There’s something to be said for having the world’s most established electrified car, and Toyota knew it as it launched its fourth-generation 2016 Prius in January this year.
The new hybrid’s fuel economy surpasses the 2010-2015 model’s 50 mpg combined EPA rating by as much as 10 percent with a 56 mpg “Two Eco” version, and five other trim levels are rated 52 mpg combined.
Formally called the Prius Liftback to distinguish it from variants, the lower, wider, and longer car promises more spaciousness, better road manners, and Toyota suggests the new design is “modern,” “dramatic,” or “emotional.”
To say the highly anticipated Prius has garnered a response is at least true. Merging styling elements of the now-familiar wedge shape with cues from the Mirai fuel cell car, the new look has elicited praise from some while other armchair design critics and even some professional reviewers have bestowed cutting remarks.
But whether people love it, don’t love it, or are indifferent, newly introduced Prius models have incited polarized reactions before, but after any histrionics subsided, the perceptibly outlandish car has blended in and Toyota keeps selling them. Lots of them.
Since 1997 Toyota has globally sold more than 3.5 million “Prii,” and its hybrid architecture has let Toyota happily find a market for itself which it now dominates with 70-percent U.S. marketshare and over a dozen Lexus and Toyota models. Cumulative global sales have totaled over 8 million.
However, so far in the U.S. this year, Prius sales are down by an-underwhelming 6.5 percent from a year ago, but the picture is projected to improve.
“The Prius Liftback is at a disadvantage since its sales are no longer driven by HOV solo-access stickers and the price of gas makes it less appealing,” said Michigan-based analyst Alan Baum referring to sticker-eligible plug-in cars which may also be seen as a new high-water mark among the most environmentally minded. “Volumes will increase during the year as there was a late start since the product was not fully available across the U.S. until recently.”
In its favor, the Prius is a known quantity with many fans in its own right. Its reliability record and resale value has settled former doubts and while plug-ins receive more attention, the Prius’ 30,555 U.S. sales through April soundly eclipses those of any other alternatives.
As promised since 2013, Toyota’s new 1.8-liter Atkinson cycle four is its most fuel sipping ever, with 40-percent thermal efficiency netted mainly by reduced internal friction and freer breathing but every detail has been evaluated and addressed as needed.
The new engine forms the basis for the electrified Hybrid Synergy Drive system which merges two motor generators with a continuously variable transmission.
A computer manages it all enabling gas and/or electric driving, including sub-25 mph all-electric driving. It’s a seamless experience with two power sources merged to take advantage of their mutual strengths.
New this year is an Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR) system with a cooler to enable an ideal air/fuel ratio through the rev range. An exhaust heat recirculation system aids engine warming to more quickly get it to peak operating temperatures. Weight was saved with a resin cylinder head and the engine is lower enabling a lower hood and center of gravity.
Output for MG2 is 71 horsepower (53 kilowatts), and 120 pounds-feet of torque and total system power is 121 horsepower.
Astute Prius followers may notice nominally less horsepower than last year’s 134. This is true, but Toyota says it adopted new, presumably more-conservative calculation guidelines suggested by JARI (Japan Automotive Research Institute).
Bottom line is 0-60 mph is the same as generation three, and 0-30 may be a tad quicker.
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 prepares to launch its plug-in Prius Prime promising 22 miles EV range.
Not Much Difference In “Eco” Version
Toyota managed to squeak out 4 mpg more for its EPA combined test rating with its Eco Two, and it touts lightweighting measures done to achieve this.
Actually, its curb weight is a mere 40 pounds less than the next heaviest Prius Three, and 70 pounds less than the heaviest Prius Four Touring. Further, the Two Eco manages the mpg increase without aerodynamic changes.
So what’s the difference? According to Sam Butto of Toyota product communications, the 40 pounds lighter weight accounts for the increased 4 mpg a great deal, but it may come down to tires.
The Two Eco has lower rolling resistance 15-inch tires inflated to somewhat higher pressure. These plus weight lost from a deleted spare tire and absent rear windshield wiper put it over the top.
This also means for higher trim levels, you could look to shed ballast and run the smaller tires than the 17-inchers on other models if wanting better fuel economy.
