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2016 Toyota Prius Four Touring First Test Review

Has a Path Finally Been Cleared for a Cool Prius?

Has a Path Finally Been Cleared for a Cool Prius?

Of course I saw it in the left lane — the carpool lane on Interstate 405 near Toyota‘s soon-to-be ex-headquarters in Torrance, California, to boot. I was crawling along in a 2016 Toyota Prius of the lineup-topping Four Touring flavor when a flash of levity entered the frame: a sticker on another car’s rear glass.

Automakers haven’t collectively agreed on a single harmonized procedure to rate their hybrid powertrains.

“‘Cool Prius!’–Nobody,” it read in all its pithy glory. The car the sticker was plastered on? A Prius Plug-In.

If self-deprecation comes standard with all new Priuses, it doesn’t seem to translate to the realm of public perception. Hybrid vehicles only make up a sliver of the market, but the Prius might as well be the hybrid. Everyone knows it. It’s a taxi fleet favorite. A Google driverless technology platform. A poster child for left-lane squatters. We’ve certainly respected the Prius’ fuel economy and technical advancements for more than 15 years (2001 was the first U.S. model), and these virtues vaulted the second-generation car to a 2004 Motor Trend Car of the Year win.

More on the 2016 Prius: 15 Cool Facts About the 2016 Toyota Prius

However, aside from miles-per-gallon tales and cents-per-mile costs, the Prius traditionally has given us little to get excited about. What’s that saying about familiarity and contempt? The power-split planetary gearset is neat (details on what’s improved on a microscopic level will undoubtedly be laid bare in an SAE paper tell-all) but it’s hard to make a case that all aspects of the driving experience are cool. Luckily for us, Toyota wanted to make the new fourth-gen much cooler all around.

Associate editor Christian Seabaugh attended the 2016 Prius press launch at one of the car’s new natural environments: an autocross course. “Prius autocross? Really?” Seabaugh said. “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.”

Not cool.

And this press event was put on by Toyota. But what did Seabaugh think of the 2016 car? “There’s a night and day difference dynamically between the new car and the last one,” he said. “The new chassis feels so much livelier than the old car’s. It can take the power — what little there is — 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.”

Those familiar with three generations of Priuses might be feeling a pang of the vapors. Testing director Kim Reynolds noticed the same change after putting down a blistering-for-a-Prius 27.8-second figure-eight time. It’s the first time a Prius has dipped into the 27-second range. “Much better,” Reynolds said. “Turns in almost too well, as it reacted more quickly than I expected. Basically a lot of understeer and not much feel. But the steering has more gain and quickness.” Toyota’s investment in the Toyota New Global Architecture with front strut and multilink rear suspension appears to have paid off. The ride is firmer and feels substantially more connected to the road. The TNGA chassis targets a low center of gravity, and you won’t miss it from the driver’s seat. I found myself tiptoeing up curbside lips in fear of scraping the front end, but the Prius never made any characteristic scuffing sounds.

There are all kinds of surprises inside. The floating center console with its handy, mostly hidden storage area underneath has been dismissed from duty, yet the new cabin doesn’t seem as open and roomy as in the last Prius. That’s partly due to the greenhouse size and shape. The 2016’s daylight opening is tighter and more raked, and outward visibility suffers in the over-the-shoulder-peekaboo department. (Passenger volume is in essence a wash at 93.1 cubic feet to last year’s 93.7.) The driving position and front and rear seats are supportive enough in our SofTex-trimmed confines and you can adjust the climate control to concentrate only on the front row. New color and design elements stand out and are pretty out there for the brand. There’s less dour light gray and more piano black and bathtub porcelain white (trims Three and higher feature the white). Some sharp edges (top of the center stack, front-most edge of the center console) dot the interior. But this is safety-focused Toyota, so the situation hasn’t gotten completely out of control. Because the front passenger seat heater switch is obfuscated from the driver’s view, Japan’s biggest automaker believed it necessary to put a clearly labeled status indicator for that side right next to the driver’s seat warmer switch. It’s no surprise the cruise control continues to be managed by a separate stalk, not by steering wheel buttons that could be unintentionally activated.

At 9.7 seconds to 60 mph and 17.4 seconds through the quarter mile at 77.6 mph (125 km/h), the gen-fours are about as quick as the gen-threes. The 2016 car has a lower hybrid system power rating — 121 hp to 2015’s 134 — but I didn’t detect a negative impact. The highlight of the new powertrain — the re-engineered 1.8-liter engine with 40-percent peak thermal efficiency and a new (yet familiar) planetary-type continuously variable automatic, 71-hp/120-lb-ft electric drive motor, and 0.7-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery that’s 6 percent smaller by size and 31 percent lighter by weight than the third-gen nickel-metal hydride piece — is how it substantiates itself in everyday driving conditions. The car stays in full-electric driving more often and more easily than the last model while employing normal gas pedal usage. And when the engine does need to turn on, it isn’t as noisy. The whole car is quieter than before, though road and tire noise is irrefutably present. The brakes exhibit some hybrid grabbiness deeper in the pedal stroke.

