- Legitimate 50-plus MPG
- Drives more like a regular car
- Quieter, more isolated engine
- Improved seats
- Polarizing styling, especially at the rear
- Space Age-y central instruments
- Rear-seat head room tight for tall riders
- Trim levels, options confusing
- Hybrids now eclipsed by electrics?
The 2016 Toyota Prius has moved much closer to driving like a regular car, while maintaining the highest fuel economy of any car without a plug; that should attract new buyers—if they can overlook the styling.
The 2016 Toyota Prius is the fourth generation of the company's iconic hybrid-electric car, a mid-size five-door hatchback in which every component has been designed to maximize efficiency and minimize fuel consumption. Unveiled in September 2015, it went on sale at U.S. dealers in January and February.
The primary purpose of the Prius historically has been minimizing fuel consumption, and the latest model retains its crown as the most fuel-efficient car without a plug sold in the U.S. this year. That said, the projected EPA ratings are slightly less than expected: 52 mpg combined for the base car, and 56 mpg combined for the special Prius Two Eco version.
The car that houses these advances is recognizably still a Prius, with a steeply raked windshield, a high tail (now ending in a distinct spoiler), and the characteristic drooping roof line.Toyota says its shape was "inspired by a runner in the starting blocks" and "conveys a feeling of forward motion." The nose is now lower, the tail is higher, and the peak of the roof has been moved forward. Overall, the fourth-generation Prius is 2.4 inches longer, almost an inch lower, and half an inch wider than the outgoing 2015 model.
From the front, standard LED headlamps make the front light units smaller. The three points of their housings—which have sharply angled chevron shapes—extend back along the fender, toward the center of the grille, and down toward the ground. Toyota notes that the front badge is at exactly the same height as it is on the Scion FR-S sports car, underscoring just how low the front really is. Moving back along the car, the Prius has now acquired some a sharp accent line in the doors, along a second one over the rear wheelwells, that together reduce its visual height.
The rear design, however, is likely to be the most polarizing aspect of the new shape, with chevron-shaped light units flanking the tail spoiler. They're fine, but then both units trail down into long extensions pointing toward the bottom corners of the tall tail. A new paint color, Hypersonic Red, gives what the company calls a "deep and vibrant luster" that highlights the new Prius's form. Seven colors will be available on launch.
As it has done with each prior generation, Toyota has engineered each component of the Hybrid Synergy Drive system to be smaller and lighter. A new 1.8-liter inline-4 engine is capable of more than 40 percent thermal efficiency under some operating conditions, and it has re-engineered every component of the hybrid system to increase efficiency and reduce cost and weight. The combined output of the engine and motors is 121 horsepower, though the company cautions it can't be compared directly against the old car's 134 hp due to changes in the Japanese rating system.
For the first time, the Prius has two different battery options. The least expensive model, the Prius Two, uses a 1.2-kilowatt-hour pack that sticks with the tried-and-true nickel-metal-hydride chemistry, while every other version adopts a 0.75-kwh lithium-ion pack. Each is located under the rear seat now, rather than below the cargo floor.
Inside, Toyota says the new 2016 Prius provides more occupant room and cargo volume. Those with long torsos may find head room a bit lacking in the rear, but the front seats are newly designed to be "form-hugging," the company says, and they felt capacious and comfortable.
For the fourth-generation Prius, Toyota has dispensed with the polarizing "flying buttress" console, and now offers a more conventional bin with a padded top between the two front seats. On the dash, as before, the Multi-Information Display remains centered in the wide dashboard at the base of the windshield, but it is now a pair of 4.2-inch color displays.
The control layout is slightly less scattered than in the previous generation, owing to more functions being consolidated in a second pod at the top of the center console that houses two air vents above a color display for the navigation and other functions, with the characteristic "Prius shift stick" below it. This design appears to tie closely to that of the Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle now being launched in very low volumes in limited regions of California.
The 2016 Prius is built on a new set of underpinnings known as Toyota New Generation Architecture, or TNGA, the first of more than a dozen cars that will ultimately use this component set. Now featuring the double-wishbone rear suspension design that's used in sporting sedans, Toyota has provided more engaging handling and roadholding—the old Prius was exceptionally numb in all on-road aspects—as well as a better ride. The 2016 Prius handles far more like a regular car and far less "like a Prius," which is a good thing.
Six models are available, from the base Two and the high-efficiency Two Eco through better-equipped Three and Four levels, each of which can also be specified as a Touring version. A plug-in model, dubbed Prius Prime, will go on sale later in 2016.
