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The shape of the 2014 Toyota Prius hybrid is now instantly recognizable; the car has looked pretty much the same since way back in 2004. The current car is now in its fifth year, and there's now a whole family of Prius models: a subcompact, a wagon, and a plug-in hybrid. But the bulk of the model's sales are still delivered by the classic five-door Liftback model, and there will be an all-new generation coming within a year or two. It's the quintessential hybrid car, recognizable from 100 feet away.
The high-tailed hatchback shape of the Prius is now in its eleventh year, across two generations, and from a South Park parody to increasing numbers of Priuses sold in red states, it's become a staple on U.S. roads. Its shape lowers aerodynamic drag to squeeze every last mile out of each gallon of gasoline, and the result includes a domed profile and a two-part split rear window.
The Plug-In Prius is almost indistinguishable from the hybrid-only model. It carries a larger battery pack that can be recharged on wall current to give it up to 11 miles of all-electric running. The only visible differences are a handful of trim items and a charge-port door on the right rear fender. (The other two Prius models--which have their own reviews--differ considerably more. They are the smaller Prius C subcompact and the larger Prius V wagon. All except the wagon are rated at 50 mpg combined; the wagon comes in at 42 mpg combined.)
Inside both the Liftback and plug-in Prius, the dashboard layout--in a variety of hard-plastic moldings and surfaces--is beginning to look more and more like a 1980s video game, with various graphs, numbers, and icons strewn across both an Information Center high up and close to the base of the windshield, and a cluster of more conventional gauges and displays behind the steering wheel.
A characteristic "flying buttress" console that sweeps down from the top of the dash is the first thing that catches the eye. It's striking, but the storage space under it is awkward to reach. The cabin is spacious enough to hold four adults comfortably, five in a pinch, and qualify as a mid-size car under EPA definitions. The front seat padding is thin, though, and the hard plastic center console will punish taller drivers' kneecaps.
With a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and a pair of electric motor-generators, the Hybrid Synergy Drive powertrain maxes out at 134 horsepower. The motors power the car solely on electricity (at speeds up to 30 mph), provide electric torque to supplement torque from the engine, and recharge the battery during regenerative braking or engine overrun. Acceleration from 0 to 60 mph is quoted at slightly less than 10 seconds, but you'll hear the engine howling up front to get there. With more experience building hybrids than any other maker, Toyota's ability to blend the regenerative braking with the conventional friction brakes is excellent.
The Prius Plug-In Hybrid uses the same running gear, but the standard car's 1.3-kilowatt-hour nickel-metal-hydride battery pack is replaced by a 4.3-kWh lithium-ion pack that gives it 11 miles of electric range on the EPA test cycles. However, a footnote points out that only 6 miles of that range is continuous, because even under the relatively gentle EPA testing, the engine has to switch on at least once to power the car even though there's energy left in the pack. One real-world example would be foot-to-the-floor acceleration into fast-moving traffic from an uphill freeway on-ramp.
Novices may be startled when they drive a Prius for the first time. Engine speed rises and falls separately from anything the driver's foot does on the accelerator, as the hybrid system continuously adjusts its power sources to maximize efficiency and reuse the maximum amount of energy that would otherwise have been wasted. The handling is also largely numb; the Prius drives ponderously, with zero feel through its electric power steering. It corners fine and responds to inputs, there's just very little feedback provided to the driver.
Seven airbags and a variety of electronic safety systems are no longer as advanced as they were for 2010, when this generation of Prius was launched. But the car remains competitive on safety, including available adaptive cruise control, rear-view camera, and lane-departure warning, along with an Intelligent Parking Assist function (though Ford's similar system is better). There's also the "Safety Connect" system to notify first responders in case of an accident. The 2014 Prius is an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ vehicle, however--unlike the larger Prius V wagon.
Consumers can choose from four trim levels, known as Two, Three, Four, and Five. (A stripped-down Prius One is only sold to fleets.) The steering-wheel Touch Tracer controls let drivers navigate through menus on the information display without removing their hands from the wheel, with options shown in the cluster between two large gauges. The highest-priced Prius Four and Five models now cost more than $30,000 for buyers with a heavy hand on the options sheet. Choices include LED headlamps, remote air conditioning, Bluetooth, and a navigation system. Packages include the feature-rich Technology Package, or the Solar Moonroof option that includes a photovoltaic solar panel to cool the cockpit by powering a ventilation fan that switches on when the Prius is parking.
The smaller Prius C subcompact is sportier and more lithe--compared to the mid-size Liftback, anyhow. The smaller engine and battery, plus a simpler and more conventional interior, give it a base price under $20,000 along with that all-important 50-mpg combined gas mileage rating. The Prius V offers far more load space, all the traditional Prius virtues, and a combined EPA gas-mileage rating of 42 mpg--though it can feel underpowered when heavily loaded.
- Gas mileage leadership, again
- Mid-size interior space
- Hatchback practicality
- Many technology options
- Subcompact, wagon, plug-in models
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- Far from pleasant to drive
- Console design impractical
- Materials harsh, downmarket
- Love-it-or-hate-it design; some hate it
- 11 miles of electric range for plug-in