If you ever thought “sporty” and “Prius” were mutually exclusive terms, the redesigned 2016 Toyota Prius Liftback aims to remedy that.
Now entering its 16th year in the U.S. and approaching two decades since the quintessential hybrid car was introduced in Japan in 1997, Toyota has declared the 2016 Prius is no longer just about mpg.
Positioned now as more than a frugal conveyance with modernistic style, athleticism in the corners has been augmented to round out the package even if its ability to sprint to 60 mph is about the same as before.
But of course mpg really is still all-important for the Prius as delivered in six trim levels, and Toyota alternately notes no other car sold without a plug gets better fuel economy.
Prior to official U.S. EPA certification which may be announced in a couple weeks, Toyota projects 54 mpg city, 50 highway, 52 combined, and a new lighter Eco version available in mid-grade Prius level two trim only boasts 58 city, 53 highway, 56 combined.
On paper this is shy of the long-rumored “10-percent” improvement goal bandied about since 2013 or so, but it’s not really. For 2016 the EPA changed how it rates hybrids with tougher drive cycles. Under new test procedures the previous generation Prius would almost certainly have seen its 50 mpg rating also clipped somewhat – or alternately the 2016 Prius would have garnered somewhat better numbers under the EPA’s former protocols.
But all this may just be prologue anyway. Despite some who’ve said unflattering things about this latest green flagship’s design – the new look evolving the Prius’ triangle wedge with Mirai overtones stands to carry forth its legacy atop the alternative energy car pecking order.
Having established itself as a founder in the electrified green car movement – and soon outdistancing Honda’s hybrid efforts launched also in 2000 – the Prius has since just-qualified for the definition of “mainstream” product.
In 2012 Toyota sold 147,503 units in the U.S. In 2013 it was 145,172 sales, and last year despite cheap gas, plug-ins leaching off some sales, and as the Prius was nearing the end of its life cycle, brand T still delivered 122,776 Prius Liftbacks as the original Prius is now called.
By comparison, the best years for the much-greater-publicized, but still-striving plug-in cars like the Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf over the past five years has been from 23,000 to 30,000.
As a car the Prius has been ostensibly older news, but in the background as it may have been, its head start and positive reputation have let it outsell every other electrified car by three-to-one if not by a much larger margin.
That’s not to say Toyota has ignored the upstarts threatening its green cred. The Volt was known to handle better, so guess what? Now the Prius does too. The Volt is quicker to 30 mph, and now Toyota says the Prius is too – though specific sprint times are not published by Toyota.
But even before any mild rivalry between the loosely compared Volt, the word “Prius” was symbolic among performance car enthusiasts as a sensible appliance, not particularly scintillating down a windy stretch of road (and that’s putting it politely).
For 2016, perceived deficits have been fixed, and this new design has to stay relevant into the next decade with competition coming.
Toyota now heartily invokes its pioneering environmental heritage even as the Prius broadens its appeal to those orbiting farther from the center of the most-advanced alternate-energy universe.
As is true of the entire car, the Hybrid Synergy Drive system does not deviate far from the tried-and-true formula, but does improve on all possible parameters.
Carried forth is a 1.8-liter displacement, but the new 2ZR0FXE engine is the most parsimonious fuel sipper Toyota has yet made. In short, its 40-percent thermal efficiency is netted mainly by reduced internal friction and freer breathing but every detail has been evaluated and tweaked.
Included is a new Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR) system which aids engine warming to get it to peak operating temperatures quicker. A resin cylinder head helps shed some pounds, and the engine itself is lower enabling a lower hood and center of gravity.
Noise has been reduced, and the thoroughly massaged unit is rated at 95 horsepower at 5,200 rpm, and 105 pounds-feet of torque at 4,000.
Power is routed through an Electronically Controlled Variable Transmission (ECVT), and of course this would not be a parallel hybrid if we did not also discuss the electric motors.
The main traction motor (MG2) is mounted now on a parallel shaft enabling Toyota to shrink the transmission case while also reducing frictional losses by 20 percent.
