Toyota Prius Road Test

First Drive
Behind the Wheel of the More-Efficient 2016 Toyota Prius Hybrid
Overview
There isn't a more sensible car than the Toyota Prius. With the interior room of a midsized car, the footprint of a compact, phenomenal fuel economy, bulletproof reliability, and hatchback versatility, it's a genius transportation solution. For that reason, the Prius is among Consumer Reports' subscribers' most popular cars. It just works brilliantly as a headache-free transportation solution.

For 2016, Toyota rolls out the fourth generation-promising to retain the sensibility but add ingredients the Prius never had, namely styling and a fun-to-drive quotient.

Based on a new platform to be shared with the next Camry, the 2016 Toyota Prius hybrid includes a more sophisticated independent rear suspension in order to optimize ride and handling. The car is a bit longer, lower, and slightly wider. It retains its hatchback configuration, although that may not be obvious from the outside, due to the loss of the third side window in favor a blacked-out rear roof pillar. The styling bears a family resemblance to Toyota's fuel-cell car, the Mirai, granting it a high-tech look that might resonate with some buyers.

The powertrain is largely a carryover, relying on a 1.8-liter gas engine that's augmented by an electric drive that Toyota claims is now lighter and more compact. The continuously variable transmission, or CVT, is also improved.

The 2016 Toyota Prius hybrid goes on sale in January with pricing starting at $24,200 for the base Prius Two trimline and reaching $30,000 for the Prius Four Touring. Only the base Prius retains a nickel-metal hydrate battery; all other versions get a more compact and advanced lithium-ion battery.

Toyota Safety Sense is an advanced suite of active safety features that comes in the $1,935 Advanced Technology package. It includes auto braking from 6 to 25 mph, lane-departure warning with a slight lane correction, and active cruise control. Fortunately, if you just want blind-spot monitoring, you can get that in the Prius Four, priced at $28,650.

In a peculiar quirk, the Prius' total system horsepower is 121, which might seem underpowered compared to the outgoing car's 134. But Toyota says that's due to a different Japanese calculation method that takes into account the gas engine's 95 hp and the electric motor's 71 horses. Toyota declined to give an apples-to-apples horsepower comparison.

An AWD version will be available in Japan, but it is still under consideration for the U.S. We think it would be a hit in the Snow Belt. A plug-in version is also coming down the road.

Impressions
Based on an initial drive, the car is quicker to react in passing situations. The EPA estimate for combined fuel economy is 52 mpg. An Eco trimline, which will account for about 10 percent of sales, is rated at 56 mpg due to limited options, higher tire pressure, and weight-saving tweaks such as eliminating a spare tire. The outgoing Prius got 44 mpg overall in Consumer Reports' test cycle.

Our drive included a mix of suburban driving and some freeway cruising and yielded an average of 50 mpg-according to the onboard computer in uninstrumented conditions.

The engine now roars less when you tromp on the gas pedal, and the CVT is more palatable without overly amplifying engine noise. As before, the Prius can propel itself solely on electric power, typically up to about 20 mph, which is handy and gratifying in stop-and-go traffic or just when loafing around on Main Street.

Evidently, Toyota worked on making the brake pedal response feel smoother, more progressive, and less grabby than that of a typical hybrid. The Prius' ride comfort is improved, both in terms of bump absorption and in keeping the body steady and more settled. Road noise isolation is improved as well over the outgoing Prius, but not by a huge margin. Rough pavement still comes through with a noticeable rumble.

Handling is more responsive with prompt turn-in, sharper cornering, and less tendency for hippo-like body roll-all of which make the car more enjoyable to drive. That said, it's still doesn't possess the agility of a Ford Fusion Hybrid. The powertrain and handling improvements might be more evolutionary than revolutionary, but the interior shows a major upgrade. Gone is the hard and hollow plastic interior of the previous generation. Instead, the 2016 Toyota Prius hybrid brings some soft-touch surfaces, flashes of chrome, and a modern, high-tech look. It has a colorful touchscreen that interfaces with audio, phone, navigation, and energy flow readouts.

Due to the car's lower stance and seating position, getting in and out of the new Prius requires a bit more ducking, and more of a controlled fall than a proper sitting motion. Slamming the doors results in a rather tinny sound. The seats are fine for a short drive, but the lack of lumbar support adjustment in most versions becomes uncomfortable on a longer trip. Power lumbar adjustment comes with the power driver seat and faux-leather upholstery in the Four Touring, which is a $30,000 car.

CR's Take
Toyota clearly managed to instill more able driving dynamics, created a vastly improved interior, and included all the latest connectivity and active safety features, while retaining much of the Prius's laudable practicality and fuel efficiency. But in a true conservative Toyota way, this redesign amounts to an incremental improvement rather than a metamorphosis. For a successful, genre-defining car, that may be a good thing.

We bought a Prius Three for $27,323 and looking forward to fully testing it.

New Car Reliability Prediction

Based on the latest survey, we expect reliability of new models will be better than average

Warranty

All cars come with basic warranty coverage, also known as a bumper-to-bumper warranty. This protects consumers against unexpected problems with non-wear items. Powertrain warranty protects against engine and transmission troubles. Rust through, or corrosion warranty, covers rust to non-damaged components. Roadside aid provides on-location assistance in case of a breakdown and may include limited towing services.

Extended warranties provide peace of mind. Owners of models known to have worse-than-average predicted reliability can mitigate risks with an extended warranty. Generally, we recommend buying a model with better-than-average reliability and skipping this expensive add on. If you do buy an extended warranty, it is key to read the small print to understand what is covered and where you can bring the car for repairs.

Basic (years/miles)
3/36

Powertrain (years/miles)
5/60

Rust through (years/miles)
5/unlimited

Roadside aid (years/miles)
2/unlimited