People tend to give me some pretty strange looks when I explain how I drove the redesigned, fourth generation Prius down an abandoned military runway in California in order to test its aerodynamic drag coefficients. Surprise turns to disbelief, as I tell them the exhilarating sensation one gets while spanking an autocross course in a Prius, all because Toyota tells you to. But as their eyes glaze over in a feeble attempt to fathom the thought of a well-handling hybrid I know that for all of my exuberance, this concept remains lost on most individuals. Hell, most people still have issues coming to grips with the fact that Chick-fil-A is not open on Sundays, so the thought of a performance-minded, sharp-handling Prius is as foreign sounding as tempura-fried-tofu-sandwiches. It is a concept that goes against everything we have been taught about the Prius, an oxymoron of monolithic proportions, and for that reason alone Toyota felt obligated to build one.
Believe it or not, the 2016 Prius actually does offer an engaging driving experience, and while it may not be a performance-driven hybrid by any means (let’s leave that to the new Acura NSX), there certainly is a lot to be said for how it bests the outgoing model. Like I said during the vehicle’s reveal in Las Vegas, this Prius has been designed with the millennial market in mind — a generation that expects hybrids to look like they came right out of Star Trek, all while offering more tech than the Starship Enterprise, and backed by enough sportiness to keep it interesting.
After 3.5 million units and 15 years of uninterrupted apathy, Toyota has finally listened to our plea for more fun, and as automotive enthusiasts we couldn’t be more excited. The Prius is now built around a foundation of “emotional styling,” a mantra that proudly showcases a far more aggressive stance, a 60% stiffer chassis, double-wishbone rear suspension, more tech and safety than you can shake a stylus at, noticeable power gains, and a sizable bump in fuel efficiency. All of these improvements shoulder Toyota’s goal of maintaining the Prius’ domination in the hybrid octagon, as it continues to outsell its nearest competitors seven-fold.
You know what, screw it. Let’s jump right into the fray and talk a little bit about the shell of the redesigned Prius. No matter how good it may be in the efficiency, tech, or performance departments, if people hate the way it looks, it isn’t going to sell. This is undoubtedly a hot button topic with this incarnation, as Toyota did a very un-Toyota thing with the Prius this time around, going way out of its comfort zone in the design department.
Pinched, scowling front lines feed their way into adaptive grille shutters, which have been designed for better fuel economy and cooling. A low-slung stance offers a far more refined way of slicing through the atmosphere, lightweight undertrays envelope the underside of the car in order to cut down on drag, and those zig-zag LED “Zorro” taillights are just as unmistakable as the word “Prius” itself. It’s a car that has been built with aerodynamics and aggression in mind, and once outfitted with LED running lights, fogs, a few aero add-ons, and some optional 17-inch alloys, there is little doubt that this is the hybrid of the future.
Exterior pros and cons
+ Sharp and almost alien-looking, the new Prius’ fascia is truly the most captivating front end to date.
+ Lower and wider, with a roof-peak that protrudes forward, every imaginable angle on this car shows a more athletically streamlined stance.
+ Those zig-zag LED taillights are the perfect compliment to the nose of the car, especially when buyers opt for the LED lighting package.
– That pointy, pissed-off front end can be unsettling for a lot of long-time Prius owners, as they have become used to various softer, doe-eyed versions over the years.
– The 17-inch wheel upgrade isn’t the most hideous-looking alloy on the market today, but those 15-inch hubcaps are pretty gross.
– It’s not a bad-looking rear decklid, but I am curious to see if Toyota rolls out a flushmount spoiler of some sort in order to spruce up the Prius’ posterior.
This is where things get a little complicated. There is now a choice of hybrid systems you can opt for, with the battery being the deciding factor. Since the “Eco” model was the version I had my grubby mitts on that day, we’ll just be focusing on it and the lithium-ion battery contained therein; this version is the one that gets an estimated 56 miles per gallon in the city alone.
