Toyota Prius — A more mature hybrid

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Because the Prius has become such a cultural institution (the synonym for gas/electric hybrid transportation since its introduction in the U.S. in 2001) Toyota faced a tough task in developing an updated model. For those many that 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, fear not.

In a nutshell, the fourth-generation 2016 Prius is here, and Toyota has made it more refined, it handles and drives more like a normal sedan than the last-generation Prius and it delivers better gas mileage in combined city and highway driving.

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, but from our vantage point it's rather awkward from certain angles.

We discovered that for the first time the Prius is actually fun to drive. 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 drivability. Prius is 2.4 inches longer, nearly an inch wider and is more hunkered down. The new platform uses more high-strength steel contributing to a 60 percent improvement in torsional rigidity resulting 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.

While we found it nearly identical in performance to the old Prius, which translates to a leisurely 0-to-60 run in about 10 seconds, any disappointment we initially felt was mitigated because the overall driving experience has improved in so many areas — a better seating position behind the wheel, a measurably quieter interior, sharper handling traits, and a more natural character 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 battery 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. The bottom line here is the improved fuel mileage. Toyota has 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 interior retains the Prius design with a center screen for navigation, audio and climate controls and a readout at the top of the dash displaying a large digital speedometer, gas gauge and charging information. But the new car has a more sophisticated 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 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 $25,035 including $835 destination charge and run up to $30,835 for Four Touring with numerous options available through the trim levels.

Standard equipment on the base car includes heated mirrors, keyless entry and ignition, automatic climate control, cruise control, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, rearview camera, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, voice recognition with Siri Eyes Free, and a six-speaker audio system. Standard safety includes antilock disc brakes, stability and traction control and a full array of airbags. To get blind spot monitoring you will have to move up to Prius Four or Four Touring.

Our Prius Four test car with the $1,705 Premium Package (including JBL audio with navigation, HD and SiriusXM radio) and the $1,935 Technology Package (including the Toyota Sense system — pre-collision with pedestrian detection and lane departure alert — head-up display, power moonroof and adaptive cruise) came in with a bottom line of $33,125.

Base price: $25,035; as driven, $33,125
Engine: 1.8-liter 4-cylinder, 2 electric motor/generators
Horsepower: 121 @ 5,200 rpm
Torque: 120 pound-feet combined
Transmission: continuously variable
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Length: 178.7 inches
Curb weight: 3,050 pounds
Turning circle: 33.5 feet
Luggage capacity: 27.4 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 11.3 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 50 highway, 54 city
0-60: 10 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Chevrolet Volt, Ford Fusion Hybrid, Honda Accord Hybrid

The Good
• Incredible fuel economy
• Good cargo space under hatch
• Quieter and more refined than before

The Bad
• Backseat legroom cut

The Ugly
• Still one of slowest cars on the road