By now the iconic design of the 2014 Toyota Prius hybrid is well established in the public eye. The wedge shape, high tail, almost horizontal tailgate with a second window in the vertical part are elements that instantly define "Prius" and have done since the launch of the second-generation car for 2004. The current third-generation car is now in its fifth year, and Toyota has started to talk in general terms about the next generation, expected to be launched during 2015.
The unusual shape of the Prius is all to reduce air drag, squeezing every last mile out of every drop of gasoline. With a drag coefficient of 0.25, it remains one of the most aerodynamic cars on the market--and that helps to deliver that prized 50-mpg EPA combined rating for fuel economy. And at this point, either you like the shape of the car or you don't. Either way, it's now accepted as a part of the vehicular landscape on U.S. roads.
Except for mild tweaks to the front end, including the addition of LED daytime running lights, little has changed on the current Prius since its 2010 launch. The distinctive high-mounted, central Multiple Information Display defines the layout of the wide, flat dash, with more information on a small screen in the center of the instrument cluster behind the steering wheel. But the display of information now looks scattered and chaotic, with an array of icons, numbers, and graphs that's simply outclassed by other, newer hybrids, including those from Ford.
Both the joystick-like "shift" knob and the "flying buttress" center console that sweeps down from the dash are unique Prius features. The console is more showy than practical; it's hard to reach items stored in the floor bin underneath it, a major consideration for those owners who fill their cars with assorted digital devices, sunglasses, bills and change, toll tickets, and more.
The patterned and grained interior surfaces are all hard plastic, which worked half a decade ago but now appears slightly low-budget. But despite its spacious cabin, the interior of the Prius is starting to look more and more like that of an inexpensive economy car. For a car with a base price of $25,000 in its lowest trim level, that's less acceptable now that even some subcompacts have soft-touch surfaces.
As well as Touch Tracer controls on the steering wheel for the driver to move through menu options without removing hands from the wheel, Prius technology options include a Remote Touch controller--essentially a computer mouse fixed to the console. It feels intuitive to use, but to control icons on the central navigation screen, drivers must take their eyes off the road for long periods of time to watch the display.