Belting out a tolerable 121 horses during peak power, the new Prius has been tested repeatedly on Toyota’s all-new dyno machine, which is a bit of a dream crusher when it comes to real-world numbers. That may not sound like a lot, considering the outgoing model has 134 horsepower, but that version hasn’t had time on the “dream crusher,” so getting an accurate numerical comparison is a bit difficult at this point. Fortunately, what I can tell you is that the Prius’ little four-cylinder has the world’s best thermal efficiency numbers, cutting 20% of all parasitic losses encountered by the Power Control Unit (PCU), is 6% lighter than its predecessor, is 12% smaller in overall dimensions, and features redesigned intake ports and re-calibrated valve spring loads to give it more zip. Tie that in with a CVT that offers unlimited shift points and a “Sport Mode” that makes gear selection an option, and Prius driving enjoyability hits new levels.
Editor’s note: EPA efficiency numbers were still pending at the time of writing.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ Lighter, smaller, and stronger, the gasoline side of the equation is an obvious step in the right direction.
+ The lithium-ion battery tested in the Eco version offers a small but noticeable bump in efficiency numbers.
+ Putting the car in “PWR Mode” and opting to manually select gears adds a bit more torque and control to the equation when you get bored.
– Performance is still somewhat tied to a very heavy Prius tether.
– While the torque curve isn’t bad, the Prius still struggles with top-end speeds and doesn’t like downshifting when it is time to come to a complete stop.
– That lithium-ion battery sure doesn’t like the cold, so if you have winters that dip down past -30 degrees Fahrenheit, I would advise you to look elsewhere.
While it may offer more low-end grunt and the exterior remains a sordid affair, it’s the interior of the fourth-gen Prius that demands special attention. Contrary to common belief, the Prius has always been a neat little car to roll around in, with its sci-fi interior styling cues, digital read-outs, and library-esque cabin. The latest version takes it to a whole new level though: With “China Bone White” plastics, multi-tone color schemes, soft touch materials galore, USB plugs, a redesigned center console that doesn’t take up half the cockpit, there’s way more room for passengers and cargo alike.
Fun facts revolving around the new Prius’ interior begin with the chief designer breaking his tailbone and insisting that the car have Lexus-grade seats — something my ass wholeheartedly appreciated (our gratitude for taking that fall). The 12V battery has been moved back to the engine bay where it belongs, and the hybrid unit is now under the rear seat, thus freeing up more cargo room. A low-variation steering wheel compound replaces the old D-cut style and is used to keep drivers from scalding or freezing their hands, and that piano black touchscreen looks fantastic compared to all of that grey plastic in the outgoing model, with control knobs that feel anything but cheap. Outside of a few trim pieces feeling a bit flimsy, the fit and finish is 100% Toyota-grade, cubbies and pockets are relatively abundant, and there is a futuristic feel to the entire cabin, making it look light-years ahead of everything else out there.
Interior pros and cons
+ Sharp-looking, multi-tone color schemes, soft touch materials, and supple seats all make this cockpit look and feel like a million bucks.
+ The more spacious cabin features aesthetic touches like 3D oval air vents, swooping lines that seamlessly flow forward, angled door handles, and a piano black touchscreen navi/infotainment console that looks and feels incredible.
+ Roomy as hell, my six-foot frame had little issue getting comfy in all five of the Prius’ well appointed seats. With additional storage space opening up due to both the 12V and hybrid batteries being relocated, it is no wonder why this car still reigns as king of the hybrids.
– All that piano black, including what is found on the navi/infotainment touchscreen, is one giant fingerprint magnet. Invest in some microfiber towels, folks.
– Certain trim pieces are not very firmly attached and feel flimsy. Plus, those “chain link” speaker covers are pretty gaudy looking, and are a bit rickety to boot, so expect some rattles when the bass drops.
– The material used for the steering wheel may keep you from scalding or freezing your hands off, but it also has an unpleasantly cheap, tacky-like feel to it that never seems to subside. Do yourself a favor and opt for the leather-wrapped wheel instead.
