I’m guessing that for many of you, you’re here because you read that headline and you want to scroll down to the comments to call me an idiot. And I’m not going to stop you — there’s plenty of evidence in your corner. But I will ask you to just hear me out, so I can explain what I mean about the 2016 Toyota Prius, because I think it’s important to hear. At least a little.
Generally on this site, we tend to deride Priuses or Prii or whatever and Prius drivers especially. We have stereotypes of them as smug, arrogant busybodies who are trying to suck driving fun away from everyone. I’m guilty of this, too, and I’m starting to think it’s not really fair.
I actually do think the Prius is an enthusiasts’ car, and the car makes much more sense when it’s thought about in this context. It’s not an enthusiast like we usually mean, though. For most of us, when we think about an ‘enthusiast’ car, we think about a car where handling, performance, and the overall experience of driving is the goal of the car. Something like a Caterham 7 or maybe an old 911, or a Starion.
They’re all different, but they all make their compromises to achieve the goal of being engaging to drive, and they attract people who are interested in that.
The Prius is a car for car enthusiasts who are interested in fuel economy/efficiency as their primary goal. Efficiency is an aspect of a car just as much as lateral acceleration is. For most of our readers, it’s not nearly as interesting, but I’m not going to stifle anyone’s interest in cars just because it doesn’t line up with my inane interests.
Once we start thinking about Priuses as enthusiast cars and their drivers as efficiency freaks, everything starts making sense. Why do they drive so annoyingly? Probably to maximize how far they can go on a gallon, and, objectively, it’s probably no more annoying than someone in a hopped-up Integra tearing ass around an AutoZone parking lot.
Why do Priuses look so weird? For the exact same reasons why a body-kitted and be-winged and spoiler’d Supra looks ‘weird’— to proclaim, visually, the goals of the car/owner (going fast or being ‘green’), and to actually assist in those goals, via low-drag coefficients or downforce or whatever preachy bumper stickers or underbody LED lights are supposed to help with.
So, a Prius is like a sportscar of efficient cars—and I don’t mean that it’s fast. Compare it this way: what a Volkswagen GTI is to a rallycross car with a full cage, etc., what a Prius is to one of those crazy hypermiler Geo Metros with the home-made wheelskirts and huge teardrop tail. It’s a practical, usable, everyday version of that particular class of car — a GTI is quick and handles well, much less than a rallycross car, but you can use it to get groceries, and the Prius has the same relationship to the extreme hypermiler car.
Plus, thinking about the Prius as a hypermiler’s sportscar makes sense to justify why it works better for that as a hybrid, and not a pure electric car. With a gas-powered hybrid, you have access to hard numbers (MPG) that you can improve with practice and skill. Just like the hard numbers of 1/4 drag times or an autocross course time with a conventional enthusiast car.
Prius drivers can be numbers-obsessed just like any speed-based driving enthusiast. Pure electric cars can sort of do this as well, but there’s a practicality tradeoff, and things are much more affected by environmental conditions.
Make sense? Great.
What’s different about the 2016 Prius?
First off, Toyota was very eager to let us know this is an all-new Prius. They even compared the difference between the two cars as being a leap akin to going from “Atari to Playstation.”
I’m not sure I’d go that far (I mean, come on, an Atari 2600 had a 1.19 Mhz 6507 and only enough video memory for one scanline — that’s a Beetle to Veyron leap she described there) but it is a pretty good jump.
This is the third all-new generation of Prius, and it’s all new, even if it does carryover a few things from the last one. It’s the first car to be built on Toyota’s new modular TNGA (Toyota New Global Architecture, duuhhh) platform, and the new platform let the designers play with the packaging a bit, and come up with some better solutions.
I think the most important bit of re-shuffling has to do with where the battery and fuel tank are placed. In the current generation of Prius, the battery is under the rear cargo floor, and eats up a good bit of cargo room back there.
Now, partially thanks to a new, smaller lithium-ion (for most models) battery pack and a fuel tank designed with the finest ideals of Tetris in mind, both the fuel tank and the battery pack can be crammed in the dead space under the rear seat. I could show you a fancy CG slide of this, but I prefer to illustrate it with this drawing on a napkin, done by Prius engineer Kazuaki Shingo:
See how the battery nestles there atop the fuel tank? It’s a much better use of space, and as a result the rear cargo area in the new Prius grew to a respectable 27.3 cubic feet (sans spare tire). That’s not bad at all.
