All-new for 2016, Toyota Prius begins its fourth generation. Toyota’s most prominent hybrid-powertrain vehicle has been fully redesigned for the 2016 model year. Part of Toyota’s lineup since 2001, the Prius has changed significantly in both appearance and driving characteristics.
Still easily recognizable as a Prius, the five-door hatchback features a steeply angled windshield, while the nose has been lowered and the rear end raised, now ending with a spoiler. Measuring 2.4 inches longer than before, the 2016 Prius is nearly an inch lower, maintaining its sloping roofline. Not everyone may swoon over the new look, especially at the rear. Taller folks may find headroom tight in the back seat.
Minimizing fuel usage has been Toyota’s primary goal with every Prius version, and they’ve succeeded once again. The latest Prius still ranks as the most fuel-efficient car on the U.S. market, with the sole exception of those that plug into an electrical outlet.
EPA fuel economy ratings are 54/50 mpg City/Highway, or 52 mpg Combined, for the base model, called Prius Two, while the Prius Two Eco manages a 56-mpg Combined estimate.
Confusingly, Prius Two is the base model and is the only model with a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack rated 1.2 kilowatt hours. The Prius Two Eco and all other versions move to a 0.75-kWh lithium-ion battery pack. The battery packs reside beneath the back seat.
Toyota claims to have re-engineered every hybrid-system component, to boost efficiency while cutting weight and cost. A revised 1.8-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine makes 95 horsepower and can reach thermal efficiency as high as 40 percent. Working together, the gas engine and electric motors develop 121 horsepower and 105 pound-feet of torque.
In addition to greater passenger space and cargo volume, the 2016 Prius promises improved handling and grip, with a more engaging driving experience.
For 2016, Toyota offers two new Safety Sense suites of active-safety systems for the Prius Three and Prius Four. Safety Sense-C includes a Pre-Collision System with automatic braking, automatic high beams, and Lane Departure Alert, . With Safety Sense-P, the Pre-Collision System operates up to the car’s top speed. That group also adds pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, and full Lane Departure Correction. Optional Intelligent Park Assist helps a driver parallel-park or back into a right-angle parking space.
Three basic trim levels are offered: Prius Two, Prius Three, Prius Four, plus a high-efficiency Prius Two Eco and Touring versions of Three and Four:
Prius Two ($24,200) comes with fabric seats, a 4.2-inch dual color multi-information display, rearview camera, and 15-inch alloy wheels. Prius Two is the only one with a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack.
Prius Two Eco ($24,700) subtracts the spare tire, liftgate wiper, and other items to cut weight by 65 pounds and reduce aerodynamic drag. It uses a lighter, smaller lithium-ion battery pack.
Prius Three ($26,250) gets soft-touch material on door tops, Entune Premium Audio with navigation, pearlescent white console trim, and built-in Qi smartphone charging. Prius Three Touring ($28,100) adds foglamps, 17-inch alloy wheels, a unique rear bumper, and SofTex upholstery, .
Prius Four ($28,650) and Prius Four Touring ($30,000) include blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, along with rain-sensing wipers, and an eight-way power driver’s seat with power lumbar support.
Eight airbags are standard. The Premium Convenience Package includes Intelligent Parking Assist, Entune JBL Premium Audio with navigation and apps, and Safety Connect features. Offered only on Three Touring and Four Touring, the Advanced Technology Package bundles Toyota Safety Sense-P, a head-up display, and moonroof.
Toyota broke free of prior Prius designs for the 2016 model. The new appearance is controversial, especially the tall rear end, which seems to have an excess of conflicting elements. No other back end looks like the latest Prius, with its chevron-shaped taillamp lenses.
Up front, despite a lower and sleeker nose, it’s recognizable as a Prius. Sweeping accent lines make bodysides appear less slab-sided. Toyota says the overall shape was inspired by a runner in the starting blocks. Standard LED headlights tend to appear smaller. Among other modifications, the apex of the roof was pushed forward.
While the exterior initiates controversy, the new Liftback’s freshly refined interior has improved considerably. It’s now less upright.
New form-hugging front seats have better-shaped cushions, plus more side bolstering. The driver sits significantly lower than before. Because the roofline is lower at the rear, taller passengers in the back seat could be short on headroom.
Previous hard-plastic textures have been replaced by more pleasing soft-touch surfaces. Full-color graphics have edged aside the previous muddle of monochrome displays. Cupholders, bins, and storage trays sit lower, adding to the more spacious cabin feel.
A multi-information display with twin 4.2-inch screens is centered in the wide dashboard, thus maintaining a somewhat futuristic look. Controls are less scattered than before, but the idiosyncratic Prius shift lever remains.
For the first time, the traditional Prius Liftback drives and handles like a regular car, perhaps broadening its appeal beyond hybrid devotees. Acceleration is roughly the same as before. Though it’s a mightily changed vehicle, the 2016 Prius Liftback is still short on power.
In terms of roadholding, handling, and feel of the road, though, the latest Liftback presents a different sort of experience. The previous Prius was well-known for its numb steering and minimally engaged roadholding, as well as substantial body roll. Not anymore. The 2016 model is more pleasurable to drive, and the lower seating position makes it feel a bit more sporty. Or at least, like a conventional hatchback.
Engine noise while accelerating has been suppressed considerably, though road noise may appear on coarse pavement. Although the ride is generally good, hard directional changes on rough surfaces could induce modest bounciness.
Toyota stuck with its twin-window tailgate, which isn’t the greatest for rearward visibility. In addition, the view over the driver’s shoulder has worsened, largely because of the rising beltline.
With lower gas prices, Toyota needs to sell Priuses to more buyers than those who want to save money on fuel, or demonstrate their environmental commitment. Because the latest Prius drives more like a regular car than its predecessor, such a goal seems reachable though some potential buyers might be dissuaded by this iconic hybrid’s new look.
Driving impressions by John Voelcker, The Car Connection. James M. Flammang contributed to this report.