If you’re a fan of the unorthodox or simply want one of the best-built cars on the road that just happens to pass by more fuel pumps than anything not purely electric, the new Prius is for you.
The countless Prius taxi cabs with insanely high mileage clearly attest to the car’s dependable build quality whereas its unusual new styling certainly speaks loudly for itself, as does 58 mpg city, 53 highway and 56 combined in its most efficient trim or 54 city, 50 highway and 52 combined as tested.
Toyota smartly organizes its Prius into both numbered and traditionally named trim lines, the base model simply dubbed Two, with subsequent trims named Two Eco, Three, Three Touring, Four and Four Touring. My tester was the Four, which meant that it was almost fully featured, other than a sharp looking set of angular fog lamps, LED accent lights, larger 17-inch five-spoke alloys and a special rear bumper treatment. While this seems fairly straightforward and easy to understand, the choice of features within the two topmost packages don’t make a lot of sense.
Let me explain by saying the Prius you see here is top of the line, kind of. If you attempt to “build” a Prius via Toyota’s online configurator you’ll initially see Four Touring trim as the priciest model with a suggested window sticker of $30,000 plus freight and dealer fees, compared to this Four that starts at $28,650 (the base Two model can be had for just $24,200), and the price difference makes immediate sense as it boasts all the styling upgrades just mentioned as well as a standard Toyota Safety Sense package that includes auto high beams, full-speed dynamic cruise control, lane departure alert with steering assist, and pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, items missing from the non-Touring Four trim. So if you don’t bother to configure the less expensive model you might never realize it can be had with a $3,640 Advanced Technology package that ups its content to include that Toyota Safety Sense package as well as a number of features not available with the Four Touring, such as a head-up display unit that projects speed, navigation and hybrid system information onto the windshield for easy viewing without taking your eyes from the road, and a powered moonroof. In other words you get an improved car minus the sportier, more attractive aluminum wheels and ultra-stylish fogs. Yes, for reasons I can’t begin to fathom Toyota doesn’t offer a fully loaded Prius in its U.S. lineup and therefore we’re stuck making a nail-biting decision, to go with style or substance?
I know what I would do. I’d opt for all of the Advanced Technology package’s kit by choosing the fully featured Four trim, buy the fog lamp fittings from my local dealer’s parts counter, and then upgrade the wheels with an even sweeter set of aftermarket rims, because I really like the wow factor and safety benefits of the head-up display.
The Prius’ general design is certainly eye-catching. The radically shaped standard LED headlamps grab initial attention unless viewing from the back, at which point its equally stunning LED taillights shock with delight, followed by a body shell that boasts myriad complex folds and curves from any vantage point and all angles.
It’s large, even more so than the car it replaces, with 2.4 inches of additional length and 0.6 inches of extra width, albeit a slight drop in height at 0.8 inches, yet it rides on an identical 106.3-inch wheelbase. This results in even better space optimization than the outgoing model, with loads of room up front and even more in the comfortable back seat and a cargo compartment (increased by 3.0 cubic feet over the old car to 24.6 cubic feet). My tester had yet another 2.7 cubic feet of stowage space because of a tire repair kit, resulting in a total of 27.4 cubic feet behind the rear seats. Of course there’s more space when you lower those 60/40 split-folding rear seatbacks, making the Prius good for loading in bicycles, furniture and other large items.
Enough about practicalities, what about luxury? Luxury in a Prius? That’s right. Toyota listened to customer wants and needs as well as we auto journalists’ constant complaints and improved the latest model’s cabin considerably. They even went so far to wrap the front roof pillars with fabric, a totally unexpected upgrade that lends the car premium ambience, although not as much overall richness as the luxuriously soft synthetic instrument panel and similarly supple front door uppers, the latter added when moving up from Two to Three trim, whereas the comfortable armrests have been upgraded as well as the seats. Toyota finished the instrument panel, the door inserts and the seat surfacing of my tester in an attractive Harvest Beige hue, available with its $395 optional Hypersonic Red exterior paint, which makes for a stylish two-tone design. Those door inserts are made from a nice soft painted harder plastic that you’ll find difficult to tell apart from the soft stuff due to the same grain and matte finish, plus it feels nicer than the old car’s plastics and absorbs sound better too.
The primary gauge cluster once again resides at center atop the dash, and while visibility has never been optimal in this position (the head-up display helps in this respect) it’s a much finer unit than the one prior thanks to crisper resolution, brighter colors and better graphics, while it’s filled with two driver-configurable 4.2-inch color multi-information displays for monitoring energy use, the flow of ICE (internal combustion engine) and hybrid system energy, plus your Eco score, while also providing driver support systems, audio info, navigation info, and much more, whereas the seven-inch infotainment touchscreen on the center stack is a particularly well executed bit of digital art and filled with a split display, rearview camera with guidelines, accurate navigation system, advanced voice recognition, Toyota’s App Suite, six-speaker AM/FM/CD audio with aux and USB ports, plus Bluetooth hands-free with phonebook access and streaming audio, whereas a Qi-compatible wireless smartphone charger sits in the lower console just below.
