Another year, another runaway sales victory for the 2014 Toyota Prius. The familiar, teardrop-shaped Toyota remains at the top of hybrid sales charts, even after more than a decade on the market -- and after several years in its current form.
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 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 seat backs folded down. Nonetheless, it's still compact enough on the outside to squeeze into tight spots. So even before you account for its excellent fuel economy, the Prius is an unusually useful vehicle.
What's more, it's affordable, 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.
What's New for 2014?
The Prius is unchanged for the 2014 model year.
What We Like
Phenomenal fuel economy; handy hatchback design; adult-sized back seat; impressive standard equipment
What We Don't
Weak acceleration; bland driving experience; starting to feel outdated
The front-wheel-drive Prius is powered by the dynamic duo of a 1.8-liter gasoline inline 4-cylinder 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. However, fuel economy is outstanding: EPA rates the Prius at 51 mpg city/48 mpg hwy.
Standard Features & Options
The 2014 Toyota Prius comes in four trim levels: Two, Three, Four and Five. Predictably, they go in order from least expensive to most expensive, with the Five feeling positively upscale.
The base-level Prius Two ($25,000) features 15-inch 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 ($26,500) 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 ($29,200) has JBL premium sound, SofTex stain-resistant upholstery with heated front seats and driver power adjustments.
Finally, the Five ($30,800) 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.
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 awarded it the top Good rating in all categories.
Behind the Wheel
The Prius rides smoothly and fairly quietly -- a good recipe for a relaxing commute. If you're accustomed to 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.
The Prius model's front seats are 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 comprise a variety of digital readouts and diagrams that describe the hybrid powertrain. 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 back seat 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. 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 seat backs folded, the Prius model's boxlike 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.
Other Cars to Consider
Honda Insight -- Honda's Prius-fighting Insight hatchback hasn't been as popular as the company hoped. But it still delivers strong fuel economy, and it's much cheaper than the Prius.
Honda Civic Hybrid -- The Civic is a sedan rather than a 5-door hatchback, meaning it's less practical than the Prius. It's not as efficient, either. But it's one of the few other affordable hybrids on the market, and you may find it drives more conventionally.
That solar-powered sunroof is tempting, but we'd stick with the base Prius Two. It has plenty of tech for our tastes, and we could be out the door for around $25,000. Not a bad deal.