Over the past 20 years, the Toyota Prius has been the world’s most successful “alternative”-fuel vehicle, largely because it doesn’t depend on that fuel — electricity. Rather, it runs a gas-and-electric motor at the same time, most of the time, to maximise mpg’s and minimise emissions.
Over 3 million Priuses have been sold globally — 3 million!
The Prius said “Hello, world!” for the first time in 1997, in Japan. Back then, the car was effectively a Toyota Echo sedan with the “Hybrid Synergy” drivetrain dropped in. That was enough to get the ball rolling, and in 2001 the Prius came to America, and America never looked back. “Hybrid” became a household word, and as gas prices rose in the 2000s and SUVs slipped in popularity, the Prius had the first-mover advantage to end them all.
When I lived in Los Angeles — a big market for the Prius, thanks to gas prices in the region that are higher than the national average and lengthy commute times — it was hard to go a day without seeing a Prius. And if we had friends over, the streets were lined with Priuses.
Oddly, we never owned one, but when it came time to get a new car on the East Coast, I headed straight for a Toyota dealership and all but drove home an hour later with a 2011 Prius. As a moderately used car for the suburbs, the Prius has no peer. Best off all, it costs me $18 to gas up — once a month.
That’s the beating heart of Prius love, if you ask me. You may not like the offbeat looks, the extremely disconnected driving experience, the plasticky interior, or the wimpy horsepower, but all is forgiven when you get change from a twenty at the filling station that first time. Hallelujah! Praise Prius!!
My car is a third-generation model. In 2015, Toyota launched the fourth generation, with some interesting upgrades, including more aggressive styling. Would this undermine all that has made the Prius loved and hated in equal measure?
Toyota lent us a 2016 Prius Three Touring, which tipped the cost scales at $28,100 as tested, so we had a chance to find out.
The sun was out at our suburban New Jersey automotive HQ. The Prius was 'grey metallic' and looked quite nice.
Two Priuses are better than one! Note that on the '16, the styling is more aggressive and angular. This change has already polarised some of the Prius community: A lot of loyal owners don't want the car to get more interesting-looking.
And there's still a massive amount of cargo space in the back (a few cubic feet more than the outgoing Prius), with even more available if you fold down the rear seats. This makes the hatchback configuration very versatile.
The two-tone interior gives this trim level of the Prius a sci-fi vibe. I kept thinking this this is what the upholstery in a 'Star Trek' shuttlecraft is like. It's called 'Moonstone.'
The steering wheel isn't much altered from the previous generation. And there's still overall a very plasticky feel to the interior.
The famous, or infamous, shifter, sticking right of the dash like the stick on an Alfa Romeo from the '70s. Easy to use, though. 'B' provides engine breaking when going down hills. It doesn't return power to the hybrid drive, as some owners (Including myself, at one point!) think.
And there's the legendary Hybrid Synergy Drive tucked under the hood. Not exactly the sort of thing that makes gearheads rejoice. But tech-savvy folks adore it as an efficient masterpiece of engineering.
You know it's a Prius as soon as you start it up. The information-display screens and the center infotainment screens are a big improvement over the previous generation.
Prius owners love to geek out over their mpg's, and the car is happy to feed that geekery with a variety of charts and graphs that can be accessed on demand.
I was averaging an impressive 51 mpg in some not-holding-back combined city and highway driving (I'm the farthest thing there is from a hypermiler). That's a noticeable improvement on the 40 mpg I see in my older Prius.
You have four modes: Normal, Eco, which provides maximum everyday mpg's, EV, which gives you brief all-electric driving, and ...
POWER MODE! I was in this mode, which peps up performance, most of the time, because I wanted to see how this new Prius performed when compared with my 2011 -- kind of fun in Power Mode -- and some of the juicier cars we've tested recently.
... and of course satellite radio, Bluetooth connectivity, and USB ports to connect devices. It's all managed from the touchscreen and with the steering-wheel controls. It didn't blow me away, be it works fine. And I've always liked the JBL audio system.
The driving experience is similar to the previous generation, which is an easy, easy, easy car to drive. But the driving never calls attention to itself. This is what all the Prius haters complain about: It's a goldarn transportation appliance, goldarnit! It's not even a real goldarn auto-mo-beel!
Enthusiasts may recoil, but for a large number of people this incredibly fuel-efficient and exceptionally reliable transportation appliance is just right. I spend less than $300 annually on gas, and that's with the outgoing model. If I had the new model, I'd save more.
The engine is still, on paper, unimpressive: only 95 horsepower, from a 1.8-litre, 4-cylinder powerplant, yoked to a continuously variable transmission (CVT) with the electric motor bringing the total horsepower up to 121. The aerodynamics have been improved, and the hybrid system tweaked, so overall fuel economy is better, and that's what most Prius buyers really care about most. They don't much care about 0-60 mph times (Toyota says 10 seconds) or the top speed (Who even knows?)
The car feels beefed up, ever so slightly, and some weight has been added, thanks to a revamped rear suspension. It gives you the sense of being better planted in corners. It's also a little bit better at highway cruising, and the hybrid powertrain is quieter, so long trips are more relaxing.
But basically, it's the same old Prius -- well, the same old previous generation, anyway -- subjected to the Toyota Way and continually improved. And that's rather reassuring. Nobody wanted a radically different new Prius.
And here's the thing: the new Prius is better than the old Prius in one critical way -- the gas mileage is even better. That's always been the Prius' best feature.
The Prius just RELAXES me. I go into a happy state of driving Zen when I'm behind the wheel. From my POV, this is a triumph: a relaxed driver is a GOOD driver. It's not like I'm nodding off to sleep. The 2016 Prius is a tiny bit better than the outgoing Prius, and the next generation will be a tiny bit better than this new generation. Is life too short to think about your car? If so, then this is the car for you.
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