Where the infotainment display and nicely designed single-zone auto HVAC interface are surrounded in black lacquered plastic that’s thicker at center before tapering as it nears the doors in a very nice example of artistic interior design work, that lower console is oddly formed from white lacquered plastic, another addition that starts in Three trim and continues upward, which will either leave you loving it or hating it. I like it a lot, as well as the glossy white used for the small shifter panel, but I must admit to finding it strange that the only other car to employ anything similar was the previous generation Chevrolet Volt.
Styling aside, my Prius Four included a lot of items not yet mentioned such as heated powered side mirrors, proximity-sensing entry with pushbutton start, rain-sensing wipers, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, tilt and telescopic steering, a universal garage door opener, an eight-way powered driver’s seat with powered lumbar support, heated front seats, Softex pleather upholstery, front clearance and reverse parking sensors, Toyota’s Intelligent Parking Assist (self-parking), laminated side glass (for noise reduction), active grille shutters, auto on/off Bi-LED projector low- and high-beam headlamps with LED accents, LED DRLs, LED tail lamps, ABS-enhanced four-wheel discs, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist, Smart Stop Technology, traction and stability control, front seatbelt pretensioners and force limiters, active front headrests with whiplash protection, blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and all the Toyota Safety Sense features mentioned earlier, plus all the usual airbags as well as a knee blocker for the driver and a front passenger seat cushion airbag. So equipped the Prius earns an IIHS Top Safety Pick + rating, while all trims achieve five stars from the NHTSA.
Noteworthy, the pedestrian detection feature that comes as part of the Toyota Safety Sense package incorporates millimeter-wave radar within the windshield-mounted camera’s recognition data, while the headlamps get near-infrared-ray projectors to help detect pedestrians at night, very helpful when driving down a dark road at high speed.
High speed in a Prius? Don’t laugh. While the previous model wasn’t exactly a performance car but it went well enough, this new one is an altogether more entertaining five-door. Just flick the fabulous electric blue shifter knob into “D” before pressing the Drive Mode selector past Eco to Power mode and then head for the hills. Hopefully you’ll find some nice long straights to let its legs stretch on your way, although it really impresses in the curves. Yes, I’m still talking about a Prius, and while this Four isn’t quite as nimble as the Touring model due to its smaller rims and higher profile tires it’s still a mover, hustling quickly through snaking backroads and feeling poised and confident during the process.
In order to achieve such grace under pressure Toyota’s engineers recalibrated the steering for better response and even more importantly replaced the old torsion beam rear suspension with a more capable independent double wishbone design as part of a change to the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA), while the battery is now placed under the rear seat for a lower center of gravity (and that extra cargo space noted earlier) plus the body shell is much more rigid, all combining for deft handling characteristics. The new suspension design also makes the Prius smoother over pavement irregularities, while all the added stiffness mentioned a moment ago makes it a quieter car too.
Additionally, the new Prius felt quicker at takeoff and stronger during passing maneuvers, but its on-paper performance makes it appear as if it should be slower than the old model. Really, last year’s Prius was said to be good for 134 net system horsepower and this year’s model only puts out 121, but take heart as this has more to do with changes to the Japanese rating system than anything electromechanical, the performance improvements are quite real. Despite the Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine’s identical 1.8-liter displacement and variable valve timing with intelligence (VVT-i) it’s a completely new powerplant that’s now capable of 40-percent greater thermal efficiency, depending on operating conditions, while Toyota redesigned each and every component of its Hybrid Synergy Drive system so as to improve efficiency while reducing size, weight and cost.
All trims but the base Two model include the upgraded 0.75-kilowatt per hour lithium-ion motive battery. (The Two is outfitted with the 1.2-kW/h nickel-metal hydride power unit.) This said, the fact that there is now a choice between two batteries is a first for the Prius, other than the plug-in model that carries forward this year in the old body style, 4.4-kW/h L-ion battery and all. The benefit of two batteries in the new car is twofold: the older NiMH unit allowing for a less expensive entry-level price point and the introduction of L-ion technology elevating the new Prius’ image.
I don’t know about you, but the new 2016 Prius certainly doesn’t have an image problem. Along with its daring exterior and much-improved interior comes heightened performance as well as even better fuel economy, a win-win combination if there ever was one. While Toyota will want to remedy its optional trim issues quickly so buyers who want a Prius with the works aren’t seen arguing with their dealer about not being able to get fog lamps and 17-inch alloys on the techiest version of this ultimately high-tech hybrid, the car itself is a major improvement over the previous model that was already one of the best HEVs on the market. Expect to see this new Prius just about everywhere soon.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press; Photo credits: Trevor Hofmann and Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press; Copyright: American Auto Press