In the end, with gas prices low, Toyota needs to sell Priuses to more buyers than simply those who want to save money on fuel or make a statement about their environmental commitment. (That latter market is ebbing for the Prius, as cars with plugs are almost always more energy-efficient and lower-carbon than even the best hybrids.)
We think the latest Prius will broaden the number of customers who will consider the model, though we worry that the styling may push away at least a few of them. Those that do buy, however, should routinely see around 50 mpg in the real world, while driving a vehicle that's far less offputting than its predecessor. You might almost say the Prius has gone conventional—except for that 50-plus mpg, of course.
2016 Toyota Prius
The 2016 Toyota Prius continues to be a polarizing design, with a baffling rear end; the interior is considerably better.
The 2016 Toyota Prius is a more radical break from previous Prius designs than the previous version. It's 3 inches longer, slightly wider, and the driver sits almost 2 inches lower than before, making it the perfect '50s update: "longer, lower, wider!" Visually it appears less upright, more similar in form to the latest Honda Civic or Chevrolet Volt than the tall, slab-sided hatchback of the two previous generations.
The front of the car is recognizably a Prius, but with a much lower and sleeker nose. Toyota says its front badge is no higher than the one on the Scion FR-S sports car. Swooping accent lines on the body sides make it look less slab-sided, but it all starts to go wrong at the back of the rear doors. The roof pillar is shiny black, giving it a "floating roof line," but the roof color has two odd little comma-shaped tails wrapping around the corners of the rear hatch. The rear end is high, as before, with chevron-shaped taillight lenses at the top outer corners of the tail.
But those taillights have tails of their own, making them almost into question marks that point down toward the ground, drawing attention to the height of the tail, despite a blacked-out lower section of the rear bumper cover. To many eyes, the rear end has too many conflicting elements, turning it into a jumbled mess—although you'll definitely be able to see a new Prius ahead of you, since no other car on the road looks like the Prius.
Inside, the dash now wraps around into the door panels, and the previous generation's somewhat chaotic mix of hard-plastic surface textures has been replaced by more conventional soft-touch surfaces. On some models, a nice beige-and-black two-tone lightens the interior considerably, and overall the effect is up to date and feels far less downmarket than any Prius before.
Instruments and vehicle information are still housing in a single long binnacle at the base of the windscreen, but the full-color graphics look better than the previous car's scattershot and monochrome displays. The console sweeps up to end in a touchscreen, much like the Mirai fuel-cell vehicle, but thankfully there's no more "flying buttress" high console between the seats with a bin underneath. Instead, the 2016 Prius has a conventional set of cupholders, bins, and trays, at a lower height—which opens up the cabin and makes it feel more spacious.
2016 Toyota Prius
The 2016 Toyota Prius is the first-ever to drive and handle roughly like a regular car, albeit one without a lot of power.
The 2016 Toyota Prius is a changed vehicle in the performance department. Not for its acceleration—which is about the same as the old car's—but for roadholding, handling, and driver feel.
For a couple of years now, Toyota has promised that the new Prius would feature improved driving dynamics. They would come, the company said, courtesy of a new underlying architecture that replaced the compact and inexpensive torsion-beam semi-independent rear suspension with a fully independent trailing-arm design. The Prius would be the first of what could ultimately be a dozen or more high-volume vehicles to be built on these components, known as Toyota New Generation Architecture, or TNGA.
Well, when a Prius event features a handling course with sudden lane changes, tight turns, and enough driving challenges to produce the smell of tire rubber, you know that something's changed. Now that we've driven the 2016 Toyota Prius, we can say that the company kept its promise. The new Prius drives pretty much like a regular car—and a whole lot less "like a Prius." And in our book, that's a good thing, since the old Prius was known for numb steering, uninvolved roadholding, and lots of body roll.
The driver sits 2.3 inches lower in the new Prius, and the car is slightly wider, 3 inches longer, and somewhat lower. That automatically makes it feel sportier than its tall, slab-sided predecessor. But the best demonstration of the new car's fundamental normality is that many times during 65 miles of driving, we simply forgot it was a Prius—something that was impossible in the old car. The new Prius simply feels like a regular compact to mid-sized hatchback.
It's still far from being a BMW, mind you, but it's at least as good as other recent Toyotas we've driven—and that's a huge improvement. At the limit, the car still understeers, and it can get a little bouncy under hard direction changes on rough pavement. No one's ever going to buy a Prius for its sporty character, but now the car doesn't need to be avoided for its driver feel.
