The 2016 Toyota Prius is the fourth generation of the company's iconic hybrid-electric car, a mid-size five-door hatchback in which every component has been designed to maximize efficiency and minimize fuel consumption. Unveiled in September 2015, it went on sale at U.S. dealers in January and February.
The primary purpose of the Prius historically has been minimizing fuel consumption, and the latest model retains its crown as the most fuel-efficient car without a plug sold in the U.S. this year. That said, the projected EPA ratings are slightly less than expected: 52 mpg combined for the base car, and 56 mpg combined for the special Prius Two Eco version.
The car that houses these advances is recognizably still a Prius, with a steeply raked windshield, a high tail (now ending in a distinct spoiler), and the characteristic drooping roof line.Toyota says its shape was "inspired by a runner in the starting blocks" and "conveys a feeling of forward motion." The nose is now lower, the tail is higher, and the peak of the roof has been moved forward. Overall, the fourth-generation Prius is 2.4 inches longer, almost an inch lower, and half an inch wider than the outgoing 2015 model.
From the front, standard LED headlamps make the front light units smaller. The three points of their housings—which have sharply angled chevron shapes—extend back along the fender, toward the center of the grille, and down toward the ground. Toyota notes that the front badge is at exactly the same height as it is on the Scion FR-S sports car, underscoring just how low the front really is. Moving back along the car, the Prius has now acquired some a sharp accent line in the doors, along a second one over the rear wheelwells, that together reduce its visual height.
The rear design, however, is likely to be the most polarizing aspect of the new shape, with chevron-shaped light units flanking the tail spoiler. They're fine, but then both units trail down into long extensions pointing toward the bottom corners of the tall tail. A new paint color, Hypersonic Red, gives what the company calls a "deep and vibrant luster" that highlights the new Prius's form. Seven colors will be available on launch.
As it has done with each prior generation, Toyota has engineered each component of the Hybrid Synergy Drive system to be smaller and lighter. A new 1.8-liter inline-4 engine is capable of more than 40 percent thermal efficiency under some operating conditions, and it has re-engineered every component of the hybrid system to increase efficiency and reduce cost and weight. The combined output of the engine and motors is 121 horsepower, though the company cautions it can't be compared directly against the old car's 134 hp due to changes in the Japanese rating system.
For the first time, the Prius has two different battery options. The least expensive model, the Prius Two, uses a 1.2-kilowatt-hour pack that sticks with the tried-and-true nickel-metal-hydride chemistry, while every other version adopts a 0.75-kwh lithium-ion pack. Each is located under the rear seat now, rather than below the cargo floor.
Inside, Toyota says the new 2016 Prius provides more occupant room and cargo volume. Those with long torsos may find head room a bit lacking in the rear, but the front seats are newly designed to be "form-hugging," the company says, and they felt capacious and comfortable.
For the fourth-generation Prius, Toyota has dispensed with the polarizing "flying buttress" console, and now offers a more conventional bin with a padded top between the two front seats. On the dash, as before, the Multi-Information Display remains centered in the wide dashboard at the base of the windshield, but it is now a pair of 4.2-inch color displays.
The control layout is slightly less scattered than in the previous generation, owing to more functions being consolidated in a second pod at the top of the center console that houses two air vents above a color display for the navigation and other functions, with the characteristic "Prius shift stick" below it. This design appears to tie closely to that of the Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle now being launched in very low volumes in limited regions of California.
The 2016 Prius is built on a new set of underpinnings known as Toyota New Generation Architecture, or TNGA, the first of more than a dozen cars that will ultimately use this component set. Now featuring the double-wishbone rear suspension design that's used in sporting sedans, Toyota has provided more engaging handling and roadholding—the old Prius was exceptionally numb in all on-road aspects—as well as a better ride. The 2016 Prius handles far more like a regular car and far less "like a Prius," which is a good thing.
Six models are available, from the base Two and the high-efficiency Two Eco through better-equipped Three and Four levels, each of which can also be specified as a Touring version. A plug-in model, dubbed Prius Prime, will go on sale later in 2016.
In the end, with gas prices low, Toyota needs to sell Priuses to more buyers than simply those who want to save money on fuel or make a statement about their environmental commitment. (That latter market is ebbing for the Prius, as cars with plugs are almost always more energy-efficient and lower-carbon than even the best hybrids.)
We think the latest Prius will broaden the number of customers who will consider the model, though we worry that the styling may push away at least a few of them. Those that do buy, however, should routinely see around 50 mpg in the real world, while driving a vehicle that's far less offputting than its predecessor. You might almost say the Prius has gone conventional—except for that 50-plus mpg, of course.