A Prius that doesn’t drive like a Prius
The Toyota Prius is the granddaddy of all green machines. It’s been the hybrid gold standard for nearly 20 years. No other car is more closely tied to fuel-efficient technology than the Prius. Sorry, Elon Musk. The Prius blazed a path for every other clean car. So strong is the Prius brand that, in 2011, Toyota expanded the nameplate to include a plug-in model, a larger Prius V wagon and a smaller Prius C sub-compact — a full family of Prii.
Gas prices have been in the basement recently, so as the current-generation Prius Liftback has been arcing toward retirement, sales have dipped. In 2014, Toyota moved around 123,000 of them, down from a little more than 145,000 the previous year. But fresh metal is here. This all-new, fourth-generation Prius hits Toyota showrooms in early 2016.
The design of the new Prius, which slices through the air with an improved coefficient of drag of 0.24, is a little strange. From certain angles, it appears to have rear tailfins. Beneath that funk is Toyota’s New Global Architecture (TNGA), which will serve as the basis for most of the company’s C-segment compact vehicles, including the next-generation Corolla.
The new Prius is 2.4 inches longer, nearly an inch wider and almost an inch lower than the old one. And yet, even with a new platform, it rides on the same 106.3-inch wheelbase. The new structure uses more high-strength steel (up from 3 percent to 19 percent) and contributes to a 60 percent improvement in torsional rigidity.
The new architecture allowed engineers to shrink and rearrange components to more desirable locations for weight distribution. Under the hood is a revised version of the previous car’s 1.8-liter four-cylinder with improvements in emissions, a new intake system and a smaller, quieter and more efficient exhaust. Toyota says this engine is 40 percent thermally efficient, more than any other mass-produced engine. But with just 95 hp, the four-cylinder produces 3 fewer horsepower than before. And the combined hybrid system (including the electric motor) is 121 hp — 13 fewer than the old model. It’s not often that new cars today have less power than the ones that came before them. So don’t expect to be crushing Camaros in the stoplight drags. Or even older Prii, for that matter.
The new Prius has a 1.8-liter VVT-i gasoline engine.
Unlike past Prius models, this new one can be optioned with two different batteries: a nickel metal hydride (NiMH) pack and a lithium-ion (Li-ion) pack. Only the base Prius 2 model offers the NiMH pack, which
Electric-only driving range is the same as the old car at slightly less than a mile. Regardless of which pack powers your Prius, the battery is now mounted beneath the rear seat instead of behind it. This improves chassis weight distribution and helps lower the car’s center of gravity. It also means much improved gear storage. The most spacious models offer 27.4 cubic feet of cargo capacity, up by about 6 cubic feet.
One might expect an all-new vehicle riding on an all- new platform would be lighter than the outgoing model. Not here. The new Prius weighs about the same as the old car. And at least part of the responsibility falls on the new rear suspension. Up front, there’s an improved MacPherson strut setup. In the rear, engineers replaced the lighter-but-less-sophisticated beam-axle rear suspension with a double-wishbone independent setup. The new system improves handling, but it’s also about 100 pounds heavier than the old design.
The Prius is available in six trims levels: Prius Two, Two Eco, Three, Three Touring, Four and Four Touring. All Prius models receive extensive underbody panels, and electrically operated grill shutters help improve aero. But the Two Eco is the one to get if you plan to enter hypermiling competitions. The package includes low rolling resistance 15-inch tires, spare tire delete and a special windshield laminate to insulate the cabin better, cutting down on climate-control use. All of this helps that model hit 58 mpg city and 53 mpg on the highway.
The dash has a large central screen now surrounded by gloss black trim .
What’s it like to drive?
Slide behind the wheel of the new Prius, and it’s a vastly improved experience. The last model felt like you were riding on top of it rather than inside it — as if the driver was perched on a milk crate. But thanks to a lowered seating position, the driver sits properly hunkered-down in this new one.
The dash has a large central screen now surrounded by gloss black trim that, if you squint, looks like it might belong in a Tesla. The screen size here is, of course, much smaller. There’s still an upper ledge on the dash information panel, but instead of the 8-bit blue-green graphics, these new ones have modern multicolor TFT panels.
The old dash had a central tunnel that curved down toward the driver and placed the shifter close to where your hand would naturally rest. In the fourth-generation Prius, the shifter is mounted on the dash, requiring a reach. But the move frees up some space in the middle of the cabin, allowing a large pad for Qi wireless phone charging and two large cupholders.
The rear seat actually has about 2.5 inches less legroom than the old car. But the headroom has been maintained and improved for front-seat passengers. Even with less room for our 6-foot frame, that backseat didn’t feel too tight. And speaking of passengers, the new climate control system has the ability to direct airflow only to those vents where people are currently sitting, improving efficiency. Smart.
Guide that little blue shifter to the D (or B, for increased regenerative braking) position and apply some throttle. The new Prius moves away from a stop with the same thrust as the old Prius. In other words, it’s still slow. The last-generation hybrid would hit 60 mph in around 10 seconds, and we’re told this one is no quicker. There is, however, a bit less noise thanks to considerable NVH countermeasures around the cabin.
“Zero-to-60 acceleration is not at the top of the list for Prius buyers,” says Toyota Group vice president Bill Fay. “It’s not the big purchase consideration.”
But Fay says Prius buyers did want improved handling. And they got it. The old Prius was not a car one might choose for a drive along a mountain pass. The steering was painfully slow. The body rolled around on its suspension. And generally, the old Prius felt clumsy when thrown into a set of switchbacks. The brakes? Well that left pedal felt more like a switch. The difference between the old and new Prius on any road is dramatic. The new rear suspension makes the whole car feel more stable, tied down and less busy over bumps. When pushed through a set of corners, the Prius feels more athletic and nimble. In short, the reworked chassis makes the Prius feel like a good midsize sedan. The bad habits are gone. And you don’t need to spend extra on the Touring model with 17-inch wheels and tires to notice the improvements. Even the Prius Two handles way better than the old car. After logging some miles, you totally forget this is a specialized hybrid that delivers fuel economy deep into the 50s — and just enjoy the ride.
2016 Toyota Prius
Do I want it?
That depends. If straight-line acceleration and sporty handling are a priority, look elsewhere. But then, you already knew that, right? Buyers of past Prius hatchbacks will appreciate the improvements on the latest generation. And those shopping other midsize hybrid sedans now have a reason to test-drive the Prius.
Higher-grade Prius models do come with plenty of comfort and safety technology, like lane-departure alert with steering assist, as well as a pre-collision system. But we’d opt for the $25,535 Two Eco model, which only requires $500 above the cost of the base car and delivers the best fuel economy of the entire line.