Output for this motor is rated 71 horsepower (53 kilowatts), and 120 pounds-feet of torque and total system power is 121 horsepower.
Toyota is following a revised horsepower rating method making it look like the new Prius lost power, but 0-60 is the same as generation three, and 0-30 may be a tad quicker with more electric torque fed in.
The other motor generator (MG1) remains as before with the planetary gear set in a coaxial relationship with the engine crank shaft.
An updated Power Control Unit (PCU) does away with heavy high-voltage orange-colored cables much like the 2016 Chevy Volt does.
Toyota says parasitic energy losses here too are reduced by 20 percent from the now-quieter unit directly attached to the transaxle.
More compact architecture also enabled engineers to locate the 12-volt battery under the hood.
As for the hybrid battery, a lithium-ion unit has been brought to market in all of six trim levels except the Prius Two non-Eco. This chemistry was first introduced on the Prius plug-in hybrid which since June has been out of production as Toyota holds back launch of the redesigned PHV based on the Liftback.
The Li-ion battery – for you who want to know – is rated 207.2 volts, consists of 56 cells, and capacity is 3.6 amp-hours. The NiMh unit in the non-Eco level 2 is 201.6 volts, consists of 168 x 1.2-volt cells, with capacity of 6.5 amp hours.
About that “Eco” Version
What else constitutes the Prius Two Eco? Not a lot really. The primary differences are lighter weight, said Sam Butto of Toyota product communications.
“If you go from Two to Two Eco, you’re going to lose a spare tire, which could be roughly 60 pounds. The Two Eco gets the lithium battery, which is 30 pounds lighter than NiMh,” said Butto. “We’ve added more low resistance tires on the Two Eco and a windshield that is able to not transmit as much heat and cool the cabin, which allows you to run your HVAC system a little bit less. Additional weight shedding includes: You won’t see a lot of the electronics on Two Eco you’ll see in the Three and Four. You won’t see a power seat or a sunroof on Prius Two Eco.”
Theoretically, we were told by another Toyota rep, if you got a decontented Prius, maybe changed the tires and removed the rear wiper, you might be able to make your own Eco.
Toyota is proudly pairing the Prius with the new Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicle of which the first three dozen or so were sold in October in California – with plans to ramp up as infrastructure rolls out, into the Northeast corridor by end of 2016, and with more to follow.
The design is also an exercise of form following function. Coefficient of drag matched another plug-in car, the Tesla Model S, and the 0.24 cd edging out the previous 0.25 re-establishes at least parity for Toyota while reducing wind resistance a little.
As the first car to come on the modular Toyota New Global Architecture – which will later be seen underpinning Corollas and other cars in this class – the Prius is also lower slung and torsional rigidity is a substantial 60-percent better. By comparison the 2015 Camry refresh saw a 10-percent improvement.
Wheelbase is the same 106.3-inches as the third generation model, but the new Prius is 2.4 inches longer, 0.6 inches wider and 0.8 inches lower.
This plus the evolved body lines are all to go toward sportiness, and Toyota says the new look evokes edginess, and dramatic style. It rides on 15-inch or 17-inch wheels and underpinning it in the back is a trailing arm double wishbone suspension.
One hundred pounds were actually added with this superior rear suspension over the torsion beam it replaces. But, Toyota says weight was offset elsewhere and curb weights are on par with generation three. It also enabled more cargo volume, now pinned at 27.4 cubic feet for Prius Two Eco, Four, Four Touring, and 24.6 cubic feet for Prius Two, Three, Three Touring.
Other practical elements of the redesign also include improved outward visibility, and inside the cabin is altogether modernized. Jumping into a 2015 Prius to compare, what used to feel sort of futuristic looks nearly dated next to the sleek centerstack and multiple full-color TFT displays.
Driving the New Prius
Fuel economy is improved, noise vibration and harshness are improved, and handling also is improved.
The former Prius, depending on who was testing it, might have mustered a 0-60 time of 10 seconds or so, and that has not changed.
