The Prius wasn't the first gasoline-electric hybrid automobile to enter the North American market-that distinction belongs to the 1999 Honda Insight. But it has been by far the most successful, as well as the most influential. Having expanded to a multi-model line with the Prius V and Prius C, it continues to outsell all other hybrids combined in the U.S., and as the fourth U.S. generation gets ready to roll into showrooms the North American sales tally exceeds two million cars since 2000, according to Toyota.

Although the 106.3-inch wheelbase is unchanged, this is otherwise an all-new Prius based on the TNGA (Toyota New Global Architecture) unit body with a startling 60 percent increase in torsional rigidity. Increasing the length (from 176.5 inches to 178.7) and width (from 68.7 to 69.3), creates more interior volume, though its a little smaller than a Corolla. A lower center of gravity and lower roofline (58.7 inches) combined with an enclosed underbody reduces the coefficient of drag (Cd) from 0.25 to 0.24. A new 1.8-liter engine, with revised intake ports and improved thermal efficiency coupled to a new and lighter continuously variable transaxle with integrated electric motor delivers power to the front wheels. The Prius also features a new and lighter power control unit; a multilink independent rear suspension in place of a beam axle, and new noise reduction measures.

Also: See the New and Redesigned Cars of 2016

Better fuel economy

And of course, the Prius has new EPA fuel economy ratings (read higher), exceeding "everything that doesn't have a plug," according to Bill Fay, group vice president of Toyota Motor Sales USA. The numbers are 54 mpg city, 50 highway, for the standard run Prius, 58 mpg city, 53 highway for the Eco version. The current Prius is rated 51/48.

The revised engine is rated for 95 horsepower and 105 pound-feet of torque. Torque is unchanged from the output of the current engine, but peak horsepower is down by 3. Similarly, the electric motor rating-71 hp, 120 lb-ft-is down 9 hp and 15 lb-ft. Net hybrid system output is pegged at 121 hp, compared with 134 for the current Prius. However, Toyota says the combined output figure is due to a switch to the Japanese method of determining hybrid system power, so a direct comparison between the current Prius and the new generation is misleading.

Toyota also claims the new Prius will deliver better performance and a higher fun-to-drive index, but at the same time admits that 0-to-60 mph times will be about the same. With curb weights similar to the 2015 Prius, in the low 3000-pound range, the company looks for 60 mph to consume just under 10 seconds, which isn't exactly nosebleed territory. On the other hand, the new car sprints to 30 mph respectably and doesn't have any trouble keeping up with traffic. People don't buy a Prius to go drag racing.

New battery pack

Another change can be found under the car's rear floor, which shelters a new Lithium-ion battery pack in most trim levels. The exception is the basic Prius 2, which continues to use a Nickel Metal Hydride battery, a cost-related measure that allows Toyota to hold the 2015 line on the base MSRP at $25,030.

The Prius 2 Eco, second step on the pricing ladder, gets its higher mpg rating in part by paring 65 pounds from its curb weight, much of it attributable to the elimination of a spare tire and related tools.

Every element of the interior has been redesigned, highlighted by a new instrument panel with two 4.2-inch color screens side by side, and a bigger color touch screen in the center stack. The addition of color to the two upper display screens, which provide operating information such as the speedometer, enhances legibility, but some may find the location of the instrument package, which sits squarely in the middle of the upper dash, a little annoying. A driver-oriented head-up display is offered on higher trim levels.

Nimble handling

Fun-to-drive was a recurring element in Toyota's Prius presentations, and an afternoon on southern California mountain byways, plus some back-to-back slalom exercises comparing the new Prius to the current version, suggest that there's some justification for this proposition. The new car is a little quicker in the kind of brisk maneuvers a driver might make in emergency situations, the steering is sharper than the previous generation (albeit with an on-center dead zone, particularly at lower speeds), and the attention to noise suppression is immediately noticeable-and appreciated.

As you'd expect of a family car whose fundamental mission is fuel economy, there's body roll in hard cornering (though not as pronounced as in the current Prius), and braking distances will likely continue to be lengthy, a function of tires with low rolling resistance and small contact patches.

On the other hand, brake pedal feel is improved, and the system's battery regenerative function is essentially transparent. Overall, the new car's dynamics are fully predictable, devoid of unpleasant quirks, with the bonus of supple ride quality. While fun-to-drive may be a perceptive stretch for some, it's easy to appreciate the new car's quiet comfort and competent road manners-not to mention its outstanding fuel economy ratings.

Also: Kelley Blue Book Best Buy Awards of 2016

Safety and styling

There are a number of new safety features as well, including Toyota Safety Sense, which will stop the car in low-speed traffic when the system brain decides the driver isn't paying attention, and a new adaptive cruise control system capable of doing the same.

Hybrid or not, design is always a top purchase consideration, and the new Prius should score well in the eye candy department-longer, lower, and wider, with a stylish contemporary look that makes the current car seem a bit dowdy. The going-away view, in particular, is striking with its vertical slash taillights and eye-catching angularity.

The new Prius will be offered in six trim levels-Prius 2, Prius 2 Eco, Prius 3, 3 Touring, Prius 4, and 4 Touring, with prices ranging from $25,030 to $30,830. For those whose idea of fuel economy is using no fuel at all for short commutes, a plug-in version of the new Prius is on the near horizon. But that's another story.


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