Automobiles

Toyota turned a 2020 Prius into a rally car, and it rules

Oh, you thought the Prius was perennially boring? Well, here's some egg in your face, bub.

Normally, if I said I was driving a Prius at full clip around a section of Bundy Hill Offroad Park in Jerome, Michigan, people would think I'm either crazy or intentionally trying to break the thing. But not today -- instead, I'm strapped into a six-point racing harness in a 2020 Toyota Prius that's been reimagined as a proper rally car. And it's not just some thought exercise, either; this car has already participated in American Rally Association racing, albeit in an exhibition class, mostly because nobody really seems to know how to categorize the car just yet.

Like any modern rally car, the Prius' interior is completely stripped of any unnecessary weight, whether it's pieces of the dashboard or anything having to do with sound deadening. The glass windows are gone in favor of plexiglass, which Toyota's engineers tell me they were very lucky to procure prior to the start of the pandemic. Peek through any of that plexi and your eyes will land on the full FIA-spec roll cage inside. Other changes include a proper pair of racing seats, the aforementioned harnesses and a little roof-mounted scoop to pull cool air into the cabin. Only a few vestiges of the original Prius interior remain, including the gauge cluster and the transmission controls.

Where we're going, we don't need roads, but we do need gravel tires.

Toyota

Since there isn't a "sanctioned rally" page in the Toyota Prius parts catalog, it's no surprise that the engineers in charge of the project needed to think outside the box for a few pieces. Both the front and rear suspension borrow parts from the TRD-trimmed RAV4 SUV for some extra off-road ability, with front springs coming from a Camry and rear springs nicked from an Avalon TRD, believe it or not. The Prius wears 15-inch wheels, which is the size required for rally tires, so the automaker was able to retain those, and while the brakes are largely stock, there's a set of high-performance pads in the calipers to improve stopping. Cooper rally tires measuring 195/65R15 round out the obvious exterior upgrades, in addition to a slick vinyl wrap and some additional exterior LED lights for added visibility.

One thing that goes unmodified, however, is the powertrain. The Prius' standard getup remains intact, mating a 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle inline-4 gas engine to a permanent-magnet synchronous AC electric motor up front, with a separate motor-generator on the rear axle to enable electronic all-wheel drive. Output remains the same at 121 net horsepower, and yes, it should still achieve the EPA-estimated fuel economy of 51 mpg city and 47 mpg highway. The single tweak here is the addition of a cutoff switch that discharges both the 12-volt electrical system and the high-voltage hybrid bits, which is mandated to ensure safety in the event of a crash.

Dashboards? Who needs 'em.

Toyota

After contorting all my gangly limbs to slip through the roll cage, I find myself in one of the strangest places I've ever been. Once I'm strapped in, I'm so tightly bound to the seat that I can't even reach over to pull the door panel shut. Someone else takes care of that for me, one of the engineers gives me the thumbs-up sign, and I'm off. A deep jab of the throttle and the Prius launches itself forward with a whole bunch of wheelspin, the Coopers doing their best to dig into the gravel underfoot.

That's when I become intimately acquainted with my new co-driver: noise. People take the insane amount of sound-deadening material in a car for granted, because when it's gone, there's nothing but clamor. Every rock strike manages to plink its way into the cabin, filling my ears with a sound that usually presages imminent destruction, but not here -- the Prius takes a lickin' and keeps on tickin'. Considering all the additional underbody protection utilized for rally, even big rocks don't have a chance of mucking anything up, but it's hard to tuck my sense of self-preservation into bed. Nevertheless, I soldier on, the near-silent whir of the hybrid powertrain pushing me forward while chucking rooster tails of gravel in the opposite direction.

Next time you get ready to rag on the Prius for whatever reason, remember this car.

Toyota

Even with the addition of the electric motor on the rear axle, the Prius rally car is very much a front-biased affair. It's easier to get the rear end to kick out by utilizing the vehicle's momentum and flicking it into a turn while lifting off the accelerator. Power-induced oversteer is still possible, though, and it's hard not to hamfist this thing like it's my first time in an empty, snow-covered parking lot. Just point the steering wheel's 12 o'clock stripe where you want the Prius to go, and bam. Toyota's engineers are timing me, but every time I induce even a small drift, I'm having way too much fun to care about how fast I'm going through this course.

Seeing as how the Prius rally car isn't on its way to serial production or anything, there's not some overarching lesson I learn that can be translated to consumers. Well, OK, maybe there's one thing that can be addressed here: stigma. Whether you think it's unfair or not, many people have made up their minds about the Toyota Prius before even seeing or driving one. Preconceived notions are hard to get past, but a little bit of ingenuity goes a long way, and thanks to the hard work of some Toyota engineers, there's at least one hybrid hatchback out there doing its best to break the mold and get people to look at the Prius in a different way.