- 50 mpg combined
- Space for five plus cargo
- Practical hatchback layout
- Good safety ratings
- Family of four models
- Numb, ponderous handling
- Dashboard design chaotic
- Hard plastics feel cheap
- Design and model still polarize
- Lowest plug-in electric range
The 2015 Toyota Prius is still the most fuel-efficient gasoline car on the market, at 50 mpg; its iconic hatchback shape offers a spacious interior that can seat five, though the handling is nothing to write home about.
By now, the 2015 Toyota Prius is both a familiar shape and a fairly well-known quantity among car buyers. The mid-size five-door hatchback with the high tail and wedge shape is the most fuel-efficient car you can buy in the U.S. without a plug--and it's held that title since it was launched six years ago as a 2010 model. Toyota is expected to unveil an all-new fourth-generation Prius in fall 2015, most likely to go on sale in early 2016.
The name Prius now actually describes a range of four different vehicles. The base vehicle is now called the Prius Liftback, and there's a plug-in hybrid version of that car that looks all but identical. The last two additions to the line are the Prius V wagon, and the Prius C subcompact hatchback. But for 2015, its sixth model year on sale, the basic Prius Liftback is essentially unchanged.
And three of those four Prius models share the title of "most economical gasoline car sold in the U.S.'--with the Liftback, Plug-I, and Prius C all carrying an EPA combined rating of 50 mpg. Only electric cars are more efficient. While the rest of the world's makers have had six years to try to beat the Prius in fuel-economy ratings, none has succeeded.
It's all due to the Hybrid Synergy Drive system, which remains unchanged for 2015. Its total output is 134 horsepower, from the combination of a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and a pair of electric motor-generators. They provide electric torque to supplement torque from the engine, recharge the battery during regenerative braking or engine overrun, and can power the car solely on electricity (at speeds up to 30 mph) if you have a light right foot. Toyota has more experience building hybrids than any other maker, and its blending of regenerative braking with the conventional friction brakes is excellent. But if you need more than leisurely performance--0 to 60 mph is just under 10 seconds--you'll quickly hear the engine rev up to high speeds and howl to provide it.
Behind the wheel, drivers will hear engine speed rising and falling entirely separate from anything their feet do on the accelerator pedal. The Hybrid Synergy Drive system always modulates between its power sources to maximize efficiency, recapturing the highest amount of energy that would otherwise have been wasted. First-time Prius drivers, though, may find the experience disconcerting. As for handling and roadholding, the 2015 Prius remains as numb and ponderous as it was when it launched--even as mid-size sedan handling has improved in such cars as the Ford Fusion Hybrid. There's zero feel or feedback through the Prius electric power steering, though it corners and holds the road appropriately when the driver operates the controls. But it can feel more like driving a video game than a car with any connection to the road. (Toyota promises to address this in the next Prius, whose handling it hopes to improve considerably.)
The plug-in hybrid Prius swaps out the standard car's 1.3-kilowatt-hour nickel-metal-hydride battery pack for a 4.3-kWh lithium-ion pack, giving it a nominal 11 miles of electric range in EPA testing. Even under the relatively gentle EPA test cycles, though, the engine has to switch on at least once to power the car even though there's energy left in the pack--so only 6 miles of that range is continuous. In practice, more than modest power demand--let alone foot-to-the-floor acceleration into fast traffic on, say, an uphill freeway on-ramp--will switch on the engine, though the Prius Plug-In otherwise stays more in electric mode than the conventional Liftback hybrid model.
As a design, the Prius shape is by now well established and instantly recognizable. The five-door hatchback has a high, vertical tail, a domed roof, and a smooth front with a minimal air inlet. Its whole goal, besides containing four or five people and their goods, is to aerodynamic drag to squeeze every last mile out of each gallon of gasoline. The plug-in hybrid model looks identical, save for some trim differences and a charge-port door on the right rear fender that you could easily mistake for a gas door.
