Break free of the city in the New Prius

To bust a few hybrid myths, we take the New Prius far away from city life and discover a car that’s just as suited to the open road as it is to urban sprawl. It’s a lot of fun to drive, too

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Skirting the far reaches of the British Isles, Scotland’s new tourist route, the North Coast 500 (NC500), is hoping to become the country’s answer to Route 66.

The 516-mile journey offers visitors ‘fairytale castles, beaches and ruins’ linked by fantastic, world-class driving roads. And just as America’s historic Route 66 attracts car and motorcycle enthusiasts from all over the world, Scotland hopes the NC500 will boost the Highlands economy by millions.

“From our enchanting wildlife and countless historic attractions to magnificent mountains, dramatic lochs and sandy beaches, the Highlands is a true touring paradise,” said VisitScotland chairman Mike Cantlay when the route was launched in 2014.

Since then, the NC500 has become one of the most talked about driving routes on earth, gaining global media coverage and praise. Behind the venture is the North Highland Initiative (NHI), an organisation founded by Prince Charles to promote some of Scotland’s finest coastal scenery. And what scenery it is. Rugged, remote and sparsely populated, its never-ending back roads wind through view after staggering view and snow-capped mountain ranges revealing a catalogue of dramatic cliffs, beautiful lochs and miles of empty white sandy beaches.


And it’s not just the scenery that’s spectacular. Weather conditions are subject to change from moment to moment, switching suddenly from glorious sun to brooding cloud, lashing rain or even snow and ice.

In every sense, this is a long, long way from normal city driving. To get the most out of the NC500 requires a capable, agile vehicle that’s enjoyable to drive. It also needs a good range. On the route’s wild, windswept northernmost sections, petrol stations are few and far between and drivers are warned to carry extra fuel cans if necessary.

Fortunately for us, we are driving the New Toyota Prius. As well as a striking new look, upgrades for 2016 include fourth-generation Toyota hybrid technology which has improved the car’s range and drivability.

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The Prius is the world’s favourite hybrid, with more than 3.5 million sold since Toyota produced the first model almost two decades ago. The new model is based on the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform. TNGA is a revolutionary new way of making cars and will form the foundation for all new Toyota vehicles. Put simply, it means new models will share platforms and many components, streamlining production. As a result, Toyota cars will be safer, better to drive thanks to a lower centre of gravity, and designed with more individual styling.

For the New Prius, this means a new, spacious cabin and a modern, angular body shape that makes it one of the most aerodynamic production cars on sale. It also means something else: fun. The Prius has a well-earned reputation as a super-efficient town car but this new version is built for spirited, open-road driving too. A lap of the NC500 will give the car a chance to really stretch its legs and show what it can do.

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The circular route begins and ends at Inverness Castle. At least three nights’ stay en route is recommended, which makes the tour perfect for a long weekend away.

We decide to drive the route clockwise from Inverness to the Kyle of Lochalsh on the west coast, then follow the rugged north coast to John o’Groats, before returning down the east coast and completing the loop in Inverness.

First impressions, on the fast, sweeping A-roads west from Inverness, are that the new Prius is a quiet, comfortable, yet nimble car with improved acceleration. And approaching the village of Lochcarron its stopping power is put to the test by the sudden appearance of a highland stag and several does strolling across the road. Firm but progressive, the brakes rise to the challenge, slowing us safely as the wild deer scatter into the trees.

Since the launch of the NC500, Lochcarron waterfront can resemble a car club rally on a summer’s day. A parade of motorhomes, vintage camper vans, classic sports cars and motorcycles pass down Main Street.

Many of their owners stop at the Waterside Cafe to fuel up on a full Scottish breakfast before tackling the breathtaking Bealach na Ba or Pass of the Cattle. Cafe owner Geoff Ellis says the new route has been very good for business and proudly points to a framed photo on the wall from the Ferrari Club Deutschland after their 2014 visit. “There were 24 Ferraris, all different colours, parked outside,” he says. “It was like a car show.”