The powertrain is all-new, but the layout is fundamentally the same: a 1.8-liter inline-4 that can operate on the highly fuel-efficient Atkinson cycle, paired with the latest generation of Toyota's two-motor hybrid system, driving the front wheels. (While an e-AWD system is offered in Japan, no all-wheel-drive option was needed for the U.S., according to Toyota executives.) The combined output of the 95-horsepower engine and the electric motors in the hybrid system is 121 hp, but according to Toyota, it's based on a new Japanese measuring standard—so it can't be directly compared to the previous car's combined 134 hp. Torque is given as 105 pound-feet.
For the first time, two different batteries are used in the Prius—housed not under the rear deck but beneath the rear seat. The base Prius Two comes with a 1.2-kilowatt-hour nickel-metal-hydride battery pack, using the same technology seen in every Prius since 1997. But every other model, starting with the Prius Two Eco and up through the rest of the range, swaps in a lighter, more compact 0.75-kwh lithium-ion battery. (The size difference is due to using a greater portion of the lithium pack's total charge range, compared to the nickel-metal-hydride battery, kept within a small band right in the center of the charge range.)
2016 Toyota Prius
Comfort & Quality
The 2016 Toyota Prius has an all-new and much less grim interior, and vastly improved seats, though rear headroom is tight.
The 2016 Toyota Prius has a more refined interior, with less Space Age and more modern mid-range car design. The central instruments still indicate that it's not a bland sedan, but especially in the optional two-tone beige and grey upholstery, the Prius looks more adult and is clearly a nicer place to spend time.
The front seats are improved over those of the last generation, with better shaped cushions and more bolstering. But Toyota has moved the roof peak forward, which lets the roof start to descend earlier and cuts into rear-seat head room for very tall passengers. The bolsters on those seats also subtly push passengers toward the middle of the rear seat, meaning that if a third person sits there, the two outboard occupants may find themselves all but sitting on top of the bolster, making the seats less comfortable.
More soft-touch materials are used, and even the harder plastics have more attractive graining to them. The dashboard now wraps into the tops of the doors, giving the interior a cleaner and more sophisticated look. And we're delighted Toyota dumped the awkward "flying buttress" console design for a more conventional layout with cupholders, bins, and so forth.
One of the biggest improvements in the newest Prius is in the suppression of engine noise under acceleration. With an all-new engine, Toyota has clearly put work into making the combustion half of the powertrain less noisy when maximum power is required. The old Prius produced a desperate, strained howl when the accelerator was floored; the new one still produces engine noise, but it's more toward a whir, and it's definitely better muffled and sounds more remote. It's not as good as the latest Volt, but it's heading in that direction—and it makes the whole car feel more capable.
The ride of the new Prius is generally good, both on the standard 15-inch tires and the 17-inch versions used in the Touring package for higher-level trims. Road noise is present on coarser surfaces, but in general, noise is better suppressed under almost any circumstance. The build quality of the cars we tested was up to the usual Toyota standard, although we noted that the glossy piano black trim in front of the passenger's knees had already been scratched—leading us to think that heavily used cars will suffer from the same problem sooner or later.
2016 Toyota Prius
The 2016 Toyota Prius earns (mostly) top-tier safety ratings from the U.S. agencies, and it offers a complete suite of effective active safety systems.
All new Prius models come standard with eight airbags, and Toyota is offering its new Safety Sense suite of electronic active-safety systems in two versions, standard or optional on Prius Three and Four trim levels. The base version, known as Safety Sense-C, includes an automatic emergency braking system that can avert low-speed accidents from 7 to 15 mph, as well as lane departure warnings and automatic high beams.
Move up to Safety Sense-P, and the emergency braking system operates from 7 mph to the car's top speed—reducing the severity of crashes if they can't be avoided—and adds pedestrian detection. It also upgrades alerts for lane departure to full lane-keep assist, and adaptive cruise control that operates in stop-and-go traffic. The difference between the standard and upgraded versions involves replacing the simpler sonar sensors with a combination of camera and millimeter-wave radar sensing.
The latter system is the one that's only available as an option on Prius Three and Four models; it's part of an Advanced Technology Package—a $1,935 option, including pedestrian detection, lane departure alert with steering assist, a head-up display, automatic high beams, and a power moonroof.