Inside, the two-level Prius dashboard layout now looks dated--though the interior design appeared futuristic and somewhat Space Age on its launch in 2009. With interior surfaces clad entirely in hard plastics, of various textures and patterns, the first thing to catch your eye is a "flying buttress" console that sweeps down from the top of the dash. While it's striking visually, in practice the storage space under it is largely invisible and hard to reach, and it will punish the kneecaps of taller drivers. Four adults will fit comfortably, five in a pinch, and the EPA defines the Prius as a mid-size car based on interior volume. The seat padding is thin, though.
The instrumentation itself contains graphs, numbers, and icons strewn across a high Information Center close to the base of the windshield. There's also a cluster of more conventional gauges and displays behind the steering wheel. Compared to the calm and easy-to-learn full-color displays of Ford's various hybrids, let alone the superb graphics of the Chevy Volt, the Prius setup now looks chaotic. The steering-wheel Touch Tracer controls are a nice touch, though. They let drivers navigate through menus on the information display without taking their hands off the wheel, and the various options appear in the cluster between two large gauges.
On the safety front, the Prius has retained its Top Safety Pick+ rating--a good one indeed for a six-year-old model. It gets top ratings in all IIHS tests except the new Small-Overlap crash that has tripped up many older models; the Prius gets an "Acceptable" in that one. It comes standard with seven airbags and can be ordered with a rear-view camera, adaptive cruise control, and lane-departure warning, along with an Intelligent Parking Assist function (though we prefer Ford's similar system).
The 2015 Toyota Prius is offered in four trim levels, confusing known as Two, Three, Four, and Five--the stripped-down Prius One can only be ordered by fleet buyers. 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. Note that with the less-expensive Prius C subcompact now in the family, the price of a Prius Liftback has risen to the point where the highest-priced Prius Four and Five models can now exceed $30,000 if the buyer has a heavy hand on the options sheet.
The only new option for 2015 is a Prius Special Edition model that adds a host of additional trim items to the Prius Three specification, complete with a badge to show it off. Those include a dark-metal finish on 17-inch wheels, two special paint colors (Absolutely Red and Blizzard Pearl), SofTex seats in black with dark gray accents stitching; various trim items finished in "Dark Chrome," turns signals mounted on the door mirrors, and blue footwell lighting.
In addition to the Prius Liftback and Prius Plug-In Hybrid models, the expanded vehicle family sold under the Prius name includes the Prius V wagon and the Prius C subcompact, which we have reviewed separately.
Toyota has been hard at work on the fourth generation car, though its launch has reportedly been delayed until the end of 2015. 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, possible with a more expensive version containing a different battery that hits 60 mpg.
2015 Toyota Prius
The 2015 Toyota Prius remains an iconic shape, but its interior design hasn't aged well and the instrumentation is scattershot.
In the 12 years since the previous generation of Prius launched upon an unsuspecting world, the shape of the world's most popular hybrid vehicle has become well establish in the public eye--iconic, even. At this point, either you like the shape of the car or you don't, but either way, it's accepted as a part of the vehicular landscape on U.S. roads.
The 2015 Toyota Prius carries over unchanged the wedge shape, high tail, almost horizontal tailgate with a second window in the vertical part are elements that instantly define "Prius" and make it instantly recognizable the world over. Every last line, crease, and shape serves to reduce aerodynamic drag, which takes more energy to overcome at speeds above 30 mph than actually moving the mass of the car itself. With a drag coefficient of 0.25, it remains one of the most aerodynamic cars on the market, though it's no longer the gold medalist in that respect. Otherwise, very little of the exterior has changed since the 2010 launch of the current generation, save for the addition of LED running lights.
Inside, the front-seat passengers face a distinctive high-mounted, central Multiple Information Display that defines the layout of the wide, flat dash. The drivers also sees more information on a small screen in the center of the instrument cluster behind the steering wheel. Innovative and somewhat high-tech at its 2009 launch, the Prius information display now borders on the scattered and chaotic. Other hybrid and electric vehicles, from the Chevy Volt to the various hybrids sold by Ford, simply have better, cleaner, and more coherent ways of displaying operating information--while the Prius is left with a scattered array of icons, numbers, and graphs.
