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Pros: Phenomenal fuel economy; handy hatchback design; adult-sized back seat; impressive standard equipment

Cons: Poky acceleration; bland driving experience

What's New: The 2013 Prius lineup welcomes the Persona Series Special Edition, which starts with the Prius Three's equipment and adds unique exterior and interior trim elements.

Introduction

Another year, another runaway sales victory for the 2013 Toyota Prius. Toyota's teardrop-shaped hatchback isn't just the best-selling hybrid in the country, folks: It outsells the rest of the top 10 combined.

So what's the Prius model's secret? Well, it never hurts to have a combined Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fuel-economy rating of 50 miles per gallon, which ties the Prius for number one with its smaller sibling, the Prius c. Notably, the regular Prius actually outdoes the "c" in urban driving (48 mpg to 46 mpg) thanks to a more powerful hybrid system that doesn't have to work as hard at low speeds.

But what really sets the Prius apart is its well-rounded nature. Effectively a midsize car on the inside, the Prius can accommodate four adults and their luggage with ease, and it can also haul large items home from the hardware store with the rear seatbacks folded down. Nonetheless, it's still compact enough on the outside to squeeze into tight spots. So even before you take its hybrid-tastic fuel economy into account, the Prius is an unusually useful vehicle.

What's more, it's a pretty affordable vehicle, starting under $25,000 with a healthy roster of standard comfort and tech features. Small wonder, then, that the face of Toyota's hybrid franchise continues to be the hottest ticket in town.

Comfort & Utility

The 2013 Toyota Prius comes in four trim levels: Two, Three, Four and Five. We're not sure what happened to One, but anyway, even the base Two is very well-equipped. Two features 15-in alloy wheels with plastic covers, variable intermittent wipers, push-button start with driver keyless entry, cruise control, automatic climate control and a touchscreen audio system that provides control over some vehicle settings, along with iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity.

The Prius Three adds a voice-activated navigation system and the Entune smartphone-based mobile app interface (unavailable on Two), as well as an optional sunroof with unique solar panels that power a ventilation system that keeps the car cool when parked. New for 2013 is the Three-based Persona Series Special Edition, which adds 17-in alloy wheels, charcoal upholstery with red stitching, dark chrome interior trim and exclusive exterior badging.

The Prius Four has JBL premium sound, SofTex stain-resistant upholstery with heated front seats and driver power adjustments. The Five goes all-out with a hard drive-based navigation system, a larger touchscreen display and a head-up display on the windshield for vehicle speed and such -- all of which are included on the Four with the solar sunroof, by the way -- along with exclusive 17-in alloy wheels and optional adaptive cruise control.

In our interior evaluation, we found the Prius model's front seats rather forgettable with regard to both comfort and support. But we love the way the dashboard curves toward the driver, giving the cockpit a spaceship-like feel. The gauges, too, look ready for outer space, as they are comprised of a variety of digital readouts and diagrams that describe what the hybrid powertrain is up to. Cabin materials aren't luxury-grade -- you'll need the Prius model's upscale cousin, the Lexus CT 200h, for that -- but they don't seem cheap, either.

Although the backseat has lost a little headroom relative to the previous Prius, which had a less rakish roofline, there's still ample room for full-sized adults back there. And while cargo space isn't that impressive on paper, measuring 21.6 cu-ft in the trunk and 39.6 cu-ft with the 60/40-split rear seatbacks folded, the Prius model's box-like shape means you can haul a lot of stuff if you need to. This versatility is especially laudable given that the engineers had to find room for the Prius model's sizable battery pack, which hides seamlessly beneath the floor.

Technology

True to its high-tech nature, the Prius is brimming with great gadgets. Even if you stick with the Prius Two, you might have all the technology you'll ever need. But the big story here is the new Entune system, standard on the Prius Three on up, which uses your smartphone's data connection to send mobile apps straight to the Prius model's touchscreen interface. The system includes useful apps like Pandora Internet radio and OpenTable dining services. Note that the Prius offers both the standard touchscreen and an upgraded, crisper-looking version that comes with the hard drive-based navigation system.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The front-wheel-drive Prius is powered by the dynamic duo of a 1.8-liter gasoline inline-4 and an electric motor backed by a battery pack. Well, maybe dynamic isn't the right word. Total system output is just 134 horsepower, so the Prius predictably struggles when swift acceleration is called for.

The technology is very cool, however. The Prius is a dual-mode hybrid, which means the electric motor can operate on its own when the gas motor isn't needed. You'll notice this around town, especially when you're coasting to a stop and all you can hear is a cool electric hum. There's technically an EV mode, too, but it doesn't actually lock out the gas engine; in fact, it's very similar to driving the Prius normally in that the gas engine only stays off if your throttle inputs are extremely gentle.

Fuel economy is an outstanding 51 mpg city/48 mpg highway, according to the EPA.

Safety

The Prius comes with standard stability control, 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, active front head restraints and seven airbags, including a driver knee airbag.

In government crash tests, the Prius received an overall rating of five stars out of five, including a 4-star rating for frontal impacts and a 5-star mark for side impacts. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) awarded it the top Good rating in all categories.

Driving Impressions

The Prius rides smoothly and fairly quietly, which is a good recipe for a relaxing commute. If you're accustomed to driving a normal car, however, you may be struck by a sense of detachment from the road. For better or worse, the Prius drives more like a sci-fi transportation pod, from its numb steering to its odd brakes (which feel that way in part because they're responsible for converting -- "regenerating" -- the car's kinetic energy into battery power). But there's something unusually peaceful about the whole experience, too. We can see the appeal.

Other Cars to Consider

Honda Insight - Honda's Prius-fighting hybrid hatchback hasn't worked out as well as the company hoped, but it still delivers strong -- if unspectacular -- fuel economy, and it's considerably cheaper than the Prius.

Honda Civic Hybrid - The Civic is a sedan, so it's less practical. It's not as efficient as the Prius, either. But it's one of the few other affordable hybrids on the market, and you might find it drives more conventionally.

Toyota Prius c and Prius v - If you're not sold on the Prius, Toyota now offers two other sizes: small (Prius c) and large (Prius v). Check them out while you're at it.

AutoTrader Recommends: That solar-powered sunroof is tempting, but we'd stick with the base Prius Two. It's got plenty of tech for our tastes, and we could be out the door for around $25,000. Not a bad deal.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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