On a practical level, there’s nothing new here. The new Toyota Prius is the most sensible car anyone can buy. Same as it’s been since the second-gen stormed Hollywood. Over the past decade and a half, any Fusion or Camry or Volt or Civic buyer likely would have been better off with a Prius. It has delivered everything a commuter needs. The difference with the new one is that people might actually want it, too.
The fifth-generation Prius approaches the market not with a new platform, but a new philosophy. The change was apparent upon its reveal and notable enough to draw worldwide headlines. The Prius, the iconoclastic dweeb car, now looks sensational. It also has a bigger internal-combustion engine than the Honda CR-V and makes nearly as much horsepower as a Civic Si. That 194-hp output (196 hp if you go for AWD) makes it 60 percent more potent than the last one.
It also transforms the experience. Accelerating uphill in an old Prius involved enough vibration and mechanical hostility to make a fighter pilot wince. The car itself abhorred haste. The new one welcomes it. It’ll hit 60 in 7.0 seconds, which is faster than a standard Corolla, and feels happy with the work. Credit increased torque across the board: The engine now makes 139 lb-ft, the front electric motor-generator adds 152 lb-ft, and the rear electric motor on the AWD model throws in another 62 lb-ft of torque. Given that this is a hybrid, those peaks all come at different times and draw from shared power reserves, the numbers do not add up in any meaningful way. But the new Prius feels more than powerful enough for daily work, and the upcoming Prius Prime plug-in will be properly quick.
The problem was never just about power, but the intangibles. The last Prius I drove—a 115,000-mile, 3rd-gen model that my housemate had rented for a car camping ski trip—was hateful to drive. It wasn't just boring, it abhorred any attempt at fun. No matter how ironclad the arguments for owning one are, one stint behind the wheel of an old Prius proved conclusively that I could never tolerate such a bumbling, groaning, ponderous car. No one should or can expect a sports-car experience from a mass-market efficiency-oriented hatchback. But cars like the Mazda3, Honda Accord, and Volkswagen Golf have consistently proven that an appliance car doesn’t have to drive like one. Toyota is finally getting that message.
Huck the new Prius onto an onramp with intent and the whole thing holds up. There’s not much if any steering feel—come on now, don’t get ahead of yourself—but the front MacPherson-strut suspension has been reworked for sharper turn-in and more predictable cornering. The steering is also heftier and far more precise, giving you the confidence to tuck in the car’s nose and let the rear follow through gracefully. The rear motor on the all-wheel-drive model now makes 40 hp, up from a barely-perceptible 7 hp in the previous model, so you can also get on power a bit earlier and the tail rotates ever so slightly.
Rally-car heroics are far from the question, though, as the AWD model is more of a nod to cold climates rather than a real low-traction all-star. The Prius’ chief engineer told Road & Track that the rear motor is not designed for sustained high-power operation. Since the internal-combustion torque doesn’t make it to the rear wheels, that means the car will occasionally be forced into front-wheel-drive mode. Toyota does not comment on future product speculation, but the company’s executives and public relations personnel seemed surprised when asked about a potential Woodland or TRD Pro or Whatever adventure trim. Apparently, the company hasn’t heard of the model’s popularity with car campers, though it latched on to the adventure van phase with the hybrid Sienna Woodland.
Regardless, Toyota’s newfound focus on dynamics has paid massive dividends here. In one generation, the Prius has evolved from among the worst-driving new cars on sale to a respectable, predictable everyday car. It hasn’t eclipsed the Honda or Mazda sedans and hatches, but it’s running in that league. No enthusiast will pine to drive one, but those that want a Prius for other, left-brain reasons will find it perfectly agreeable on a winding road.
