New & Used Toyota Prius: In Depth
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Over a decade and a half, and four distinct generations, the Toyota Prius is the model that established hybrid cars in the U.S. market. For better and for worse, the Prius is an icon, both praised by owners for its fuel efficiency and mocked in automotive circles and popular culture.
But an all-new Prius for 2016 retains its title as the single most fuel-efficient vehicle without a plug sold in the U.S. today. The fourth generation is rated at 52 mpg combined by the EPA, with a special Prius Two Eco version that carries a 56-mpg combined rating—both of them improvements on the 50 mpg of the 2010-2015 Prius. For those who want a plug-in version, one is expected to return for the 2017 model year as well.
MORE: Read our 2016 Toyota Prius review
The latest fourth-generation Prius went on sale in January 2016. While it is longer and lower, its looks have become more baroque—to the degree that it makes the superseded third-generation car look almost sedate. It has a much nicer interior and drives far better, with less anguished howl from the engine under power and handling that makes it almost seem like a normal vehicle. But in an era of $2 gasoline, Toyota has recently adjusted its sales projections downward, despite the latest Prius being a far better and more enjoyable car than its predecessors.
Prius family history
Since 2004, the distinctive Prius shape has been a highly aerodynamic, high-roofed, five-door, mid-size hatchback. But that's not how the Prius legend began. The very first Prius, launched in Japan only in 1997, was a subcompact four-door sedan, and the first-ever vehicle to feature Toyota's hybrid system.
That original Prius came to the U.S. for the 2000 model year, in a revised and marginally less anemic version. It wasn't the first hybrid on sale in the U.S. (the original Honda Insight beat it by a few months), but the Prius has endured and grown. Toyota is by far the world's preeminent builder of hybrids, with roughly 7 million sold globally. Fifteen years later, the expanding Prius lineup remains both the technology flagship for the Toyota brand and a bogey for hybrid vehicles in general.
The second-generation (2004-2009) Prius rocked the world when it was launched, moving up beyond compact size and adopting a radically aerodynamic and unique five-door hatchback body style that continues to this day. The second- and third-generation Prius models both offer a surprising amount of interior space—enough for four adults comfortably, or five in a pinch—along with good cargo space easily accessed through the wide-opening hatch.
A third-generation Prius was launched for the 2010 model year. It was instantly recognizable, sharing many styling cues with the second-generation vehicle. That model had a lighter, stiffer body; improved battery management; better aerodynamics; and a slightly larger (1.8- instead of 1.6-liter) four-cylinder engine, giving it better acceleration under high power demands. It also continued the Prius's steady march up the efficiency charts, hitting the magic 50-mpg rating.
The third-generation Prius allowed drivers more confidence in everyday commuting, with 0-to-60-mph times just below the 10-second mark, and highway cruising that felt a little more relaxed. That said, the Prius driving experience has always felt very detached and numb, with little feel in the steering or the brakes. It's "appliance driving" at its most evolved and efficient.
At the heart of any Prius is Toyota's hybrid technology, which used a nickel-metal hydride battery pack (most models switched over to lithium-ion for 2106 modes) that powers an electric motor-generator paired to a small four-cylinder gasoline engine, with a second motor-generator serving to recapture otherwise wasted energy and use it to recharge the battery under regenerative braking. The complicated two-motor system uses a planetary gear set to split power flows among the two motors, the engine, and the final drive. It acts as an electronic continuously variable transmission—a configuration that continues today in the Prius.
Standard safety features and advanced-safety-tech options were stepped up on the third-generation Prius—including a rear-view camera, adaptive cruise control, a lane-departure warning system, and a "Safety Connect" system that automatically alerts emergency services in the event of a crash. Toyota's automated parking system could effectively steer a Prius into parking spots, aided by the car's cameras sensors, with the driver only needing to modulate the brake to control speed. Most reviewers feel a similar system offered by Ford is more intuitive and accurate.
The iconic hybrid got some visual updates and additional features for the 2012 model year. The front end saw LED running lights added while the rear received a new taillight design. Interior changes were less appreciated, as the new "flying buttress" center console looks nice but takes away valuable room for the driver's inboard knee. Toyota did nothing to improve the quality of interior materials from the second generation, which would have been welcome, and the car's dynamics and powertrain were left untouched.
Two new body styles joined the expanding Prius lineup for 2012. The Prius V wagon version has its own brand-new body, a redesigned interior, and more space for both people and cargo. Its combined EPA fuel economy rating is 42 mpg, higher than any other wagon or crossover on the market at the time. Because it's about 300 pounds heavier than the Prius liftback, however, with the same powertrain, it can feel slow and strained when heavily loaded on steep hills. Other features of the Prius V include a sliding second row of seats that include a 45-degree recline, a 60/40-split seat back, and 34 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats.
The compact Prius C—it's actually closer to a subcompact—shares the family name but is a radically different car than Toyota’s original hybrid. It's some 19 inches shorter, 2 inches narrower, and nearly 2 inches lower than the well-known Prius mid-size five-door hatchback. Nearly every Hybrid Synergy Drive component was redesigned, and the Prius C uses a smaller 1.5-liter engine, so it's about 500 pounds lighter than the Prius liftback. Fuel economy is the same combined 50 mpg as the larger Prius hatchback—although it's higher in the city at 53 mpg, and lower on the highway, at 47 mpg--— the price falls to about $19,000.
A plug-in version of the Prius hybrid went on sale in February 2012, representing the first plug-in version of Toyota's signature hybrid car. Within six months of its launch, the Prius Plug-In Hybrid had become the third best-selling plug-in car sold in the U.S., in part because it was the sole Prius eligible for the coveted single-occupancy use of carpool lanes on congested California freeways. Production ended early in 2015, but a new and longer-range Prius Plug-In is expected to return for the 2017 model year.