The 2014 Toyota Prius gets the highest fuel-economy rating of any gasoline vehicle sold in the U.S.--just as it has since 2010, when the current model was launched. The EPA rates the Prius Liftback at the magical 50 mpg on the combined cycle (51 mpg city, 48 mpg highway). Granted, there are two other cars that equal that 50-mpg combined rating. But they are two of the three other members of the expanded Prius family: the Prius Plug-In Hybrid, and the Prius C subcompact hatchback.
For the vast majority of drivers who want the best fuel efficiency and don't drive like a "hypermiler"--a practice that can verge on the unsafe--the Prius is simply the easiest, quickest, most obvious choice to obtain 50 mpg, or close to it, in real-world driving. And drivers who do most of their miles at lower speeds, who accelerate gently, and plan ahead to coast down to stops, may even see 60 mpg in some circumstances. The "EV" mode that keeps a Prius in electric-only mode can help boost that number when used on the very last mile of a trip.
The norm is more likely 45 to 50 mpg in mixed use, and if you customarily load the car to capacity with people or cargo, travel in hilly terrain, or cover long stretches of highway at 75 mph (or more), that can drop in to the high 30s. Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system has always been most effective in lower-speed stop-and-go urban and suburban traffic, where it can turn off the engine frequently and operate only on recaptured energy driving the electric motor. Taxi drivers all over the world will tell you they relish the low operating costs of their Prius cabs.
The calculus is tougher when we consider the Prius Plug-In Hybrid. It qualifies for single-occupant use in California's carpool lanes, and it likely offers an easy step into the world of plugging in for the more than 1 million U.S. Prius drivers--who now have a new and more advanced model to move up to. On the other hand, the plug-in Prius has the lowest rated all-electric range (11 miles) of any plug-in on the market. And even in the gentle EPA test cycles, its electric motor was not powerful enough to run the car through the entire test--so there's an asterisk that notes it has only 6 miles of continuous electric range, and then the engine had to switch on for a short while.
That 11 miles of range is significantly less than the 20-mile rating of Ford's C-Max and Fusion Energi plug-in models--let alone the 38-mile electric range of the Chevy Volt. As an electric car, the Prius Plug-In Hybrid is a minimalist statement that demonstrates Toyota's fervent belief that electric cars aren't ready for primetime.