New & Used Toyota Prius: In Depth
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Toyota's Prius is an icon, for better or worse, both praised and mocked in popular culture and automotive circles alike. It's the car credited with establishing hybrid vehicles on American roads.
No matter your opinion, there's no denying the Prius is an amazingly efficient gas-powered car, rated by the EPA at 50 miles per gallon combined, a number it has boasted since the launch of the third-generation for 2010. The highly aerodynamic, high-roofed, five-door, mid-size hatchback remains the most fuel-efficient gas-powered car sold in the U.S. without a plug attached—and for those who want a plug-in version, there's one of those, too.
Toyota first launched the Prius in Japan only in 1997. At that time a subcompact four-door sedan, the Prius was the first vehicle to feature the automaker's hybrid system, now known as Hybrid Synergy Drive. The original Prius came to the U.S. for the 2000 model year. While it wasn't the first hybrid on sale in the U.S. (the original Honda Insight beat it by a few months), the Prius has endured, and Toyota has now sold far more of this one model than second-place Honda has hybrids in total. Toyota is by far the world's pre-eminent builder of hybrids, with roughly 4 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.
Today's Toyota Prius family
A new third-generation Prius was launched for the 2010 model year. It was instantly recognizable, sharing many styling cues with the second-generation vehicle. The latest model has 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 continues the Prius's steady march up the efficiency charts, hitting the magic 50-mpg rating.
Today's Prius allows drivers more confidence in everyday commuting, with 0-to-60-mph times just below the 10-second mark, and highway cruising that feels a little more relaxed. That said, the Prius driving experience has always felt very detached and numb, with little actual '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 uses a nickel-metal hydride battery pack 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 have been 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 Intelligent Parking Assist system provides hands-free parallel parking at the touch of a button, 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, 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--while 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. Toyota initially planned to offer the plug-in Prius in all 50 states, but so far it is only available in 15. 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's the only Prius eligible for the coveted single-occupancy use of carpool lanes on congested California freeways.
A new, fourth-generation Prius is expected to come along shortly. As well as more fuel-efficient, executives have said that it will be sleeker, offer better roadholding and handling, and generally bring the Prius up to date. The target for EPA combined fuel economy of the upcoming model is said to be 55 mpg, and there may be a more expensive version using a different battery that hits 60 mpg.