On a straight highway, it’s spectacular. The new model is firmer than the average Toyota buyer expects, but dispatches bumps in a thud-and-done Germanic way. It’s utterly relaxed as a cruiser, quiet and refined at 70 mph, with just a bit of road noise creeping in. Combined fuel economy comes in at 57 mpg for the FWD Prius LE on its 17-inch wheels, but that falls to 54 for an AWD LE, 52 for an FWD XLE or Limited on 19s, and 49 for the AWD XLE or Limited. That’s a steep falloff, but MPG doesn’t scale linearly, so the difference isn’t quite as big as it looks. It also doesn’t change the result: The Prius is the most efficient hybrid on sale, and even in AWD XLE format it beats the MPGe efficiency rating of the all-electric GMC Hummer.
Not that the GMC Hummer is now a benchmark.
To make those long miles safer and more convenient, the Prius comes standard with Toyota’s suite of driver assistance technology. Though the various lane-keeping and distance-control settings are puzzling to unravel, they work well in dense traffic and/or at freeway speeds. The driver’s seat, too, has been reworked to be more cradling in corners and more supportive during long stints. We didn’t drive long enough to back up that claim, but given the Prius’ popularity with ride-sharing and taxi drivers the truth will be out shortly after these cars reach showrooms (and ride-sharing fleets) in January.
Those drivers will appreciate the Prius’ more traditional cockpit layout, which eschews the center-mounted information cluster in favor of a digital gauge cluster mounted above the steering wheel. It offers a ton of information at a glance, but it’s a tad overwhelming and includes unnecessary details (who needs to see their speed in both MPH and KPH simultaneously?). The steering wheel, too, is an absolute mess of buttons. These are easy to forgive, however, when you use the new infotainment system.
Available in eight-inch or 12.3-inch sizes, the multimedia setup is a leap forward from the system in the majority of current Toyotas. While that old system is stuck in the early 2010s, the new one is more polished and snappier. Graphics, too, are improved, and Wireless CarPlay and Android Auto are standard. I can’t fathom needing more than 8 inches of screen in a car, but the 12.3-inch unit in the two test cars I sampled looked impressive and well-integrated. The volume knob, however, is positioned too far away to be comfortable for the driver to use. Steering wheel controls for them, knob for the passenger, I suppose. The only real problem is the lack of a physical home button, which can make exiting CarPlay a three-move operation. As a whole, though, the technology upgrade feels like a massive improvement without too much whiz-bang nonsense that tends to ruin higher-end modern cars.
Practically, though, the Prius has taken a minor step back. In exchange for its newfound style, the Prius has sacrificed a bit of headroom. Tall drivers and even rear-seat passengers can still make do—a 6’ 2” journalist could sit behind himself—but even my 5’ 6” self felt like the rear seat was a little short on airspace. That may have been the result of the $1000 fixed-glass roof, but I wasn’t able to try out a metal-roof car to compare. Regardless, if you’re frequently using the back seats for adults, it’s worth checking to make sure you wouldn’t be more comfortable in a Camry or Accord hybrid.
Cargo requires tighter packing, too. Maximum cargo volume with the seats up is down from 27.4 cubic feet in the outgoing FWD model to 23.8 cubic feet in the base model and 20.3 cubic feet on XLE and Limited grades. There’s still enough space to lie down if you push the front seats forward, but style does come with a price.
Speaking of which, the Prius also gets a hair more expensive thanks to the elimination of the “L” model. That car started at $26,170. The new Prius LE starts at $28,545 with destination charges. The XLE model starts at $31,990 and includes faux leather seating, 19-inch wheels, a power driver’s seat, and the option to get the glass roof and 12.3-inch display. If you want those standard—along with heated and cooled seats, JBL audio, and a power liftgate—you’ll have to step up to the $35,560 Limited grade. AWD is a $1400 option on every trim.
That makes the Prius considerably more expensive than a compact sedan, but roughly inline with midsize sedan pricing. For that money, you get something that is effortless in traffic, engaging enough for daily duty, gets up to 57 mpg combined, offers AWD, and will likely run for hundreds of thousands of miles, assuming the new lithium-ion batteries hold up as well as the old nickel-metal type ones. That is by no means everything you could possibly want, but it’s everything you need, in a package you might want. With both gas and EV battery prices looking brutal in the short and long term, that’s enough to make this Prius the best daily on sale.