acquired earlier in the day as part of the $15 you-have-to-shop-to-get-cash deal, we pondered the styling of the Prius.
We agree that the front looks rather fine, and there certainly is a resemblance to Toyota’s Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicle that is now on sale in Japan and the USA. The side and rear views… we’ll leave that to you to make up your mind, but we wouldn’t call it postcard pretty. Functional, yes. That night, after a special $5 per head dinner, there wasn’t much else to do but hit the sack early. It had been a long day, and hey, the electricity ceases to function from about 8pm anyway. At least the Prius was holding up very well.
We had made a special arrangement to leave the park earlier than usual, and by 5am we were back on the A8, heading south towards Bulawayo. With almost 200km to cover before reaching the city, we were facing a different challenge: our fuel supply was running low. And we had about $20 in our wallet. With Eco mode selected, and with a cruising speed of 100km/h, we tried to stretch the dwindling fuel supply as far as possible. But 30km before Bulawayo we were in dire straits: we had zero range left, and there was no sign of the fuel station indicated on the GPS. Continuing on meant we may just make Bulawayo, or just not. In the vicinity of the supposed fuel station, a man approached.
He was… the ‘filling station’. Clearly this is a regular issue for travellers. He also knew all about the supply-and-demand principle, and charged us R30 per litre of fuel. But that was enough to get us to Bulawayo, where we added another $4 worth of unleaded. Hopefully we had just enough to get us to the first filling station in Botswana after the Plumtree border post. Meanwhile, we had passed about six police road blocks – and each and every police officer we had come across had been so friendly and polite, we could hardly believe it. There was no nonsense with bribery and corruption.
We made it to the border crossing, with a driving range of about 10km left. Arriving at the Botswana border, the immigration process was dispatched quickly and efficiently. Just the police clearance remained. And… no, not again. Waiting in the queue of cars to move forward, a young officer waved us closer after we had just got back into the vehicle after dipping our shoes in a special concoction. We moved forward at 2km/h while in the line of cars, to where the police officer waited, grinning from ear to ear: “That’s 300 pula each, for operating a moving vehicle without safety belts… park over there!”
We will cover what followed in detail in the same ‘corruption’ article mentioned earlier – but we were again threatened, laughed at, intimidated and eventually let go after ‘thanking’ the young officer for all his trouble with our last 40 pula. What a letdown. On a positive note, we found that filling station just after the border, and they accepted cards. The trip computer said we had 5km left, so it was not a moment too soon. After a lengthy wait for our turn (fuel is obviously a valuable commodity in these parts of Africa), we filled the Prius’ 43-litre to the brim. The drive to the Martin’s Drift border post thankfully went without further incident, and we eventually reached Randburg 9pm that night. It had been an adventure of note. And one we wouldn’t forget in a hurry.
Prius – the next overland king?
Er, no. It’s still much more comfortable in the concrete jungle than in rural Africa, going in search of some lion. However, the Prius had handled everything we threw its way. Yes, a plastic cover came off. But for the rest, the low-slung Toyota did an outstanding job. It was supremely comfortable, it had plenty of power for overtaking and it happily cruised at 120km/h up hill and down dale. It even conquered some sandy tracks and posed with a posse of wild elephant – and not many Prius cars can claim that.
And economy? After all, that’s what it’s supposed to be really good at. Despite the small 43-litre fuel tank, the Toyota can reach almost 800km at an average of 5.5-litres/100km – that’s cruising at a true 120km/h. In town, it will be more economical, dipping under the five-litre/100km mark. We had taken a Toyota Prius completely out of its comfort zone. We had taken it to places where no Prius has ever gone before. And it lives to tell a very special tale.
Electric motor 53kW/163Nm
Gearbox Continuously variable transmission (CVT)
Driven wheels Front
Driving aids Traction control
Ground clearance 140mm
Actual consumption 5.5 litres/100km
Actual range (43 litres) 781km
Service plan Five-year/90 000km
Warranty Three-year/100 000km
Hybrid battery warranty Eight-year/195 000km
Price R427 200
Hwange National Park
The legendary national park’s Main Camp has seen better days, and is in dire need of some maintenance. Camping is available, but we stayed over in a basic chalet. Total cost for two persons (including park fees) came to almost R1 400, so it certainly isn’t cheap, either. Communal ablutions are not exactly sparkling clean, and you share the showers with several species of spider, lizard and flying insects. The Water Buck’s Head restaurant features a basic a la carte menu, but no card facilities are available. There is also a bar. More information:
Places to stay
Nata Lodge, Nata, Botswana: This lodge has been around for some time, and it’s almost always filled with tourists. You can stay in the luxurious chalets or camp. Camping is priced at a very reasonable 85 pula per person, per night, and the ablutions are clean and well maintained. The lodge’s restaurant serves a la carte meals for all tastes. More information: www.natalodge.com
Text: Danie Botha Photographs: Deon van der Walt