Toyota’s Prius Rally falls and gets dirty
The Rally Car Watcher’s Guide saved in our mental database is packed with images of Subaru Imprezas, Audi Quattros and Ford Cosworths – racing cars synonymous with blowing air over a rear roller – plane, to carry triple-digit speeds through a tunnel of trees and whooshing turbos with brapipipbrappinganti-retardant flames drawn from the exhaust. But a Toyota Prius rally car? 404 error: file not found.
Before going any further, don’t confuse this Prius with the freakazoid aero-equipped racing driver and Toyota Gazoo Racing Yaris World Rally Challenge (WRC) or with the Yaris GR which will take part in the Australian Rally Challenge. The Prius Rally is an after-hours project car created by three Michigan-based Toyota engineers tasked with pushing the hybrid sedan to dirty heights. Adapting an original Toyota for rallying is nothing new for this team. Their previous dirt-spitting creation was a Corolla iM rally car.
To create the Prius Rally, the team selected the all-wheel drive Prius AWD-e. From there, they emptied the interior and transformed the cockpit into a safe space by welding in an FIA roll bar, bolting the Sparco racing seats with five-point harnesses, and replacing all windows with lightweight plexiglass. The exterior remains largely unchanged except for a few LED lights, a tow hook, skid plates, and a roof shovel. The scoop is primarily for looks; The Rally keeps the Prius’ air conditioning system to keep the rider and sailor comfortable, as well as the 1.3kWh nickel metal hydride battery cool and happy.
To endure the blows they would receive during a rally stage, the team changed the Rally suspension. Since the Prius is built on Toyota’s New Overall Architecture (TNGA) which is shared with many vehicles, there are many suspension components that lock together perfectly. The team opted for RAV4 TRD shocks on the front and rear axles with Camry and Avalon TRD springs, respectively. The combo adds 0.7 inch of ground clearance. To prevent the suspension from reaching the bottom during impacts, an additional half stop has been added at each corner. To allow the suspension to operate more independently, the original anti-roll bars have been removed at both ends.
A Prius AWD-e might not be out of place on a wet, slippery rally-cross course in a limestone parking lot, but the rally-tuned fuel miser feels at home here. The suspension works and dampens impacts on wavy surfaces rather than hitting them. There is a surprising amount of safety even as the rear unloads when transitioning from one turn to the next. The team felt the standard 15-inch wheels were tough enough for off-roading and fitted them with medium compound Cooper Rally rubber. Pulling a few fuses disabled the anti-lock braking and stability control systems, providing the rare opportunity to throw a Prius into a corner with a Scandinavian kick. Unfortunately, the handbrake has been removed, but the engineering team are considering eventually using rear engine regenerative braking to help with direction changes.
Dip hard on the brakes while adding quick right-left entry into the steering wheel and the Prius Rally will go into an epic slide. Cooper tires throw dirt and rocks that come loose from the bare metal sheet like a hailstorm in a mobile home community. Riding a Prius fast through the dirt is like going fast in a Mazda Miata on a road course: maintain speed at all costs. The Prius Rally’s standard powertrain is far from inspiring. The hybrid powertrain up front generates 121 horsepower while the rear engine pumps out seven horsepower and pulls out of the part above 40 mph. In a previous test, a stock Prius AWD-e crawled to 60 mph in not-so-racy 10.7 seconds. Add dense dirt and slow corner exits to the equation and the Prius Rally is simply submerged, like a tired animal mired in quicksand.
The team plans to address the lack of power, and the TNGA platform offers options. The charming 302-horsepower powertrain found in the RAV4 Prime seems like a no-brainer, or at least its larger battery and 53-horsepower rear motor. But first, the team needs to determine where the American Rally Association (ARA) will rank their creation. To date, the Prius has competed in one event, but since a hybrid rally car is uncharted territory – the WRC will become hybrid in 2022 – they were only allowed to race in the untimed show category. With BMX superstar and X Games gold medalist Jamie Bestwick at the wheel, the team claim the car ran reliably which made pit stops boring. After each step, nothing needed to be repaired, it used almost no fuel, and only consumables such as tires and brake pads needed to be replaced.
The work done to create the Prius Rally turned an otherwise drab device into a deeply entertaining experience. The team hopes to compete in more races and add more power in the coming months. And while more power can’t come soon enough, Rallying is less about what the car is and what it could be. We will gladly come back for whatever becomes of it.
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