2016 Toyota Prius

DANA POINT, Calif. — For those many hundreds of thousands of people who love their Prius hybrid, but feared Toyota's first all-new model since 2010 would alter their cherished eco-friendly transportation into something radically different, we say "fear not."
The fourth-generation 2016 Prius is here and we discovered during a day of driving that it's still every bit a Prius. Toyota it seems has hit the vaunted Prius brand nail squarely on the head.

Because the Prius has become such a cultural institution — the synonym for gas/electric hybrid transportation — since its introduction in 2001, Toyota faced a tough task in developing an updated design that retained the Prius look while creating a modern drivetrain designed to keep loyalists satisfied as performance was sharpened and gas mileage was increased.

In the styling department, the Prius retains its familiar wedge shape with tapering windows from front to rear. New features include a grille treatment that reflects the modern face of Toyota, character lines that run through the lower portion of the doors, and a swept-up tail that includes tall, narrow taillight enclosures at the other edges of the fenders. It carries the new so-called Japanese design language without losing the third-generation Prius look. A neat trick, indeed.

We had to admit after hitting the road, surging in and out of busy Southern California traffic, and then tackling a handling course at a deserted airport, that the new Prius was actually fun to drive. The real eye opener was when we took the new Prius through the cones back-to-back with a 2015 model. The difference was startling. The new car feels much more buttoned down and more nimble.

The heightened performance comes more from its overall drivability than straight-ahead off-the-line power. Several factors contribute to the pleasing new feel. Prius is 2.4 inches longer, nearly an inch wider and is more hunkered down — almost an inch lower than the last-generation model. The new platform uses more high-strength steel contributing to a 60 percent improvement in torsional rigidity. The new design has resulted in an improved coefficient of drag of 0.24. And the Prius gets a new more sophisticated rear suspension replacing the beam-axle with a double-wishbone independent configuration.

We found the new Prius nearly identical in performance to the old Prius, which translates to a leisurely 0-to-60 run in about 10 seconds. While we were hoping for some improvement in motivation, the fuel-efficient car got the job done for us on our day of driving congested residential streets and busy highways. Any disappointment we initially felt in performance was mitigated because the overall driving experience has improved in so many areas from the improved seating position behind the wheel, a measurably quieter interior, the aforementioned sharper handling traits, and the more natural feel of the continuously variable transmission.

Under the hood is a revised version of the third generation's 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine making 95 horsepower, three fewer than before, and a combined hybrid system of 121 horsepower, 13 fewer than the outgoing model. Unlike past Prius models, the new edition can by optioned with two different batteries packs — the traditional nickel metal hydride (MiMH) or a new lithium-ion (Li-ion). The lithium-ion, which comes in all but the base model, is 70 pounds lighter and more efficient at transferring energy than the previous model. Toyota says the reason for keeping the nickel metal hydride battery was to satisfy global markets, some of which cannot handled Li-ion battery disposal.

The bottom line here is the improved fuel mileage. Toyota will indeed have bragging rights with these numbers — 54 mpg city, 50 highway and 52 overall for the majority of the models, and 58/53/56 for the Eco model. The Eco package includes low rolling resistance 15-inch tires and a special windshield laminate to better insulate the cabin to cut down on climate control use.

The interior retains the Prius design with a center screen for navigation, audio and climate controls and a large information readout at the top of the dash with a large digital speedometer, gas gauge and charging information. The thing here is that the new car has a more sophisticated looking living area with high-end materials including gloss black trim surrounding the large center screen. One discordant note was the stark white enclosure used to house the shifter residing under the center screen. It looked OK with some interior color schemes, but out of place in a high-end car.

There is a Prius for every taste with no less than six trim levels — Prius Two, Two Eco, Three, Three Touring, Four, and Four Touring. In addition to the usual features including a high-end audio system, the new Prius can be purchased with all the latest safety features including lane-departure warning and a pre-collision system. Prices start at $24,200 and run up to $30,00 with numerous options available through the trim levels.

— Jim Meachen