Tech and safety
Mountains of technological advancements await you in the fourth generation Prius. I’m not just talking about the car’s wireless cell charging station, Siri Eyes-Free capabilities, those full-color dual TFT displays, or that Entune onboard system that is now 85% faster. I’m referring more to the perpendicular parking assistance systems that will stop the car for you, seat weight sensors that tell the computer what areas of the cabin need AC, heat, or nothing at all, and the bevy of safety systems designed to keep you and those around you safe. Pre-collision mitigation systems, pedestrian detection technology, dynamic radar cruise control that can bring you to a complete stop, and lane keep assistance backed by steering corrections are all available on the new Prius.
On the fun side, there’s the HD and satellite radio, smartphone syncing capabilities for those who want to run Spotify, and that customizable console display, which remains a constant focal point. Heated front seats and a push button start are always appreciated tech additions, but it was word that Toyota is working on installing on-board Wi-Fi that captured my interest; on a side note, the pre-production models I drove did not have all of the customizable map and infotainment options unlocked, so my ability to dive deeper into this aspect was somewhat limited.
Tech pros and cons
+ Compared to the outgoing model, the customizable, full-color MID in the new Prius looks outstanding, as does the piano black navi/infotainment touchscreen system.
+ Safety is key, and with Toyota adopting a lot of the features one finds in cars like the Lexus RX350 I recently reviewed, this generation certainly is a safe bet for anyone looking to buy a hybrid.
+ This car is a wireless charging, smartphone syncing, app utilizing, climate control manipulating slice of the future, and it is only going to get faster and better.
– The navi is touchscreen dependent and does not use a mouse. This is frustrating, since it likes to jump around when you’re trying to zoom in and out or view another area on the map. It also pulls up the latitude/longitude of wherever you touch, obfuscating much of the map with information no one needs or cares about.
– The wireless charging dock was large enough for my Samsung Note, but refused to charge it or my colleague’s iPhone. This may have been coincidence, but it is worth mentioning, especially since other members of the media had the same issue.*
– The Prius’ pedestrian detection system is designed to stop you if someone suddenly walks out in front of your car. Unfortunately, anyone on a bicycle or skateboard, kids under three feet tall, four legged animals, and kids on big wheels still stand a chance of getting leveled. This is a technology that automakers are working on improving, and while it certainly is a step in the right direction, it’s not perfect just yet.
*This could have been a pre-production issue — Toyota’s on-site reps tried hard to get it working, to no avail.
Driving the new Prius around town is a predictable affair. There’s acceptable steering feedback and brakes, noticeable bumps in acceleration when in “PWR Mode,” and good visibility all around. Comfortable, controlled, and far more engaging than any previous generation, the only major downsides I discovered were the road noise toward the rear of the cabin (undoubtedly due to its harder compound, fuel-efficient tires) and the Prius’s inability to offer ample power at higher speeds.
Outside of those gripes, the car was pretty damn solid. That was accentuated when I got to drive the outgoing model around an autocross track, followed by the new version. That 60% stiffer, “TNGA” platform makes a huge difference when preventing chassis flex, the angled MacPherson front struts and double-wishbone rear suspension makes a massive difference in the corners, and there is a noticeable bump in torque down bottom when you floor it in “PWR Mode.” Hands down, this is the best handling, most engaging Prius yet, and while that may not sound like much, it means a lot for buyers who hate how the older generations drive.
Wrap up and review
Slated for release sometime mid-January, the latest member of the Prius family is a fantastic middle finger to the ways of old, with cutting-edge technology, safety, and efficiency numbers illuminating the path forward with LED intensity. Tack on the fact that it actually handles worth a damn and has a bit more power down bottom, and you’ve got a Prius that won’t put you to sleep behind the wheel.
As with all cars, I did encounter a few problems along the way, with the navi being the most offensive entity; but Toyota is surely onto this issue, along with the wireless charging snafu and any other hiccup members of the media may have encountered over that week-long stay at Laguna Niguel. Sure, the styling will remain a polarizing topic of discussion, but the last time I checked, no one was fawning over the previous three generations either, so maybe a little controversy is a good thing here. Plus, if what they say is true, and the Eco edition starts at a very reasonable $24,700 and will give drivers one hell of a compelling reason to trade-in the old one for something new.