The interior surfaces are textured and patterned hard plastic, which can come across as low-budget in a car that runs from $25,000 to $35,000. Now that even subcompacts have soft-touch surfaces, the Prius interior looks cheap, outdated, and almost grim. The cabin is spacious and relatively light, but knock an elbow on a door-trim panel and you'll be reminded of what it's made of.
The high "flying buttress" console that sweeps down from the dash and the delicate "shift" knob--more of a joystick, really--are characteristic and recognizable Prius interior fittings. We've always found the console less practical than showy: Items in the floor bin underneath it are hard to see and challenging to reach. The Prius does get credit for offering numerous bins, trays, and cup holders to hold all the digital devices, sunglasses, bills and change, toll tickets, and more that accumulate in a car.
The Touch Tracer controls on the steering wheel let drivers interact with the information displays by moving through menu options without taking their hands off the wheel. They can do the same with the Remote Touch controller, more or less a computer mouse fixed to the console, using one hand. Both can be quickly learned and come to feel intuitive, but having to focus on icons on the central navigation screen requires drivers to take their eyes off the road for long periods of time. We call that distraction.
2015 Toyota Prius
The 2015 Toyota Prius excels in fuel economy, but not in performance, handling, or road feel; it's numb and leaden, and the engine howls.
The 2015 Toyota Prius is all about gas mileage, which makes its 50-mpg combined EPA rating the most important performance statistic. And most owners should achieve within 10 or 12 percent of that number in real-world usage, with the most dedicated able to exceed that with careful driving. Hard use of a heavily loaded car, especially in the winter months, may drop fuel efficiency into the high 30s, but that's unusual. It's really pretty difficult to make a Prius grossly uneconomical.
The powertrain that delivers this magic combines a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine tuned for peak efficiency with a pair of electric motor-generators, all of it together known as Toyota Hybrid Synergy Drive. The motors add torque to supplement the engine power, power the car entirely on electricity at low speeds and under light loads, and recharge the battery pack during regenerative braking--recapturing energy that would otherwise be wasted and recycling it to propel the car when needed. The 1.3-kilowatt-hour nickel-metal-hydride battery pack sits under the rear load deck.
Toyota says the 2015 Prius accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in just under 10 seconds, but the car is the antithesis of performance driving in almost every way. Noise and vibration from the engine are well suppressed under most circumstances, but if the driver demands maximum power, the engine will howl plaintively as it runs up to the top of its speed range and stays there. Indeed, the electronic control of virtually every aspect of the Prius mechanical operations leads drivers to focus on fuel economy rather than stop-light drag racing.
Behind the wheel, its electric power steering is numb, lifeless, and conveys no sign of road feel--like many other Toyota products--though it works just fine. On anything but gentle cornering, the low-rolling-resistance tires will squeal in protest, though roadholding remains adequate even if the car works to discourage hard cornering. Toyota's blending of friction and regenerative braking is second to none in the field, and the four-wheel disc brakes stop the car expeditiously when called upon to do so.
There are both a lower-powered "Eco" mode--even less fun to drive than the regular mode--and an "EV" mode that directs the Prius to run only on energy from the battery pack, at least until its 1 mile or so of low-speed electric range is depleted. To our mind, the Eco mode should be limited to admitted masochists, since a Prius in Normal mode is more fuel-efficient than any other gasoline car on the road. But perhaps that's the video-game aspect of owning the world's most popular hybrid.
Finally, there's the Prius Plug-In Hybrid, with its larger lithium-ion battery pack. The EPA says it'll give you 11 miles of electric range, which is the lowest of any plug-in vehicle on the market. And even at that, the car only managed 6 continuous miles in the (not overly demanding) EPA test cycles before it had to switch on its engine to keep up. The plug-in Prius will run up to 50 mph or more if you have a very light foot, against the standard hybrid's 30 mph, but otherwise it performs like a regular Prius--one that's about 300 pounds heavier. The 3.3-kilowatt onboard charger will fully recharge a fully-discharged battery in about 3 hours on 120-volt household current; using a 240-volt Level 2 charging station will take less than 2 hours. Unlike most other plug-ins, however, the charge-port door is on the right rear fender.
