The rally-car spotter’s guide saved in our mental database is flush with images of Subaru Imprezas, Audi Quattros, and Ford Cosworths—race cars synonymous with getting air over a backwoods roller, carrying triple-digit speeds through a tunnel of trees, and turbos whooshing with brapipipbrappinganti-lag flames firing from the exhaust. But a Toyota Prius rally car? Error 404: File not found.
Before we go further, don’t confuse this Prius with the aero-equipped freakazoid and factory-backed Toyota Gazoo Racing Yaris World Rally Challenge (WRC) racer or the Yaris GR set to compete 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 hatchback to dirty heights. Adapting a stock Toyota for rallying is nothing new for this team. Their previous dirt-spewing 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 gutted the interior and transformed the cockpit into a safe space by welding in a FIA-spec roll cage, bolting in Sparco racing seats with five-point harnesses, and replacing all the windows with lightweight plexiglass. The exterior remains largely unchanged, the exception being some LED lights, a tow hook, skid plates, and a roof scoop. The scoop is mostly for looks; the Rally retains the Prius’s air-conditioning system to keep the pilot and navigator comfortable and also the 1.3-kWh nickel-metal hydride battery pack cool and happy.
To endure the thrashing it would receive running a rally stage, the team modified the Rally’s suspension. Since the Prius is built on Toyota’s New Global Architecture (TNGA) which is shared with many vehicles, there are abundant suspension components that will bolt right on. The team settled on RAV4 TRD dampers on the front and rear axles with Camry and Avalon TRD springs, respectively. The combo adds 0.7 inch of ground clearance. To keep the suspension from bottoming out on impacts, an additional half of a bump stop was added at each corner. To allow the suspension to work more independently, the stock anti-roll bars were removed at both ends.
A Prius AWD-e might be out of place on a wet and slick rally-cross course in a limestone parking lot, but the Rally-tuned fuel miser feels at home here. The suspension dulls impacts over undulating surfaces rather than crashing through them. There’s a surprising amount of surefootedness even when the rear unloads while transitioning from corner to corner. The team deemed the standard 15-inch wheels were tough enough for off-road duty and fitted them with medium-compound Cooper Rally rubber. Yanking a few fuses disabled the anti-lock braking and stability-control systems, enabling the rare opportunity to throw a Prius into a corner with a Scandinavian flick. Sadly, the handbrake was removed, but the engineering team envisions eventually using the regenerative braking from the rear motor to assist directional changes.
Dive hard onto the brakes while adding a quick right-left input into the steering wheel and the Prius Rally will go into an epic slide. The Cooper tires toss up dirt and rocks that ping off the bare sheetmetal like a hailstorm in a mobile-home community. Making a Prius go fast in the dirt is like going fast in Mazda Miata on a road course: Maintain speed at all costs. The Prius Rally’s stock powertrain is far from inspiring. The hybrid powertrain up front generates 121 horsepower while the rear motor pumps out a puny seven horsepower and removes itself from the party above 40 mph. In a previous test, a stock Prius AWD-e crawled to 60 mph in not-so-racy 10.7 seconds. Add some dense soil and slow corner exits to the equation and the Prius Rally is simply overwhelmed, like a tired animal mired in quicksand.
The lack of power is something the team plans to address, and the TNGA platform offers options. The lovely 302-hp powertrain found in the RAV4 Prime seems like a no-brainer, or at least its larger battery pack and 53-hp rear motor. But first, the team needs to figure out where the American Rally Association (ARA) will classify their creation. To date, the Prius has competed in one event, but because a hybrid rally car is uncharted territory—WRC is going hybrid in 2022—they were only allowed to run in the untimed exhibition class. With BMX superstar and X Games gold-medalist Jamie Bestwick behind the wheel, the team says the car performed reliably, which made for boring pit stops. After each stage, nothing required mending, it barely used any fuel, and only consumables such as tires and brake pads needed to be replaced.
The work done to create the Prius Rally has transformed an otherwise dull appliance 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, the Rally is less about what the car is than what it could be. We’ll happily come back for whatever it becomes.
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