Chassis and Design
Toyota’s flagship hybrid is its first to be constructed on the modular Toyota New Global Architecture which will also underpin Corollas and other cars in this class. It is a win-win proposition, saving Toyota cost and complexity while returning a lower slung Prius with 60-percent stiffer torsional rigidity.
This new stiffness is achieved with the help of laser screw welding, advanced body adhesive, and added structural adhesive. Further, a circular door structure yields less flex than before. All this plus double wishbone rear suspension, repositioning of components as well as lowering driver and passenger in seats for a lower center of gravity adds to the sportiness.
One hundred pounds were actually added with the 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.
Last fall at its media launch, Toyota postured the new Prius as so fun to drive and set up a slalom course to let journalists flog it and a 2015 Prius. It did not disappoint.
Stylistically the Mirai/Prius merged design is an exercise not just in pairing Toyota’s two forefront green car efforts, it is one of form following function. Coefficient of drag is just 0.24.
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.
It also enabled more cargo volume, now 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 include improved outward visibility, and inside the cabin is altogether modernized.
On the Road
Toyota has hinted that the Prius was subjected to a bit more stringent requirements for its EPA certification, but this has not subsequently been confirmed.
It may well have been, as the 52 mpg combined in our heaviest Four Touring was no sweat to meet. An 80-percent highway drive we did of 100 miles returned 57.5 mpg. Other trips were in the low 50s to just 50.
The usual qualifiers however apply: Drive it harder, and you can plummet combined mpg to the 40s, even 30s if you throw caution to the wind.
A better approach is to make use of the regenerative braking which returns energy to the battery, and learn also to let the electric motor do more of the work. Drive smoothly, avoid jackrabbit starts, and the best results will follow.
While gains in efficiency have been made, the all-around larger car has made just as much if not greater gains in the road-handling department.
As you’d expect given the autocross intro Toyota gave it, the vehicle takes corners with greater control, and can be pushed harder without unduly unsettling the now-stiffer chassis.
Extra body rigidity may also pay safety dividends, as the hot stamped and 19 percent high-tensile steel – compared to last year’s 3 percent – add to the crash cage’s integrity.
The car is a cocoon of comfort for the most part with instruments and controls clearer than last year, 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.
Nitpicks include headrests positioned a bit too far forward, and white plastic that will show more dirt and numerous people have said it does little for the aesthetic appeal. Also, the U.S. was bypassed by Toyota’s product planners to receive an electric four-wheel drive system sold in Japan for about $1,500. A towing option for light trailers was also skipped but Europe gets that with official accessories offered through dealers.
If you want these, you’ll need to go to a crossover like the RAV4 Hybrid, but don’t expect nearly the mpg.
The Electrified Car For You?
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.
As our sales Dashboard shows, more people go with this known quantity than any other hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or all-electric car.
All cars have their tradeoffs however. The Prius is smaller than the Prius v, and Ford C-Max – which is also quicker but at the expense of mpg.
Hybrid sedans with mpg in the low-upper 40s are available, and this fall Hyundai says it will have its Ioniq Hybrid hatchback which will match or beat important metrics in the Prius including mpg, and maybe price to some degree.
The Prius Liftback also does not plug-in – and this has been alternately touted as a benefit or a drawback depending on who is selling what. If you want a Prius that can plug in, stick around a bit for the 22-mile range 2017 Prius Prime.
Plug-in hybrids promise better average mpg while their finite battery charge is helping. The plug-in hybrid with the longest EV range is the Chevy Volt, and its 53 miles plus incentive eligibility make it a strong contender, though storage and back seat space are less than for the Prius.
All-electric cars of course use no gas and have zero tailpipe emissions. A 2017 Chevy Bolt with over 200 miles range might even trump what the Prius offers, but don’t expect to take a long trip in it without much more planning and effort. If you are not pressed to get a car right away, you can also sign onto Tesla’s waiting list for the Model 3 with around 400,000 other like-minded folk.
Ultimately, while choices are now more complicated, the Prius is well-sorted, familiar, evolved, and has better mpg and a lower carbon footprint than ever. It is as easy to deal with as any conventional car, and many people will welcome that familiarity.