2015 Toyota Prius
Comfort & Quality
The 2015 Toyota Prius is well-built, reliable, and offers five-door versatility with plenty of room, but the hard-plastic interior is grim.
The 2015 Toyota Prius liftback is defined by the EPA as a mid-size car, based on its interior volume, and four adults can ride comfortably--with five at a stretch, though we don't recommend carrying five and their luggage for long journeys. There's lots of space in the front compartment for all those personal items that accumulate in a car, including trays, cup holders, bins, and storage cubbies. We have always found the flat tray under the center "flying buttress" console hard to get to and hard to see into, though it may be good for hiding things from prying eyes while parked. And the high tail gives the Prius a substantial load bay under its long tailgate.
Up front, drivers can adjust their seat for height, though the tall shape offers good headroom. But the padding on the seats feels thin, and long-legged drivers will find their right knees bumping uncomfortably against the hard-plastic console. Rear-seat room is greater than it may appear, between the domed roofline and hollowed-out front seatbacks.
Striking and Space Age-y when new, the Prius interior now looks slightly dated--especially its information displays--and more than a little chaotic. The hard plastic surfaces carry a variety of textures and patterns, so they don't look bargain-basement, but even subcompacts offer soft-touch surfaces now, and the Prius hasn't kept up. Worse, jumble of icons, numbers, and graphs on the two different information displays require learning and can be distracting, especially without the smart Touch Tracer controls on the steering wheel that let a driver move a cursor on the displays without lifting away from the wheel.
The 2015 Prius is fine at highway speeds when its engine is relaxed and it's not straining for power. But hard acceleration produces frequent howling from the engine as it soars to its highest speed and most efficient range and then stays there to provide power to accelerate. It's an inevitable tradeoff from a smaller, harder-working engine that works for maximum efficiency, but Toyota hasn't kept pace with ever-quieter cars. When the engine has to work at maximum speed to provide the needed power, you will hear it. Driven hard, the Prius will keep up with fast-moving traffic, but it's far more pleasant when driven gently.
2015 Toyota Prius
The 2015 Toyota Prius led the pack in safety when it launched, and it's still a very safe car.
Despite its age, the 2015 Toyota Prius remains a top-rated safety pick. It's earned the Top Safety Pick+ designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
It was awarded the top rating of "Good" on the four traditional measures--moderate-overlap front crash, side crash, roof strength, and seats and head restraints (formerly "rear crash"). On the new and tougher small-overlap test that's ambushed many a model, the Prius gets an 'Acceptable' rating. That, and forward-collision warnings with automatic braking, merits the IIHS' highest honor.
The Toyota Prius earns five stars overall from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), with a mix of four- and five-star results in the more detailed individual ratings.
It carries seven airbags as standard equipment, plus the now-standard stability and traction control, anti-lock brakes, and a tire-pressure monitoring system. Optional electronic safety systems include include a lane-departure warning system, radar-based adaptive cruise control, and the Toyota "Safety Connect" system that alerts emergency responders in the event of an accident that triggers one or more airbags. While we prefer Ford's system, the Toyota Intelligent Parking Assist system competently steers the car into a parallel-parking space, automatically steering the Prius while the driver provides the acceleration and braking.
The front end of the Prius drops away sharply, making front corners hard to place, but rear vision is adequate if not laudable due to the high tail. We recommend the optional rear-view camera, since drivers must otherwise get accustomed to the horizontal line that appears in the rear-view mirror due to the split-pane rear window.
2015 Toyota Prius
The 2015 Toyota Prius offered advanced technology six years ago, but other mid-size cars have caught up to it.
The 2015 Toyota Prius offers an array of trim levels that's remained largely unchanged for several years. The sole addition for the new model year, in fact, is a Special Edition model that adds various additional trim items to the Prius Three specification, complete with a badge to show it off. Additions are special 17-inch wheels with a dark chrome finish that's also used on various other trim items, two special paint colors (Absolutely Red and Blizzard Pearl), SofTex seats in black with dark gray accents stitching, door-mirror turn signals, and blue lighting in the footwells.