Under The Hood
The 2016 Prius uses the same 2ZR-FXE 1.8L Atkinson-cycle engine as the last-gen Prius, but it has changed a bit. Unusually for a new car, horsepower has actually gone down, to 95 HP for the gas engine. The whole system HP (that is, including the electric motors) has also dropped, from 134 HP /153 lb-ft to 120 HP/105 lb-ft (+120 lb-ft from the electric motor).
Now, there’s a good reason for this, and, again, it makes sense when you remember what this enthusiasts’ car is enthusiastic about: efficiency. The engine’s thermal efficiency has gone up to 40 percent from 38 percent. That’s really good, especially when you consider that an average gas engine is under 35 percent.
Also, thanks to a repositioning of the inverter unit over the transaxle, cable runs are 33 percent smaller (and the inverter weighs 11 percent less), which means they were able to reduce parasitic energy losses by 20 percent. That’s impressive, and, remember, energy conservation is what gives this car that funny feeling in whatever they engineered the car’s genitals to be.
All these savings and efficiency gains add up to the most important numbers this car has: 58 MPG city/53 hwy/56 MPG combined. That’s for the Prius Two Eco trim level, which sheds some weight to get there, but the other ranges manage a non-sneeze-at-able 54 MPG city/50 hwy/52 MPG combined.
That’s a nice jump from the current generation’s 51 MPG city/48 hwy/50 combined, and seems to suggest real-world mileage of about 50 MPG for the 2016 model, which is impressive.
Even with the power drop, I’m told the way they’ve managed the electric motor’s assist and the continuously-variable planetary gearbox ratios means that the car shouldn’t be any slower 0-60, and should be quicker 0-30, an important metric for a daily-use car.
It’s not fast by any stretch, but it doesn’t feel that slow, either. I actually had a big stretch of runway to play on, so I decided to give it a little test:
In normal mode, it looks like it takes just over 10 seconds to hit 60, and I got up to 92 MPH before I saw I was running out of runway and in danger of plowing into the fancy porta-potties Toyota set up for us.
The acceleration and speed is completely adequate for this car, in the contexts it will be used. If you’re buying one of these for raw speed, you’re the sort of person who makes car-buying decisions immediately after having a friend smack you with a 2x4 on the back of your head.
It’s worth thinking through how this engine system works, fundamentally. What the electric motor is actually doing in the Prius is enabling the gas motor to be lazy. It’s got instant, high-torque, so it handles takeoffs, when the gas motor wouldn’t work efficiently, anyway.
So, the engine gets to work in its most efficient rev band as much as possible, with the electric motors covering the slack, and then everything reclaims energy greedily, wherever it can.
How It Drives
Perhaps the biggest surprise about the new Prius is that it handles way better than before. The biggest reason for that is the new rear suspension, which is a double-wishbone setup as opposed to the old semi-independent torsion beam system from before. The car is also lower than before, by a little bit, and, more importantly, the center of gravity is much lower. The new Prius is also a surprising 60 percent stiffer in torsional rigidity, thanks to a bunch of new construction techniques that use lasers. And probably a light saber or two.
Toyota set up a little handling/agility/sorta-autocross course for us, and I drove the new and old ones back-to-back. There’s a difference. A pretty big difference. The new one still isn’t a Lotus, of course, but it understeers less, is more predictable, and generally feels much more composed than the old setup, which sort of sucked.
Sure, you’re still on rock-hard low-rolling-resistance/high-fun-resistance tires, but you can still feel that 2016 Prius definitely has better handling than before.
How It Looks
Oh boy. The Toyota exec giving the presentation said the new design was “strikingly beautiful.” He’s maybe half right. I’ll give them ‘striking,’ but I just can’t agree to “beautiful.”
The new Prius keeps the fundamental triangular-theme of the old Prius, but marries that to this strange Space-Baroque design sensibility.
The car looks like a futuristic car that was made out of alien bee’s wax and then left out under the hot suns of Tatooine. It looks melty and over-done, with strange, squinty headlights and the most serpentine taillights I’ve ever seen on a car. One of those taillight lenses, if placed on a stainless steel table, would look like what the doctor on your spaceship removed from your abdomen after an alien seed pod was injected into your stomach.
It’s weird. But, it does do two things very well: First, it makes it damn clear to everyone around you that hey, fuckos, I’m driving a new Prius, and second, it has fantastic aero.
