By Tony Swan, Contributing Editor
The basic concept that’s propelled the Prius to hybrid leadership for two decades worldwide (16 years in the U.S.) is unchanged: an internal-combustion engine augmented on demand by an electric motor, sending power to the front wheels. But as the 4th-generation Prius rolls into showrooms, Toyota’s pioneering Hybrid Synergy Drive is more efficient, fuel-economy ratings are highest of “any vehicle without a plug,” according to Toyota USA boss Bill Fay, and a plug-in version is on its way. However, there’s a lot more to the new Prius than chart-topping fuel economy. Edgy styling. Robust chassis rigidity. Upgraded interior design and furnishings. Improved road manners. Quiet operation. It will be surprising if the Prius doesn’t sustain its hybrid-sales leadership.
The 106.3-inch wheelbase is unchanged, but everything else is new. New foundations – Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA), far more rigid. New unit body, longer, lower and wider, with snappier styling. New interior, with improved materials, upgraded infotainment and more room. New, more efficient engine and transmission. New independent rear suspension.
Rigid foundations are the prerequisite for agile handling, and Toyota’s new architecture delivers. The 2016 Prius is more decisive than the previous generation – less body roll in cornering, quicker...
... responses, steering that provides a more accurate sense of what the front wheels are doing. While engine output is down slightly from the previous generation, 0-to-60 mph is about the same, roughly 10 seconds – no danger of acceleration brownouts – and the continuously variable transmission still lets you know it’s a CVT, though it’s improved. Brake pedal feel is better, but skinny low-rolling-resistance tires beget lengthy braking distances. On the upside, ride quality is smooth, and Toyota’s efforts at noise reduction have paid off in an exceptionally quiet interior. Toyota suggests the new Prius is a car that owners might drive for the sheer joy of driving. That’s a bit of a stretch. But more competent and pleasant definitely apply.
TOYOTA SAFETY SENSE
Like other new safety systems, Toyota’s Safety Sense is capable of stopping the car when system sensors decide the driver isn’t paying attention and collision is imminent. The system also includes pedestrian detection, lane-departure warning and assist, and automatic high-beam headlights.
Available only on upper trim levels (Prius Three and Four), this highly legible color display repeats the speedometer, navigation information, and hybrid system function.
Every element of the interior has been redesigned, distinguished by two 4.2-inch color info screens with primary instrumentation parked atop the dashboard. Higher trims also include a color head-up display, as well pedestrian detection. The instrument screens ride the center of the dashboard, reducing eye redirection, according to Toyota, though some think otherwise. Interior materials, including new synthetic leather in higher trims, look and feel classier. Reduced height of the center console gives the front compartment a more open feeling, and the rear compartment feels roomier despite a very small reduction in interior volume and a lower roofline.
Although the shape seems familiar, with the same wedgy design theme, there’s more drama in the new Prius compared to generation three, which looks a little dowdy by comparison. Longer, lower and wider than its predecessor, with more character creases in the bodyside panels, the 2016 Prius has a strong curbside presence, as well as a distinctive going-away view. The lower hoodline contributes to improved aerodynamics – the coefficient of drag (Cd) goes from 0.25 to 0.24 – and also enhances the driver’s forward sightlines.
The feature list for the basic Prius Two makes it clear that “basic” does not mean “stripper” for this car. Dual 4.2-inch customizable color information displays, 6.2-inch color touch screen, 6-speaker AM/FM/CD Entune audio, 2.0 USB port, Bluetooth streaming, Siri eyes-free, hands-free phone link, voice recognition, 3-mode driver pre-sets (EV, ECO, Power), cruise control, tilt/telescope steering column, cargo area tonneau cover, rearview camera, stability control, traction control, eight airbags. Toyota anticipates top safety ratings.
There are two stand-alone Prius options – a power tilt/slide moonroof with a sliding sunshade, and the color head-up display. Other extras are bundled in two packages: Advanced Technology, which includes Toyota Safety Sense features plus full-speed dynamic cruise control, capable of bringing the car to a stop (Prius Three and Four only); and a Premium Convenience Package, which includes a 7-inch touch screen, navigation, Entune 10-speaker JBL audio, advanced voice recognition, as well as the standard Prius Two and Three features, and a good many others. Premium Convenience is limited to Prius Four and Prius Four Touring trims.
Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive has been adapted to a number of the company’s vehicles. It’s also been licensed to other carmakers. In this iteration, ratings for the updated 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle 4-cylinder are down 3 horsepower and 15 lb-ft. The new electric motor is rated at 71 horsepower and 120 lb-ft, versus 80 and 153 respectively. Combined system output is down 13 horsepower compared to generation three, but efficiency is up. Also new, in all but the base trim, the electrical side of the powertrain is supported by a lithium-ion battery pack. The base model continues to use nickel-metal hydride batteries. EPA fuel-economy ratings are up dramatically – 54 mpg city, 50 highway (58/53 for the lighter-weight Eco model), compared to 51/48 for the previous generation.
95 horsepower @ 6,000 rpm
105 lb-ft of torque @ 3,500 rpm
Permanent magnet AC electric motor
71 horsepower, 120 lb-ft of torque
Total system output: 121 horsepower
EPA city/highway fuel economy: 54/50 mpg, 58/53 mpg (Eco model)
Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Prices (MSRP) range from $25,030 for the basic Prius Two across five more trims: Prius Two Eco, Prius Three, Prius Three Touring, Prius Four, Prius Four Touring, the last at $30,835. There are also two major option packages: Advanced Technology – power sunroof, a color head-up display, and Toyota’s Safety Sense P system, which includes auto emergency braking and pedestrian detection. The package is available with Prius Three and Prius Four, though Safety Sense is standard with Touring models. Premium Convenience is the other noteworthy package. Offered only on Prius Four trims, it includes a Premium 10-speaker JBL audio system, 7-inch color touch screen, upgraded infotainment, and parking assist. Prius pricing schedule compares favorably with its major hybrid competitors, the Chevrolet Volt and Ford C-Max, but while Toyotas are some of the top cars in the resale market, the Prius won't fare as well as its stablemates as it ages.