Otherwise, you can order from four trim levels on the 2015 Prius: Two, Three, Four, or Five. The very lowest trim level is a super-stripped-down model that's known--logically-- as Prius One, but only fleet buyers can order it. Conventional retail buyers can start at Two and go to Five. Got that? Pricing for the Prius Two starts at about $25,000, with the Three adding less than $2,000 but the top two trim levels coming in at about $28,500 and $30,000 respectively, before options. It's now possible to spend close to $35,000 on a top-spec Prius Liftback, while price-sensitive buyers now have a $20,000 option in the form of the Prius C subcompact hatchback. It's not as well equipped or as spacious, but it too is rated at 50 mpg.
Staring with the Prius Two, all 2015 Prius liftbacks include power windows, cruise control, and an AM/FM/XM/CD player audio system as standard, as well as Bluetooth pairing and a 6.1-inch display radio with iPod and USB connectivity. The Prius Three is the most popular model, measured by sales; it adds a backup camera system, a better audio system with Toyota’s Entune multimedia system built in, and built-in navigation shown on an in-dash display. Entune provides occupants with a suite of applications that--among other functions--connect to Internet services like Pandora streaming radio, assuming your compatible smartphone is paired to the car's Entune system.
The Prius Four starts to add luxury niceties, including leather upholstery and heated front seats. And the top-level Prius Five hybrid carries the most high-technology features, LED headlamps (all models have LED daytime running lights), automatic lights, and the option of split-screen capability in the 7-inch navigation display. It also has special 17-inch alloy wheels and an eight-way power adjustable drivers’ seat that includes power lumbar support.
Options include the solar-roof package, which uses photovoltaic cells set into a glass roof panel to generate electric current. It's only sufficient to power fans that pull hot air out of the Prius cabin while it's parked, but that reduces the air-conditioning load when the car powers up. Drivers who like to interact with the car's information system are recommended to opt for the Touch Tracer system of steering-wheel controls, which let them operate a cursor on the dashboard Multi-Information Display panel while keeping hands on the steering wheel. Among other functions, that lets them adjust the climate control or radio settings. Remote starting for the air conditioner is also available.
The Prius Plug-In Hybrid model is priced at the very top of the Prius range. Think of it as the Prius Six, if you like. It offers two basic packages; the standard version is effectively a Prius Four with exterior trim changes (and the larger battery pack and charging port that let it recharge from the grid). The Advanced trim level, starting at more than $35,000, includes most of the available equipment found on a non-plug-in Prius Five as well as the plug-in hybrid system.
2015 Toyota Prius
The 2015 Toyota Prius remains the most fuel-efficient gasoline car you can buy; only electric cars are more efficient.
Just as it has since it was launched back in 2010, this year's Toyota Prius liftback is rated at 50 mpg combined (51 mpg city, 48 mpg highway). Along with two other Prius models, that makes it the most efficient vehicle sold in the U.S. that doesn't have a plug. And the other two cars that equal that rating are members of the expanded Prius family as well: the Prius C subcompact hatchback, and the Prius Plug-In Hybrid.
Drivers who cover most of their miles at lower speeds, who plan ahead to coast down to stops and accelerate gently, may even see 60 mpg from time to time. Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system is 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.
Most drivers will get 40 mpg or better under mixed real-world use, though in hilly terrain, in the winter, or with a full load, it might drop into the high 30s. An "EV" mode that will keep a Prius in electric-only mode can boost mileage as well when used on the last mile of a trip.
Then there's the Prius Plug-In Hybrid, which has the dubious distinction of offering the lowest electric range of any plug-in car sold in the U.S. market: just 11 miles. But even during the gentle EPA test cycles, its electric motor didn't produce enough power to run the car electrically through the entire test--so there's an asterisk that notes it has only 6 miles of continuous electric range. In practice, Prius Plug-In drivers will need to work hard to avoid having their engine switch on now and then. 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. Still, 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.