When Toyota introduced the Prius in December 1997, the world didn’t even know what a hybrid was. In fact, drunk on fossil fuels, the world couldn’t care less. Apart from a handful of perceived geeks, early adopters were few and far between. But the Japanese giant had a vision, and it stuck to it. Convinced that the development of a hybrid vehicle was essential for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the automaker threw its massive marketing prowess behind the Prius.

Generally most hybrid cars including the Prius uses either nickel-metal-hydride or lithium-ion batteries for the hybrid system and a separate lead-acid 12-volt battery for starting the internal combustion engine

Twenty years on, Toyota has sold more than 10 million hybrids across the globe, out of which Prius sales account to 60 per cent. In the US, Toyota now owns a whopping 70 per cent of the entire hybrid market share. A tough act to emulate, and it will take a colossal effort to get the Prius to loosen its brutal stranglehold on the hybrid market. Arch rival Honda tried with the Insight and failed spectacularly. But a new star has risen, again from the East. It’s the Hyundai Ioniq.

Whether it matches the Prius or not, we still consider a hybrid to be a stop-gap arrangement until the automobile world transitions fully to electric propulsion. Here, we spend a day with the old-timer and the rookie on city roads as well as long inter-emirate highways to see if they actually offer any significant savings in fuel consumption.

On the move, both cars prove smooth and agile and dare we say fun to drive — but the location may be playing some part in that...

IMRAN MALIK: Remember when we did drive features with cars that had a minimum of eight cylinders, have burnout competitions and then see which had the best exhaust note? Now, we’re driving these green machines and they don’t even make a sound when they’re in full EV mode. I miss the good old days…

SONY THOMAS: The good old days? It was only two weeks ago that you were roaring around in that Camaro ZL1! I know we’ve had some brilliantly entertaining cars over the years and as much as I’ll miss them we have to…

IM: Please don’t finish that sentence!

ST: We have to face realities; we have depleted the world’s oil reserves and there is going to be a time not that far from now where we don’t have any left and our cars won’t have combustion engines. There. I said it.

IM: Blimey. You and I have depleted the world’s oil reserves? Shouldn’t we apologise?

ST: Stop being silly, this is serious. I always wanted a Jaguar XJ6 — but in a few years from now, it’s highly likely most governments around the world will have banned petrol and diesel powered cars and I won’t be able to drive one. I better start scanning the classifieds now and tick the Jag off my bucket list.

IM: Or you could buy one and swap the straight-six for an electric motor… Sacrilege but what are your options?

ST: I could do that — but I could also take some of the alternatives currently being offered a little more seriously, such as this Ioniq. Hyundai has come along leaps and bounds in a relatively short period of time. It’s a force to be reckoned with in the automotive world and has proven it can rival the likes of Volkswagen and Toyota with some excellent models.

We fill the tanks in both cars and head off to the mountains in an economy challenge...

IM: I agree with you there, it does make some pretty decent cars — but Toyota is ahead of the game and when it comes to hybrids it’s even further ahead. The Prius has been around since 1997 and we are now in the model’s fourth generation. Toyota has had years to rectify a lot of the early issues that plagued the car and what we have now is a properly decent hatchback that offers a smooth ride, features a comfortable and roomy cabin and let’s not forget, a very clever and futuristic drivetrain. 

ST: As does the Ioniq. I have a feeling it’ll leave its mark on the green car market because Hyundai has been very clever with this one. It isn’t just a hybrid you see. It’ll be offered in pure electric, hybrid, and plug-in hybrid guises. There’ll be an Ioniq for everyone!

IM: Will there be one with a V8, a four-barrel Holley and…

ST: Stop! You know the answer to that. Why don’t you focus and tell me more about your Prius.

IM: You mean my symbol of advanced environmental technology... It has low emissions and great fuel efficiency; that 1.8-litre four-pot and the twin electric motors with the help of the lithium-ion and nickel-metal batteries generate a combined total of 121 horsepower and I must say, it feels rather spritely on the move. Yes, I know we wanted to gauge which car has the best fuel efficiency but I’ve been driving this for most of day with my foot down because it’s proven quite fun thanks to its lower centre of gravity and its new double wishbone rear suspension. It has a drag coefficient of 0.24. which Toyota says is the lowest of any current passenger production car. It also has 143Nm of torque and though that may not seem like much it’s more than enough to propel this 1,395kg Toyota quick enough to warrant a wry smile. But when I have tried to hit the claimed fuel efficiency of 4.5 litres per 100km I have had to drive it like a little old lady. I may have infuriated a few other motorists while in EV mode and it’s been so eerily quiet that I think I even heard them firing obscenities at me from inside their own cars! I haven’t been able to hit that magical figure…

