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2016 Toyota Prius: First Drive Review

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ADDITIONAL MODEL INFORMATION

author photo by Jason Fogelson November 2015

Over three generations of development, one hybrid vehicle has emerged as the symbol of environmentally-aware motoring: the Toyota Prius. Now entering its fourth generation, the 2016 Toyota Prius wants to add another dimension to its capabilities: fun-to-drive.

High Volume Hybrid

The Prius has been the standard for compact hybrid vehicles since its first model year, 1994. Nothing says green like driving a Prius. Leonardo DiCaprio famously tooled around in a Prius for years, and such luminaries as Jessica Alba, Harrison Ford and Cameron Diaz have been seen behind the wheel of a hybrid Toyota. The Prius' wedge-shaped styling was rendered moot in deference to its gas-sipping capability. Now, after three generations of Prius and 20 years on the road, the Prius receives an update transforming the liftback into a more stylish, almost elegant vehicle.

New LED headlights change the Prius' face from open innocence to a squinty assertiveness. LED taillights and daytime running lights define a new signature look. A new front fascia features a grille with active shutters for better aero performance. The car's stance has been lowered and widened, and the roof peak has moved forward, creating a profile that's more teardrop than wedge. The overall wind resistance has been reduced, and the overall appearance is less stodgy and generally more attractive than before.

Hybrid Modern Interior

For a futuristic vehicle, the Prius was beginning to look a little dated on the inside. A totally redesigned dashboard has taken care of that issue with two full-color thin film transistor screens providing driver information. The upper-level instrument panel is aligned with the center of the vehicle, not in front of the driver. A head-up display is available on the Prius Three and Prius Four that puts speedometer, navigation and Hybrid System Indicator information in the driver's line of sight above the steering wheel. Prius Two has a 6.1-inch color touchscreen for Entune Audio, while the Prius Three and Four have a 7-in color touchscreen with Entune Premium Audio with Navigation and App Suite. Both systems include Bluetooth connectivity and audio streaming, along with Siri Eyes Free and a rearview camera.

Second-row accommodations are adequate for a compact car. The 60/40-split rear seat provides good utility for cargo. Luggage space is impressive at 27.4 cu ft. (Prius Two Eco, Four, Four Touring), 24.6 cu ft. (Prius Two, Three, Three Touring) and expands even more with the second row folded flat. A spare tire takes up some cargo space in the Prius Two and Three, while the Two Eco and Four save room and weight with a flat repair kit.

Hybrid Performance

The combination of gasoline and electric power has evolved in the new Prius, but still features the familiar 1.8-liter 4-cylinder gasoline engine running on the Atkinson cycle, tuned to produce 95 horsepower and 105 lb-ft of torque. Add in the electric motor, and the net power for the system is 121 hp. Driven back-to-back with the outgoing 2015 Prius, there's a noticeable improvement in acceleration in the new vehicle. It still won't wow enthusiasts, but it's better than before.

Driving the Prius is a seamless hybrid experience. There's an EV mode with very limited range, a couple of miles and limited top speed of about 25 miles per hour. An electronically-controlled continuously variable automatic transmission with planetary gears sends the power to the front wheels. The gas engine is quiet at cruising and a little thrashy under heavy acceleration, but improved cabin quietness keeps the noise at a minimum.

Handling is where this new Prius has really taken a step in the right direction. A new double wishbone rear, replacing the previous torsion bar setup, now provides true 4-wheel independent suspension. Cornering and tight, quick transitions are now possible without big body roll, and fun-to-drive becomes part of the equation.

Toyota's Star Safety System is standard on all models. Toyota has also made active safety systems available for the Prius in the form of Toyota Safety Sense P (standard on Touring models). That system includes a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, lane-departure alert with steering assist, auto high beams and full-speed dynamic radar cruise control.

Hybrid Options

Prius fans will find much to like in the 2016 model. There will be six trim levels of Prius at launch in early 2016: Prius Two ($24,200), Prius Two Eco ($24,700), Prius Three ($26,250), Prius Three Touring ($28,100), Prius Four ($28,650) and Prius Four Touring ($30,000). The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates aren't available yet, but Toyota's predicting 54 miles per gallon in the city, 50 mpg on the highway and 52 mpg combined (58 mpg city/53 mpg hwy, and 56 combined for the Two Eco). Toyota engineers were eager to point out that the EPA testing cycles have changed for 2016 hybrid models, resulting in lower relative ratings, but they are still better than 2015's ratings. Toyota has not yet announced a plug-in hybrid Prius for 2016, but it will likely follow soon.

Unlike in 1994, the new Prius faces a lot of hybrid competition as it launches. Not only are there several other Toyota hybrid models (Prius c, Prius v, Camry, Avalon, Highlander and the new RAV4 Hybrid), but there are also competitive vehicles like the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid, Ford Fusion Hybrid, Kia Optima Hybrid, Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid and others.

Fans of the Prius, rejoice. The 2016 Toyota Prius is more fun to drive, more fuel efficient, better looking and roomier than before. Prius haters, it may be time to take another look at the world's best-selling hybrid car.

To gain access to this information, Autotrader attended an event sponsored by the vehicle's manufacturer.

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2016 Toyota Prius: First Drive Review - Autotrader