That system has been given a top "Good" rating for its performance in IIHS ratings, where it's also earned IIHS Top Safety Pick+ status. And it's earned a five-star overall score from the federal government, although that includes four out of five stars for frontal impact and just two stars out of five in the side pole test, which simulates a lower-speed side collision with a utility pole or tree.
Hill assist control is standard on all models, and the Prius Four adds blind-spot monitors with rear cross-traffic alert as standard. Finally, Toyota has upgraded its autonomous parking system to help a driver not only parallel-park but also reverse into right-angle parking spaces. As before, the car steers but the driver must brake when directed to do so.
Toyota has stuck with its two-window tailgate, in which rear vision out the long and almost horizontal tailgate window is supplemented by the view out a second, almost vertical panel in the lower portion of the gate. It's about the same as before, but vision over the driver's shoulder is notably worse due to the rising beltline and the lack of a third side window. That, of course, is where the standard rearview camera comes in handy.
2016 Toyota Prius
The 2016 Toyota Prius trim levels are oddly named, but top-end models offer a competitive feature set.
The 2016 Toyota Prius hybrid comes in six different trim levels, grouped into pairs of Two, Three, and Four levels. All Prius versions come with LED daytime running lights, LED taillights, heated power folding door mirrors, active grille shutters to cut aerodynamic drag, a 4.3-inch dual screen color dashboard display, and a color-keyed shark fin roof antenna.
The base Prius Two is the only one with a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack, and it holds the line on price with the previous generation, coming in at a starting cost of just over $25,000 with delivery included. It's also the only model to use bi-xenon headlamps; all other models use LED front headlamps. And it's the only model with 15-inch wheelcovers rather than alloy wheels.
The Prius Two Eco subtracts the spare tire, the wiper on the liftgate, and some other items to cut weight by 65 pounds and reduce aerodynamic drag. Fitted with the lighter and smaller lithium-ion battery pack, it's the gas-mileage champ, the only one to achieve a combined rating of 56 miles per gallon.
Move up to the Three and you get soft-touch materials on the door tops, pearlescent white console trim, Entune Premium Audio with Navigation, built-in Qi smartphone charging, and a six-way manually adjustable driver's seat.
The Prius Four adds blind-spot monitors with rear cross-traffic alert as standard, along with rain-sensing variable intermittent wipers, an eight-way power adjustable driver's seat with power lumbar support and four-way adjustable passenger seat, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, and other features.
The Prius Three and Four levels can each be ordered as Touring editions as well, which adds fog lights, 17-inch alloy wheels, SofTex upholstery, and a unique rear bumper treatment.
There are only two major option packages. Available on the Three and Four only, the Premium Convenience Package wraps together Intelligent Parking Assist, the Entune JBL Premium Audio System with Navigation and apps, and the Safety Connect system, which itself includes several electronic active-safety systems.
Available only the Three Touring and Four Touring, the Advanced Tech Package bundles Toyota Safety Sense, a head-up display (a first for Prius), and a power tilting and sliding moonroof.
The "solar roof" option, which offered a small photovoltaic panel that powered ventilation fans to pull hot air out of the car when it was parked in the sun, is now gone.
2016 Toyota Prius
At 52 or 56 mpg combined, the 2016 Toyota Prius retains its crown as the most fuel-efficient car without a plug sold in the U.S.
The 2016 Toyota Prius remains the most fuel-efficient car sold in the U.S. without a plug, and the new fourth-generation car slightly improves on its predecessor. All but one model of the 2016 Prius are rated at 54 mpg city, 50 highway, 52 combined, against the 51/48/50 mpg rating of the outgoing model.
But a senior Prius manager said two years ago that the company expected to achieve a 10-percent improvement, and that task falls to one model, the Prius Two Eco version. It's the lightest Prius model this year, using the base Prius Two specification but with a lighter lithium-ion battery replacing the base nickel-metal-hydride pack. The company has also made a few other changes, among them deleting the spare tire and the rear window wiper. The result is a rating of 58/53/56 mpg.
Among several short test drives in a variety of Prius models, we registered readings of the mid-to-high 40s through 53.7 mpg after some occasionally energetic driving. We think it's safe to say that the 2016 Prius in virtually any version should return 50 mpg, or very close to it, in temperate weather.
A new plug-in Prius—dubbed Prius Prime—made its debut at the 2016 New York International Auto Show. It will go on sale in the latter part of 2016. It has a larger battery and longer electric range than the regular Prius—up to 22 miles on electricity alone—but we haven't yet driven that model.