ST: That poor Prius is carrying fat old you, what did you expect? You probably weigh about half of the car…

IM: It’s mostly muscle! I am pleased to report that the best I managed was 5.1 litres per 100km. That’s really impressive considering I haven’t tried that hard to be frugal. The electric and petrol engine work together in perfect harmony and if you thought this was the automotive equivalent of Frankenstein then you’d be wrong. Tell me something interesting about your Ioniq…

ST: Well, its hybrid’s powertrain might not look much different from the Prius’s. It’s a 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine mated to a 32kW electric motor that also churns out 169Nm of torque. In combination, this setup puts out a total of 138bhp and 264Nm of torque, which is pretty decent. However, the Ioniq has a trick up its sleeve! Generally most hybrid cars including the Prius uses either nickel-metal-hydride or lithium-ion batteries for the hybrid system and a separate lead-acid 12-volt battery for starting the internal combustion engine. But the Ioniq uses a 12-volt lithium-ion battery to start the petrol engine and has packed it together with the 240-volt 1.56-kWh main battery in a single compartment under the rear seats. It’s essentially like a computer hard drive with two partitions, the two batteries operate in the same compartment, but function as separate units.

IM: But if it’s under the seat, how do you jump start it if it goes flat?

ST: The engineers thought of that; they’ve wired permanent jumper cables from the main 1.6-kWh lithium-ion battery to the starter battery. Should it go flat and fail to start the car’s engine, a mere press of the Batt Reset button on the lower console next to the fuel-filler release button gets the hybrid battery to feed a couple seconds worth of current to the starter battery, and the engine fires right up. Then the battery will be recharged by the alternator as in any regular car. But that also makes the Ioniq Hybrid probably the only car that can’t be used to jump-start another car!

IM: That’s just a gimmick. Most people won’t even have jump leads — they’ll just call a breakdown service to come and rescue them. Let’s talk about something that really matters, er, the hybrid multi information display screens. Oh that’s right. Your Hyundai doesn’t have one.

ST: It’s a bit of an oversight, I agree. It would be far more interesting to drive this around knowing exactly what is going on under the bonnet. The Ioniq does have a display but it is buried next to the speedometer and isn’t as large, colourful or elaborate as the Prius’s but it does the job well. Everything you need to know regarding efficiency, range, driving patter, regenerative braking etc are all shown here. Do you actually need all that paraphernalia?

You can keep your eyes on what’s going on under the skin of the Prius thanks to two screens displaying all sorts of information

The Hyundai interior albeit comfortable isn’t as tech-laden as the Toyota’s

IM: It makes driving these cars a bit more interesting. Gadget fans will love the 4.2in digital display at the top of the dash. It shows everything from your speed and fuel economy to what’s going on with the car’s petrol-electric drive system and it even scores how efficient you’re being. It is good to know what your hybrid is up to when you are on the move. And it has a 7.0in infotainment touchscreen that doubles up as a rearview camera.

ST: Let’s talk about fuel efficiency. When we filled up, you got a range of 965km and I got 998km. And after a drive of 229km, you spent 5.1 litres per 100km while I only spent 4.6 litres for a 100km. So, mine’s better.

IM: 500ml of fuel over 100km isn’t much to get excited about. At current rate you are only saving around Dh1...

ST: True. But that brings us to our initial question. Are these cars actually good in saving fuel and in turn cutting down on emissions? I don’t remember any car the size of the Prius or the Ioniq returning figures this frugal, and that too in combined city/highway cycles. And considering that these two are not priced much higher than a mainstream mid-size car powered by an internal combustion engine makes them really attractive.

IM: You could probably get really decent fuel economy with a four-banger if you er, are only going downhill and don’t use the AC. Anyway, let’s face it — cars of this ilk are the future of the motoring industry and these two aren’t bad at all. They have well-appointed interiors, plenty of standard kit and heck they even have attractively styled exteriors. Now that we’re done here, let’s go and find that XJ6. I know a mechanic in Ajman that’ll shove a mighty 580 horse LSA under the bonnet for you. Or do you want an electric motor?