The drag coefficient of Cd=0.24 makes it the lowest on any current production car. Well, it matches the Tesla Model S, but that’s it. The new Prius uses active grille shutters and a new system of underbody panels to achieve this goal, and, remember, that’s what matters for this car.
What’s It Like Inside?
Again, and you’ll sense a theme here, it’s better than before. First, Toyota finally got rid of that monochrome-matrix/VFD dashboard display that they had on the old Prius, because it looked like it belonged on an elliptical machine. There’s now a pair of two full-color LCD screens that mostly act as one wide display in the main dash strip, and a larger color LCD on the center stack.
The interior design is significantly different, with the dash getting significantly lower and losing that strange floating/large open-under-dash space from before. There’s a new center console/tray and bezel around the small, gated thumb-shifter that can be had in white or black.
I liked the white one a lot, though the more I looked at that center console tray, the more it looked like a piece of medical equipment. The seats are good, front and rear, and the materials inside have improved as well.
There’s still plenty of plastic, but the quality of it is higher and it feels better, and, importantly, it’s not ashamed of being plastic. It is what it is, and it doesn’t try to pretend to be wood or whatever.
Also interesting is that the steering wheel has been designed with low-temperature differential materials. That means that it’s not supposed to get too hot in the summer, or cold in the winter. That’s neat!
Two complaints: the rear spoiler divides the rear window, and it’s very noticeable. There’s a pretty thick bar that divides the view out the back, and it can be annoying, especially if you’re trying to get the license plate of whoever is tailing you. Also, when you roll a single window down any amount other than totally open, you get that annoying pressure-buffeting wind sound thing.
Oh, and while I’m bitching, I may as well complain about this: the constant interior beeping when you’re in reverse made me want to bite all the way through that temperature-controlled steering wheel. I know I’m in reverse — I put the car in R, and I can see the camera view on the big monitor. SHUT UP WITH THE BEEPING ALREADY.
Technology, Toys, Radar And Robots
The Prius has always been something of a rolling technology showcase, and that’s no different now. The biggest advancements have been made in the addition of semi-autonomous-driving technology.
The adaptive cruise control system, for example, now works at all speeds, from 0 mph (which some people wouldn’t even consider a “speed”) and up. That means you can use it in slow, tedious traffic as a way for the car to partially do the work for you.
So, in your new Prius, if you’re stuck in gridlock misery on the 405, you just set your adaptive cruise to one of the three distance settings, turn it on, and then you can pretty much text or read or masturbate or whatever, as long as you don’t crank the wheel. The car will keep its slow, creeping place with traffic. That’s useful. Of course, I don’t suggest texting or wanking while driving, but you get the idea.
Toyota has also improved the Prius’ automatic braking and collision-avoidance systems, which were demonstrated to me with a big cutout of a van and a dummy with sideburns they all called ‘Elvis.’
Here’s the system in action:
... and here’s me trying to find out if you can still use a Prius to run somebody over:
I was told the system does not work on pets or animals, because it seems to be just looking for upright, human forms. When I asked if the system would work on two dogs, one on the other’s shoulders, wearing a trenchcoat and hat to try and pass as a human, I was given the delightfully engineer-restrained answer of:
We don’t have any data for that.
... which might be the best possible answer to that question.
How much is it?
The Prius starts at $24,200 for the Prius Two, which has an older-tech NiMH battery. The Eco grade gets the LiOn battery and is only $24,700, which seems worth it. There’s four other grades and trim levels, but all should hit under $30K. It’s a reasonable price for something with as much advanced tech as this.
What’s The Verdict?
Toyota knows what it’s doing with the Prius, and I think they did their job very well here. Keeping in mind the goals of this car, it achieves these goals very well. This is the miles-per-gallon enthusiast’s car—there’s plenty of other, lesser hybrids out there for people who aren’t serious.
But if you are a genuine mileage enthusiast who’s still not willing to go full loon and get a Geo Metro with cardboard bodywork, this is the car for you. Yes, to outsiders it looks like an alien-hippopotamus cloning experiment, but it looks that way for a reason, and people who buy these want it to be obvious that they’re driving Something More Efficient Than Your Shitbox.
It drives better, gets better mileage, and is more practical than ever before. I know for many of our readers, this may be the last car they’d ever want, but as open-minded lovers of cars of all sorts, we have to respect the machine for the job it does so well.
Just make sure you find out how to disable that reverse-beeping if you get one. Trust me.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.