A Different Kind of Performance
More often than not, when I think of a performance car I think of something like the Dodge Challenger Hellcat: loud, fast, inefficient mayhem on wheels. For others, the definition of a performance car might be the polar opposite of that— something that sacrifices outright performance for fuel economy. The Toyota Prius has always fallen solidly into that second camp. For years, Prius drivers have sacrificed style, acceleration, handling and, well, dignity, all in the name of fuel economy. The 2016 Toyota Prius hopes to change all that, offering better fuel economy than before, along with a dose of style, plus performance cred that’ll make even the most hardened enthusiast crack a smile from behind the wheel. After all, why can’t you have your cake and eat it, too?
Far and away the largest change to the 2016 Prius is its chassis. Built on the new Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA), the platform allows Toyota to make the Prius lower, longer, more aerodynamic, and more efficient than the car it replaces. Though it retains the same teardrop-shaped silhouette as the third-generation car, the fourth-gen Prius boasts Toyota’s new “Ingenious Beauty” design language. While beautiful might not be the word I’d use to describe its design, there is something pretty about the purposeful lines, strakes, and fins Toyota uses to improve the aerodynamics of the edgier 2016 Prius. The aero work—which includes moving the roof forward almost 7 inches compared to the last Prius—grille shutters, and new underbody panels boost the Prius’ coefficient of drag to a claimed 0.24.
A significantly revised Hybrid Synergy Drive system helps make the most of the aerodynamics. At its heart is a revised version of the previous Prius’ 1.8-liter I-4. Lighter and more thermally efficient, the 2ZR-FXE four-cylinder makes 95 horsepower and 105 lb-ft of torque. As before, it’s paired with two electric motors: Motor Generator 1 (MG1) is tasked with starting the gas engine up and recharging the battery, and the Main Electric Motor (MG2) makes 71 hp and 120 lb-ft of torque and is responsible for powering the Prius on its own or assisting the gas engine in higher-demand situations. Total system output is 121 hp, which is 13 horsepower less than the last-gen Prius, though Toyota attributes the minor dip to a revision in how its Japanese engineers rate horsepower. The engine and motor combo continues to put power to the ground via a CVT.
The last piece to the puzzle is the batteries. For the first time, Prius buyers will have the choice of two types of battery chemistry: a mostly-carryover nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH) battery or a new-to-the-U.S. lithium-ion (Li-Ion) battery. The Ni-MH battery is only available on the base Prius Two, while the other five trims in the lineup benefit from the enhanced energy density and lighter-weight of the Li-Ion battery. On the new Prius, the batteries have moved from underneath the cargo floor to underneath the rear passenger seat, in a type of sandwich with the gas tank. Relocating the battery has allowed Toyota to swap the old car’s torsion beam rear suspension for a sportier double wishbone design while boosting cargo volume.
As you’d expect, increased fuel economy was a major focus. Toyota estimates most of the 2016 Prius lineup will net 54/50/52 mpg (4.4/4.7/4.5 L/100km) city/highway/combined, beating the 2015 Prius’ 51/48/50 mpg (4.6/4.9/4.7 L/100km) rating by about 5 percent. However, there’s an even more miserly Prius available, the Prius Two Eco. The Prius Two Eco is a hypermiler’s special. It swaps out the Prius Two’s Ni-MH battery for the lighter and more energy-efficient Li-Ion unit, ditches the spare tire, loses the heavy power seats, ditches the rear windshield wiper, gets a more thermally efficient windshield with a yellowish tint, and ultra-low-rolling-resistance tires. The net result is a curb weight about 40 pounds (18 kg) lighter than the next-lightest Prius, and an estimated rating of 58/53/56 mpg (4.1/4.4/4.2 L/100km), a 12-percent improvement versus the last-gen Prius.
Achieving that stellar fuel economy proved to be easier than expected during my drive loops in the new car. With the whole lineup available to sample in the Prius’ native stomping grounds of southern California, I started things off in the Prius Two Eco, taking a mixed city-highway drive from Dana Point, California, to former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, the site of our World’s Greatest Drag Race videos, where Toyota had set up an autocross course for us. Around town, the Prius doesn’t feel sporty, but it’s certainly more pleasurable to drive than the old car. When I drove like a normal human being — without hypermiling or constantly flooring it — the Prius picked up speed with the pace of traffic easily and remained quiet while going down the road. At city speeds, the Prius seamlessly switched between its internal combustion engine and electric motor, even keeping pace for long stretches of 45 mph (72 km/h) or so driving under nothing but electrons. The new Prius is also pretty good on the freeway. The ride is buttoned-down and quiet, and power remains good, without the Prius being left breathless during simple passing maneuvers. Without trying I managed to net an indicated 55 mpg (4.3 L/100km) after the 25 mile (40 km) or so drive.
Once at El Toro, I looked curiously at the autocross course. Prius autocross? Really? My skepticism was further enhanced by a quick refresher lap of the course in a 2015 Prius. It was everything I remembered: slow, heavy steering, poor body control, bad brake pedal feel. Not fun. I opted to make my next lap in the least-sporty new Prius possible, the Prius Two Eco. Wow. There’s a night and day difference dynamically between the new car and the last one. For starters, the new chassis feels so much livelier than the old car’s. It can take the power (what little there is of it) and really put it down well. Steering is relatively precise, brake pedal feel is very good for a hybrid, and while flat-out acceleration will never be described as fast, it’s certainly good enough. Dare I say it: The new Prius really borders on fun. I took the sportiest-available Prius out for a lap after that, a Prius Four Touring. The night-and-day gap between the new Prius and the old widens even more here. The tires on the Prius Four have a touch more grip than those on the Two Eco, significantly improving the car’s performance through the autocross course.
Not only is the 2016 Prius better to drive than before, but it’s also nicer to be in. The Mirai-like dashboard looks and feels upscale, fit and finish is better, and the materials generally speaking are a huge improvement on the old Prius. Prius Three models and above also benefit from an eco-friendly leather alternative, and extra active safety gear, including radar cruise control, lane keep assist, and a head-up display. Back seat leg- and headroom in the Prius are still adequate as is trunk space, so taxi fleets will likely remain flush with Priuses for the foreseeable future.
Pricing on the 2016 Toyota Prius remains in line with the old car, with the base Prius Two starting at $25,035 USD. The Prius Two Eco can be had at just a $500 USD premium versus the base car, costing $25,535 USD. Higher up the ladder is the Prius Three for $27,085 USD, the Prius Three Touring for $28,935 USD, the Prius Four for $29,485 USD, and the loaded Prius Four Touring for $30,835 USD. All prices include $835 USD in destination.
If you can live with a limited selection of options, the Prius Two Eco is the one to get. You get very real fuel economy benefits at a bargain of a price. The higher trims, especially the Touring trim, are certainly sportier and ever-so-slightly more fun to drive than the Prius Two Eco, but are you really buying a Prius to be sporty? At any rate, the new car is worlds more enjoyable to drive, both around town and pushing on canyon roads, than the old one. There’s a pulse here in this new Prius, a sense of life. The new Prius still may not be an outright performance car in a dynamic sense, but it’s no longer the one-dimensional econobox that enthusiasts love to hate.