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From Lochcarron, the vertiginous Bealach na Ba snakes over mountains to the north and west. One of the highest roads in Britain, it climbs from sea level to a height of 626m over a distance of six miles, providing spectacular views as it winds towards the Applecross peninsula. Gateway to the NC500 proper, the pass begins with a series of extreme switchbacks. As we prepare to make the steep climb, half a dozen scooterists descend and pull up next to us in the layby.

It’s the Isle of Man Scooter Club. Or, more specifically a section of the club called The Manx Highland Tootlers, comprising classic Lambretta and Vespa riders.

“We just like to go up to the Highlands and tootle around,” says rider Alan Kneen. “We come up once a year and drive around the Hebrides and Western Isles and the coast.” The group has made the annual trip for the last five years, clocking up around 600 miles in five days. “The scenery and the friendliness of the people are stunning,” says Alan. “You just don’t run out of scenery to be amazed by.

Leaving the Tootlers to the rest of their trip, we set off to climb the pass, following the single-track rollercoaster of a road up into the snow line and back down to the tiny coastal village of Applecross, 41 miles away. A sign warning learner drivers to turn back is a reminder that this is a seriously challenging road, but the Prius feels calm and capable with accurate steering and plenty of power for the demanding gradients.

From Applecross, the route hugs the rocky Atlantic coast all the way to Torridon, then turns inland, skirting the beautiful Lock Maree. We stop for lunch at The Mountain Coffee Company overlooking Strath Bay in Gairloch, then pick up the NC500 as it carves through the wild, awe-inspiring scenery of Wester Ross with its backdrop of snow-dusted peaks.

The roads in this remote region are quiet and what traffic there is seems to be mostly visiting sports cars, motorhomes or convoys of touring motorcyclists. While it may not be a sports car, the Prius proves a satisfying drive. It always feels planted on the road and when the 1.8-litre petrol engine kicks in under acceleration, it is smooth, quiet and refined.

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The picture-perfect harbour town of Ullapool is the main route to Scotland’s Western Isles, via car ferry to Stornoway. From here, the 67-mile road north to Durness offers some of the Highland’s most staggering views. But the roads are slow, the challenging terrain means fuel consumption is high and petrol stations are thin on the ground, so motorists are advised to fill up each morning to ensure they can travel at least 200 miles without running out of fuel.

None of this poses a problem for the Prius however, which has ample range to complete the entire 516-mile route on a single tank of petrol. Averaging around 60mpg over this mountainous route, the hybrid powertrain has proved itself to be remarkably efficient in such tough real-world driving conditions thanks in part to its sleek, finned styling, designed to slip efficiently through the air. In official government tests, the New Prius has achieved an incredible 94mpg.

To encourage efficient driving, the futuristic dashboard screen includes an eco-driving hybrid system assistant and dispenses handy advice at the end of each drive. “Good starting acceleration,” reads a message on the customisable multi-information display. “Decrease acceleration to improve,” suggests the assistant. This graphic is also part of the clever head-up display, which helpfully projects speed information onto the inside of the car’s windscreen.

Through the empty grandeur of treeless valleys to Loch Assynt and the ruins of Ardvreck Castle, we drive into the North West Highlands Geopark. Containing some of the oldest rock formations in the UK – much of it over 3 billion years old – this is one of two UNESCO Geoparks in Scotland.

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After an overnight stop in Lochinver, we head north past the impressive Old Man of Stoer sea stack and over the iconic curved Kylesku Bridge crossing Loch a’ Chairn Bhain.

Pressing further northwards through Sutherland towards Scourie, Cape Wrath and Durness, we follow the coast past Thurso to Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of the UK (not, as many believe, John o’ Groats, a few miles further east) with stark sea views stretching away towards Iceland.

Leaving the Roof of Britain behind, the route crosses the lonely moors of Caithness heading south towards the fishing port of Wick. The coastal road offers a stunning view of distant Moray Firth before passing the chateau-style Dunrobin Castle, and crossing the Kessock Bridge as the route comes full circle.

On reflection, I’m glad the NC500 has attracted new visitors but even happier this remote part of Britain retains its unique sense of wilderness and space. Like the New Prius, it seems set to be a success story.

Words: Richard Fleury    Photography: John Wycherley

Must-see places along the North Coast 500

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