- Exceptional fuel economy
- Roomy cabin
- Hatchback utility
- Dull driving experience
- Console cuts into knee space
- Lacks refinement in some respects
51 mpg city! The 2011 Toyota Prius remains the highest-mileage hybrid on the market, but that doesn't get in the way of practicality or comfort.
The iconic Toyota Prius has been around for a decade and was for 2010 completely redesigned, with more room, a more refined feel, and the real-world ecstasy (for some) of 51-mpg fuel economy.
The third-generation Prius still is recognizable as a Toyota hybrid, but there's more wedge in its stance, more crease in its profile, catchier cues in its arrow-inflected headlamps and taillamps, and more room. Frankly, it takes someone accustomed to seeing Prius models to tell the difference between the old, pre-2010 model and the new one from the outside, but the slightly drawn-up-and-back roofline aids space and gives it slightly different proportions. Aerodynamics have been improved, too. Overall, it's still more future-appliance than future-chic. Inside, a flying-buttress console—really, a swooping mass of hard plastic—adds some visual interest to the Prius' wide, low dash and its digital, distantly mounted gauges, and a storage bin resides beneath.
A lighter, stiffer body has a part in that; the powertrain's also been reconfigured for less weight, and contrary to expectations, a bump in displacement from 1.6 liters to 1.8 liters for the four-cylinder engine has helped the hybrid system be more frugal overall. The combination puts out 134 horsepower, but the 1.8-liter's better torque helps the Prius run at slower engine speeds on the highway.
The Prius still is definitely not a car for driving enthusiasts, but the latest version introduced last year is better. The stiffer body shell helps reduce noise and vibration from the engine and continuously variable transmission. Steering is limp and lifeless with no real road feedback, but it's responsive enough for quick maneuvers, and the brakes are now discs at all four corners, with smoother brake regeneration. With more lightweight aluminum in the body too, the Prius' 0-60 mph times are now just under ten seconds. Still, you'll always be reminded of the fact that you're driving a hybrid vehicle with electronic control over the steering, braking, and acceleration feel.
The 2011 Toyota Prius has a sleek roofline, but that doesn't mean that it's cramped inside; there's real space for four adults, or five if you're willing to stagger shoulders in back. Backseaters get the knee room left behind by slimmer front seatbacks and better headroom from the rejiggered roofline, but in front things could be better—the new center console gets in the way of front knee room, and front seats are still skimpy on padding, though the driver's seat is now height-adjustable. The cargo area expands easily, and the batteries are hidden away underneath so well you might not even think about it. The Prius' plastics are pretty good in look and feel—except for the ones around that console pod—and they're carbon-neutral.
Safety isn't sacrificed in the name of miles per gallon in the Prius; Toyota has found a way to have both. Seven airbags are standard, including a driver knee bag. So are anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control, and tire pressure monitors. Safety options include radar cruise control, a lane-departure warning system, a rearview camera, a "Safety Connect" system that alerts emergency crews after a crash, and the stunt technology of the day—Intelligent Parking Assist, which helps you parallel-park the Prius via the car's cameras, albeit with your foot on the brake to control speed. Safety ratings have been respectable—including top 'good' ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) in frontal, rear, and side impact, along with a mix of four- and five-star results in now-outdated federal tests.
For 2011, the former Prius II, II, IV, and V models have been replaced by Prius Two, Prius Three, etc. A Prius One model is expected to bow later in the model year. Although base 2011 Toyota Prius One and Two models are priced in the low-to-mid twenties, and power windows, cruise control, and an AM/FM/XM/CD player are standard, but there are plenty of features meant to woo affluent buyers into spending more on the expensively engineered Prius. There's a Touch Tracer system that mimics your finger-swipes over steering-wheel controls over the gauges, so you don't have to look down to adjust radio stations or climate-control settings. Other major options include a moonroof with solar panels, powering a fan that draws hot air out of the car without using the Prius' other batteries. A remote air conditioner is also available, along with a navigation system, LED headlamps, Bluetooth, and a backup camera.