The fabulous Susan Sarandon drove in one to this year’s Academy Awards night with partner Tim Robbins. Sting, Robin Williams and Charlize Theron did too, while Tom Hanks, Jim Carrey, Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz paid up for theirs.

I’m talking about the Toyota Prius, the world’s first petrol/electric hybrid production car, and it’s shaping up as that rare thing -¦ the classless car. Hollywood royalty are as likely to drive one as a Hornsby house-hubby. It also happened to the original Mini, driven by The Beatles as well as Mrs Miggins across the road.

Okay, so the Prius isn’t exactly cheap -“ $36,990 -“ but it’s jam-packed with features and is around the price of a Holden Commodore. Plus it’s $3,000 less than last year’s model.

And it’s evolved -“ into a larger, genuine five-seater, since it’s now grown from Corolla to virtually Camry size. Plus there’s a handier (456-litre) hatch instead of a boot.

Stylistically the Prius is more Thelma (hello, Geena) and less Louise (sorry, Susan) in its youthful sexiness -¦ well, maybe more Velma from Scooby Do, anyway. A Citro?badge would be at home on it. Inside, a space-age dash features digital instrumentation and a central screen for monitoring everything from climate and audio functions to how the petrol/electric interface is working.

Petrol/electric inter-what?

Well, basically, the Prius drives like a modern 2.0-litre car (such as, say, a Mazda3) but delivers better fuel economy (and lower emissions) than a Toyota Echo 1.3. Complex electronics seamlessly marry a 57kW 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine with an electric motor and a battery to create a V8-beating 478Nm of torque. The battery, which should last around 15 years, is recharged by the engine and regenerative energy from when the car brakes. Meanwhile fuel use and emissions are slashed by half. It makes a big difference in a city like Sydney.

And it all works so smoothly and reliably. Toyota boasts that the old Prius -“ out elsewhere since 1997 -“ had fewer warranty claims than its Corolla.

The interior’s futuristic design is fresh and inviting, and easily becomes second nature. It’s light and airy in there thanks to the deep windows and metallic-like trim accents, making the car pleasant in town.

If you opt for the $8,100-extra i-Tech package, there’s the Smart Entry device, a key that stays in your purse/wallet/bag as you approach the car, and you don’t have to slot it into the ignition to get going. The i-Tech also adds (superb) satellite navigation, side and head airbags, a stability control, Bluetooth hands-free phone abilities and a high-end audio.

And, you know what? It’s fun to explore all the technology on offer. As a driver, it’s fun to (a) see how long you can drive solely on electric power (around two kilometres at under 30km/h); (b) try to beat your fuel economy record (4.4L/100km is Toyota’s claim) using the dash screen read-out; and (c) see how the hybrid system works via a real-time schematic. Nerdy but cool.

The Prius II is also comfortable, almost silent (especially when running on electricity-only), luxury-car refined and fast (0-100km/h in 10.9 seconds, 180km/h V-max). There’s a continuously variable transmission (CVT-auto) for easy, effortless progress, aided by a stubby lever that juts out of the dash just where you need it.

It’s a good thing that the Prius handles and grips as safely as it does, because you’re unlikely to love it if great steering or sharp handling is your thing. While aeons ahead of the old model, overly light steering and a ponderous feel when cornering compromise today’s car -“ not helped by the batteries’ heft underneath the rear floor.

But it’s a minor niggle in a monumental effort by Toyota. Compared to the original Prius it’s faster but more economical, better riding yet (considerably) more agile, larger but even less polluting, and more avant-garde yet also more accessible. Now making a green statement isn’t just for Hollywood celebrities!

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