But there’s always the fuel economy payoff. An Eco-Diary instrument cluster display stores 32 days’ worth of onboard mpg readouts, letting us gaze into our test car’s semi-checkered past. It’s kind of like perusing the crowd-spurred fuelly.com, except without the user-submitted photos and city/highway driving split guesstimations, and the Eco-Diary entries aren’t segregated by fuel fill-ups. A scatter plot emerges. Motor Trend can account for 15 of the 31 data points; the remaining 16 days were sourced from before we took delivery and with no preceding knowledge of who was at the wheel, what the circumstances were, or how the car was driven. Only drives of meaningful distance are posted (records from 2.2 to 6.2 miles were omitted). The Eco-Diary includes at least three days’ worth of belligerent driving: one to procure handling and acceleration test numbers and two to entertain members of the media during Seabaugh’s autocross adventures.

Dear diary, not too shabby. No way around it, the Prius’ EPA 54/50/52 mpg (4.4/4.7/4.5 L/100km) city/highway/combined is stellar. A Real MPG result of 56.4/56.2/56.3 (4.17/4.19/4.18 L/100km) shows you don’t have to pamper the accelerator pedal or lean on regenerative braking beginning from two towns over to indulge prodigious penny pinching at the pump either.

There’s also no way around the bodywork. The new Prius has a dramatic, Mirai-inspired appearance. I suspect some people will think it looks cool. That’s at least a start.

2016 Toyota Prius
BASE PRICE $25,035
PRICE AS TESTED $30,835
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door hatchback
ENGINE 1.8L/95-hp/105-lb-ft Atkinson-cycle DOHC 16-valve I-4 plus 71-hp/120-lb-ft electric motor; 121 hp comb
TRANSMISSION Cont. variable auto
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 3,087 lb (61/39%)
WHEELBASE 106.3 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 178.7 x 69.3 x 58.1 in
0-60 MPH 9.7 sec
QUARTER MILE 17.4 sec @ 77.6 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 115 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.82 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 27.8 sec @ 0.61 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 54/50/52 mpg
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 62/67 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.37 lb/mile

What Is Power and What Should It Mean?

To parents of a teenage driver, power is a yardstick by which to guess if a certain car would be a good idea (higher is always worse) for their baby. To others, it’s a way of showing they’re a big man/woman who can “handle the beast” or some other eye-roll idiom. To physics textbook authors, it’s the time rate of energy transfer.

To Argonne National Laboratory’s Mike Duoba and his SAE J2908 (Hybrid System Net Power Rating) task force, the net power of a hybrid powertrain is material for serious debate. Rating a car’s combustion engine by its lonesome is easy peasy by current J1349 and J2723 standards: Test the engine as it’d be dressed and installed for customer consumption, right at the crankshaft. But for a hybrid system—where two (or more) propulsion components and two (or more) energy storage mediums are in play—its energy management can be highly unpredictable.

Automakers haven’t collectively agreed on a single harmonized procedure to rate their hybrid powertrains. They aim to make it as similar to current engine-only ratings as possible, but hybrid configurations are highly diverse. Toyota’s change in rating technique influenced the 2016 Prius’ lower system horsepower. Some manufacturers prefer quantifying their gas/electric setup’s engine and battery separately, have the battery stand in for e-motor power, and then sum the outputs (Plan A). Some elect to move further downstream in the powertrain and look at the cumulative shaft output so it’s more compatible with how a standalone engine is measured (B). Argonne’s preliminary testing demonstrated one constant variable: A hybrid car won’t always report the same output using two different methodologies.

Enter J2908, which looks to level the hybrid net output playing field between the manufacturers by recommending specific testing protocols for defining power. A catalogued resolution has yet to be etched in stone. Concerns include the ability to authenticate automaker claims (are ratings based upon test measurements or estimations?) and whether the greater public will be able to easily comprehend and compare the figures (a weighty issue, as some individuals still believe in the veracity of old-school SAE gross numbers). In addition to the two approaches outlined above, determining power at the axle or wheels is a direction the committee is seriously considering (C). Rating power at the wheels might offer the best chance of “future-proofing” the vehicle power rating so that all types of powertrains now or in the future can be faithfully compared to each other.

A workable J2908 draft is expected mid-2016. Duoba is genuinely curious about which approach would feel the most valuable to you, fair reader. A, B, C, or another solution not presented here?