It’s more punchy to 30 mph and adroit on its feet however, while improving also that most important number of them all – fuel economy.
On one 20-mile suburban route, we co-rode in an Two Eco driven by another publication’s driver who after pre-charging the battery by mildly increasing engine revs with brake on got around 55 mpg overall on secondary roads with some higher speed sections. On the way back in a non-Eco level Four, with no special treatment yours truly got just over 65 mpg driving at legal speeds on the I5 highway as well as secondary roads leading to a couple miles of the Pacific Coast Highway.
No hypermiling techniques were employed by us, this was just a drive, but what does that mean you should expect? As always, there is no free lunch, it’s just that “lunch” – i.e. fuel economy – now costs less. Put your foot into it, speed, do jackrabbit starts – or just mind your own business during freezing cold weather – and the mpg can still go down commensurately as was true of Prius models before this one. The 2010-2015 model, though rated “50 mpg” could on a tougher drive still plummet real world mpg to the low 30s. On the flip side, if you play hypermiler, coddling the car like an English nanny would one of the children of the Illuminati, it will be much more rewarding. The car’s good, and someone may sooner or later use it to set a new production vehicle world mpg record.
For some people, that’s exciting, but speaking to another kind of enthusiast, the real fun part was a slalom course on the concrete at El Toro, a retired airfield where there were no speed limits and we were encouraged to do anything but crash the car.
Back-to-back next to a 2015 Prius, the new car is noticeably more composed when attempting a mini hot lap, zigging and zagging at full tilt, juddering the low rolling resistance tires sideways in front and in back, and slamming on the brakes.
By comparison, the 2015 Prius felt more like it had a hinge somewhere in the middle, with more body roll, tire contact patches losing adhesion more readily from the twisting older body.
Not a real autocross special, the 2016 Prius is at least far from boring. The extra rigidity may also pay dividends in safety too, as the hot stamped and high-tensile steel add to the crash cage’s integrity.
As for comfort, the new cloth and softex seats do the job just fine, and this could be an all-day car.
Instruments and controls are more clear, with color coding making info all the more easy to read.
Wrap-around door treatment and more soft-touch material add to the mildly upscale effect.
A standard back-up camera and a plethora of safety – including advanced technologies – makes this a thoroughly modern car.
We liked what we experienced, and think the new look will grow on people if they did not love it already – and we’ve heard from people who do.
The Prius, already verging on a commodity item, is one step closer to that and fuel economy and emissions are very respectable.
Plug-in hybrids of course do better while their finite battery charge is helping, but once they lapse into regular hybrid mode, Prius fuel economy surpasses them all.
All-electric cars trump all comers but at this juncture EVs with over 200 miles range (i.e., by Tesla) cost much more, and more-modest EVs like the Nissan Leaf make you deal with the 84-107-mile range, other issues, and do not keep their resale value nearly as well.
There are workarounds and arguments for every case, and to this we will say to each his own.
For one, leasing is a remedy for those wanting to go all-electric and not worry about resale value. Or you can wait a while as EVs look to 200-mile models like the 2017 Chevy Bolt and next-generation Leaf and Tesla Model 3 due in the next year to three.
Where does the Prius fit in? It represents a solid, well-sorted, familiar, and evolved choice. Used as a high-mileage car, it is as easy to deal with as any conventional car, and some people want that simplicity.
As such, the new Prius should continue to hold its own as new alternative energy offerings jockey for position. Combined with Toyota’s reputation and early lead, it has been rewarded with more success with 3.5 million Prius variants sold worldwide cumulatively to date.
It’s become a big deal for the automaker, and its hybrid system architecture has long-since been the seed stock for the rest of its Toyota and Lexus hybrids which dominate the market with 70 percent of all sales.
The new Prius will go on sale in all 50 states in January 2016. Prices range from $24,200 for Prius Two to $30,000 for Prius Four Touring. An $835 destination fee is added to MSRP, and this may vary for cars distributed by Southeast Toyota and Gulf States Toyota.