Here’s the Toyota Prius paradox: Everything you’ve ever heard about it is true. It’s a green car landmark, but it’s also a threat to our old-fashioned gas-guzzling ways. It blew open the door for a whole generation of hybrids and EVs, but at the expense of our fire-breathing performance cars and gigantic SUVs. It’s both a clear-eyed step in the right direction and a smug reminder of how imperfect everyone who doesn’t drive one is. It’s redefined what economy cars should be, and was instrumental in kicking off the internal combustion engine’s death watch. If you’re looking for a four-wheeled litmus test for the automotive community, look no further than Toyota’s hybrid.
For the better part of 20 years, the Prius has been a mousy-looking econo-hatch — an offensively inoffensive thing that’s worked its way into a seemingly hostile American landscape. For most of that time, Toyota has elected to play it safe — after all, it’s easier to sell radical technology if it’s in a familiar package. And yet it’s still managed to be pegged as the stereotypical car of “Lib-rulls” everywhere, was all but named public enemy No. 1 on Top Gear, and inspired hundreds of diesel pickup owners to emblazon “Prius Repellent” across the back of their coal-rolling trucks.
That’s pretty heavy stuff for any entry-level car, regardless of what’s under the hood. So in a move that should embolden Prius lovers and annoy the haters to no end, the new-for-2016 Prius is loud and proud. Compared to the Prii that came before it, this one’s a flying middle finger to the coal rollers out there. Don’t like the most popular hybrid in America? Deal with it. Nobody asked you anyway.
And — shocked as we are to say it — we love it for this.
The Prius offers a driving experience different from anything else in its price point. It’s comfortable and well-built too. But most importantly, it revels in its otherness in a way that most modern cars (especially Toyotas) wouldn’t dare to do. The Prius looks, feels, and drives differently than virtually anything else out there, and Toyota wants you to know that the moment you lay eyes on it. After a week with a Plus Four model, we came away with a whole new level of respect for it.
Much ado has been made about the Prius’s new sheet metal, and with good cause. Firmly on the same spectrum as the upscale Prius Prime and the hydrogen-powered Mirai, the Prius is sharp and angular like the other two, but somehow a little more palatable than either. The result is a car that’s delightfully — almost gleefully — weird, and a far cry from the lozenge-shaped models of the past. Even though Lexus has been letting its freak flag fly lately, we’re one year in from the Prius’s redesign and we’re still a little shocked that this is a Toyota. We’d expect styling like this from an automaker like Citroën, but this is a radical new direction for the Corolla-RAV4 company. We don’t know what the water in Toyota City has been spiked with, but maybe they should up the dose. Let’s see where this creative streak goes.
The ’16 Prius is over 2 inches longer than the previous model, as well as nearly an inch lower and wider. Believe it or not, this (along with all the angular sheet metal) gives the car a sculpted, dynamic look. Yes, you can insert an acceleration joke here if you’d like, but the results speak for themselves. Put this car next to a 2015 model and tell us which one looks like more fun to drive.
Out back, the split rear window has been a hallmark since the first-generation car, but here, its rakish angle and slight spoiler give it a sporty look, like a classic Honda CRX or newer CR-Z. Unfortunately, we never got over the thick bar breaking up our rear visibility. We also worry about the complex lighting on the extreme corners, but they’re key in making the Prius as striking as it is. Just be extra careful when you’re parking; we don’t want to know how much a replacement taillight would cost.
Exterior pros and cons
+ Way to go bold, Toyota. Keep it up.
+ The fourth-generation car is a big leap forward for the model. Every line and angle on the car telegraphs it.
+ Severely angled rear quarters pair with the fastback roofline to convey a strong sense of movement. Yeah, on a Prius.
– The new design is eye-catching, but not everyone wants eye-catching.
– There’s a lot of expensive lighting hanging out over those corners.
– Split rear window is visually interesting from the outside but impedes rear visibility.
