Toyota Reloads Its Iconic Prius for the Coming Hybrid Market Battle

Geek chic sheetmetal hides some brand new hardward.

We’ve become accustomed to new cars getting simultaneously more powerful and more efficient, but Toyota has brought that trend to the 2016 Prius hybrid electric as well.

In fact, Toyota’s pursuit of the conventional includes making the car longer, lower, and wider in the finest Detroit tradition.  Maybe Toyota noticed when Tesla usurped the Prius’s position as green standard-bearer that eco-cars needn’t be so tall and aggressively practical looking.

The lower-slung body cuts through the air more cleanly, with less aerodynamic drag than before. Meanwhile the driver’s seat is 2.3 inches lower, putting the driver into a more traditionally car-like position behind the wheel.

Despite the philosophical shift, the Prius retains its egg-shaped anti-style fashion, so you’ll still know one when you see it. And glossy white plastic in the cabin seems meant to whisper “future,” but all I heard was “antiseptic, no-MRSA hospital surface.”

The instrument continues to be centrally oriented for a driver evidently sitting in the middle of the car, between the seats. But there is a real car under all this visual silliness.

The gas engine in the new Prius is more powerful and more efficient, and Toyota has swapped out the Prius’s venerable nickel-metal hydride battery pack for modern lithium-ion batteries that are smaller, lighter and more powerful.

Together, the gas and electric motors produce a peak of 121 horsepower and accelerate the Prius to 60 mph in 9.8 seconds. So you won’t see the Prius engaging in any Tesla-like dragstrip showdowns with Dodge Hellcats.

But neither will you see a Prius spending Hellcat-like time at the gas pump. For 2016, the EPA rates the Prius at 54 mpg city and 50 mpg highway. Or, if you choose the stripped-down Eco model, with its hyper-inflated tires for reduced rolling resistance, the numbers are 58 mpg in town and 53 mpg on the open road.

Prius models other than the Eco roll on newly effective rubber, rather than the hard tires of the outgoing model. The car is built on an all-new chassis, with compliant independent rear suspension and a rigid body shell. Together with the improved tires, the new car shows a gigantic upgrade in ride and handling.

The old Prius was a punishing hair shirt of fuel saving, with a harsh ride and inept handling. Every touch of the steering wheel was a repellant reminder that outgoing exuded a self-loathing hatred for automotive transportation. “Get on a bus,” seemed to be the car’s message to drivers.

No more. The new car’s contemporary structure and suspension lend it a surprising poise, not just in daily traffic but even when carving corners.

While a peak output of 121 horsepower won’t spook any Corvettes, the seamless torque from the electric motors lets the Prius drive out of medium-speed corners with true authority. The continuously variable transmission is well-matched to the hybrid’s characteristics, and the result is a Prius that is unexpectedly skilled at hustling down a curvy road.

But most Prius drivers are unlikely to encounter either curvy rural roads or an urge to hustle their cars. Fortunately, the new Prius will deliver them 54 mpg as they negotiate their way through the stop-and-go urban grid.

Prius piousness is available for only $24,200 (plus $835 delivery fee) for the base Prius Two. The tested Prius Three Touring starts at $28,650.

For real fans of efficiency, however, the best news may be yet to come. The new car’s lithium-ion battery power and modernized electronics may provide the foundation for a more cost-effective plug-in version of the car, which won’t require the extensive upgrades the old car needed for plug-in duty.

Getting more for less is an even better tradition than longer-lower-wider styling.

For the latest car news, follow @MaximRides and Dan Carney on Twitter.

Photos by Toyota Motor Sales