It says a lot that Toyota’s press launch for the Prius was more focused on performance than economy. Our Micah Wright covered the event, and wrote:
The Prius is now built around a foundation of “emotional styling,” a mantra that proudly showcases a far more aggressive stance, a 60% stiffer chassis, double-wishbone rear suspension, more tech and safety than you can shake a stylus at, noticeable power gains, and a sizable bump in fuel efficiency. All of these improvements shoulder Toyota’s goal of maintaining the Prius’s domination in the hybrid octagon, as it continues to outsell its nearest competitors seven-fold.
That stiffer chassis means the car can now take a corner without a fuss, even if it’s still hamstrung somewhat by economy-minded tires that sacrifice road feel for MPGs. Paired with a new multilink rear suspension and revised battery placement for a lower center of gravity, the Prius is no longer a chore to drive.
Power comes from a 1.8 liter Atkinson cycle inline four paired with an electric motor for 120 horsepower and 105 pound-feet of torque. That’s actually down from the previous generation’s 134 horses/153 pound-feet, but it will still go from zero to 60 in 10.5 seconds, just like the last one did. Thankfully, the electric motor gives enough low and mid-range torque to keep you from getting too bored. The sole transmission is a CVT (controlled by a dainty blue lever mounted on the dash), but it actually feels appropriate here. Switching between pure electric power and the gas engine in local traffic, it does its job well and ensures that everything keeps moving seamlessly.
As a result of this partnership, you’re rewarded with an EPA estimated 52 miles per gallon combined — making it the most efficient vehicle on the market that doesn’t need an electrical outlet. In a week of regular driving, we consistently saw around 50 and were perfectly happy with that.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ The Prius’s added rigidity, lower center of gravity, and new suspension actually make it something of an engaging drive.
+ 1.8 liter four, electric motor, and CVT get along nicely, allowing for a seamless transition of power. Plus, you know, over 50 miles per gallon.
+ Regenerative breaking both reduces wear on the brakes and quickly recharges the batteries, even on cold days.
– Tires and steering feel still leave something to be desired.
– It may be more engaging to drive, but the Prius is still one slow car.
Step inside the Prius, and you’ll find the car everyone born between 1950 and 1990 was promised that they’d be driving “in the future.” The center stack is interesting in how it crests above the dash at a canted angle like a piece of expressionist sculpture, but lots of hard, shiny white and piano black plastic left us wondering how will it will hold up to years of abuse. Still, brand new, it fits in well with the car’s overall outré look. Like past Prii, the rest of the dash is empty and uncluttered, but the center-mounted instrument panel is now in full color, adding to the car’s space pod vibe. We also like how the blue accents surrounding the dash vents, atop the shift knob, and on the digital speedometer break up all that black and white.
The SofTex seats with contrast stitching are nice and comfortable on long trips, and are surprisingly well bolstered for a sensible hybrid. Bubbles in the headliner give backseat passengers a usable amount of headroom despite the sloping roofline too. The center console and front bin provide plenty of usable storage space, and overall, fit and finish are great, just like you’d expect from any Toyota.
Interior pros and cons
+ Interior design is almost as interesting as the exterior, but it’s less polarizing.
+ Full color display and blue accents break up all that black and white nicely.
+ Every seat in the house is pretty comfortable.
– The added headroom bubbles for rear passengers are greatly appreciated, but it still gets tight back there if you’re over 6 feet tall.
– We worry what all that glossy plastic will look like after a few years of daily use.
Tech and safety
The Prius has long been a tech and safety powerhouse, and the trend continues with the fourth-generation model. With that stiffer chassis, and front, side curtain, seat-mounted, and driver’s knee airbags, this car has earned a Top Safety+ rating from the IIHS, and a five-star rating from NHTSA. Add to it a blind spot monitor, cross traffic alert, lane departure warning, backup camera, and pre-collision warning, and you’ve got yourself one safe little car.
Inside, there’s a 7-inch full-color touchscreen with Toyota’s solid Etune infotainment system, bolstered by physical HVAC and radio controls — two things that we just aren’t ready to cede to technology yet. There’s also a wireless phone charging port for non-iPhone users. But the big surprise for us is the EcoScore display in the instrument panel. While we thought it was gimmicky at first, it’s enough to turn just about anyone into a wannabe hypermiler. Seriously.
At first, the display (located right next to the speedometer) bugged the shit out of us. It scores you in real time on your acceleration, cruising speed, and braking. When you put the car in park, tips on how to improve your score pop up on the screen. We were initially annoyed by this, but then got competitive with it. “Oh yeah?” we thought, “I’ll show you, EcoScore!” Suddenly we were obsessed with it, trying to improve our Prius driving skills to get a higher score — probably at the extreme annoyance of everyone else on the road. It may be a little childish, but if you have a competitive streak, it will suck you in. And while it can be distracting on the road at times, its tips helped to improve our fuel gains by the end of our week with it.
Tech and safety pros and cons
+ Entune infotainment system is quick and easy to use, and we love the fact that HVAC and stereo still have physical controls.
+ The Prius has finally graduated to a color instrument panel.
+ We had a passionate love/hate relationship with the EcoScore. It’s like an incredibly frustrating video game! Every time you drive!
– Like any video game, EcoScore can be distracting. Plus, the highest score we ever got was 94 out of 100 …
– Glossy touchscreen gets washed out in the sun and needs regular cleaning to stay clear.
The best advice we can give to people who love or hate Prii is this: Drive one, because the new Prius is refreshingly different. If you love them, then you’ll notice that it handles better, has a roomier interior, and is more efficient than ever. If you hate them, you’ll quickly realize that it’s a completely different animal from a standard gas-powered car. It may still be the beginning of the end, but at this point, it’s mostly harmless.
It drives so differently that our initial impression reminded me of a vehicle from my past: The 10-ton Yale electric fork truck I drove to pay my way through college. Turn the car on, and it just sits there. The only way you know its on is through the instrument panel. Shift the odd, dainty lever into Drive, and you’re whisked away in silence, and with just enough torque to make things interesting. We’ve never been able to compare a car to the fork before, but fortunately, any similarities between the two end there.
Even with the 1.8 liter four on, the Prius stays surprisingly quiet, even if the eco-minded tires make a bit of road noise at highway speeds, and the engine protests under heavy acceleration. You get the most out of those 121 ponies in Sport mode (yes, it has a sport mode), but expect your EcoScore to suffer for it.
Regenerative braking helps recharge the battery pack quickly, and shifting the car into “B” on long hill descents juices the batteries surprisingly fast. As for that superlative gas mileage, the powertrain is aided by the car’s aggressive styling, which has a seriously aerodynamic 0.24 drag coefficient. Aided by active aerodynamics (See? It does have something in common with sports cars!), the Prius is still a green machine first and foremost, but combined with the revised suspension, the driving experience can actually be described as fun — and that’s a first for the model.
Wrap up and review
Confession time: After spending time in first- and third-generation Prii, we didn’t have high expectations for the latest model, despite its eye-catching new look and improved ride. But we were quickly won over. The 2016 Prius is gloriously different in almost every way. It isn’t fast, there’s still plenty of room for improvement in how it drives, it has plenty of quirks (the aforementioned bar across the rear window and the internal beeping alarm whenever you’re in reverse quickly come to mind), and your threshold for weird cars could be much lower than ours, but we respect the hell out of Toyota for going bold here.
Because like it or not, the Prius is a disruptive car, and 20 years in and 3.5 million sold, it’s likely the most iconic green car of all time. And starting at just $24K and topping out in the mid $30K range (our Plus Four rang up at $31,743), it truly offers cutting-edge tech that’s within reach of virtually everybody. Unless you’ve jumped on the Prius bandwagon a long time ago or still hate these things just because, the new model probably won’t raise your pulse much. But we’re ready to call this one the best Prius yet. So if you’re looking to make the leap to an affordable hybrid, now’s the time to do it. Just remember to take some pride in Prius ownership, because people will stare. For the first time time ever, they’ll have a reason to.
P.S.: Just don’t get let EcoScore rattle your cage too much. It’s a smarmy little bastard.