DANA POINT, California — Welcome back to the car engineering business, Toyota! Yes, we know you’ve been doing great in the car sales business, but the 2016 Toyota Prius shows us that you still really care about building a better car, not just a more popular one. You’re the company that made people believe in the gas/electric hybrid as a fuel-sipping solution, and now you’ve engineered the Prius with the kind of drivability (and style) that makes a statement about your pride in this accomplishment. Thanks for making the 2016 Prius the kind of car we can park in the garage right next to a Tesla Model S sedan.
No more self-esteem issues for the Prius
While all of us were busy not noticing, Toyota has been having a lot of success with this whole hybrid thing. As of July 2015, the company has sold more than 8 million hybrid vehicles worldwide since 1995, and it estimates that the result has been 58 million fewer tons of C02 emissions, not to mention the savings of 5.8 billion gallons of gas.
And even though some 1,595,700 examples of the Prius have been sold in North America as of July 2015, we have been inclined to think of this car as second-rate transportation, something for green geeks. But now that we’ve driven this fourth-generation Prius, our prejudice is finally crumbling.
The 2016 Prius looks pretty good, although it does express Toyota’s new, defiantly Japanese styling vocabulary. It still rides on a nice, long, and very stable 106.3-inch wheelbase, but now the car measures 2.4 inches longer, 0.6 inches wider, and 0.8 inches lower. More importantly, there’s a whole new structure beneath the skin, the first example of Toyota’s new modular platform, and together with an improved hybrid powertrain, the overall result is a driving experience that makes you think of a modern automobile, not a transportation pod.
The golden moment of silence
We’re motoring around Orange County, California, the kind of self-important suburb that likes to pat itself on the back for adopting the latest green-friendly trends. The 2016 Prius’ 95-hp, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine shuts down at a stoplight in that familiar way, and when the light turns green, there’s that familiar moment of silence as the car begins to accelerate with its battery-powered 53 kW motor, then the engine lights off, and the car accelerates smoothly as it swaps gear ratios.
Lots of different vehicles do this sort of thing these days, but Toyota’s use of a CVT with a planetary set of gears helps make the whole departure process exceptionally smooth, and now the 2016 Prius offers improved drivetrain efficiencies to take the whole business to an even higher level. Moreover, when you do the stopping thing instead of the going thing, the transition between regenerative braking to mechanical braking is now equally refined. In fact the whole experience of motoring in this particular Prius Four Touring (the sportiest and most well-equipped version of the six different models of the 2016 Prius) feels reassuringly natural.
And did we mention that this car is quiet? This Prius Four has not only an acoustically insulated windshield like the other 2016 Prius models but also insulated front windows, plus very comprehensive acoustic insulation behind the front bulkhead and beneath the floor. There’s hardly a whisper of that usual vacuum-cleaner whine at low speed from the electric motor, while wind noise at high speed is minimized by a slippery 0.24 Cd for the bodywork. The 2016 Prius is about the quietest ride this side of a plug-in electric vehicle, and considering its exceptional fuel-economy rating of 50/54 mpg city/highway, it’s only slightly less efficient than a plug-in too.
Styled like a car, not like a pod
We still fondly remember the first 2003 Prius, which managed to combine a premium-style interior with a faintly futuristic exterior. Unfortunately the car has sadly fallen victim to creeping crumminess since then. But now the 2016 Prius once again takes pride in a spirit of futurism. The interior incorporates a central information pod as you might expect, except it’s been executed here in the Prius Four with exceptional quality, from the colorful TFT graphics of the two, 4.2-inch information displays to the piano black interior trim. Two-tone graphics bring life to the interior’s overall style statement, while soft-touch surfaces express refinement.
As much as we try to resist, we can’t help enjoying our time in the cabin. Sure, this is a practical package, with 93.1 cubic feet of passenger volume and 27.4 cubic feet of trunk space (well, if you fill it to the roof). Yet we really appreciate the stylish cut of the windowsills, the nicely formatted driving position with a tilt/telescopic steering wheel, and the Prius Four’s upgraded seats. Even better, the driver’s field of view is extremely expansive, with widely spaced A-pillars, a cowl that’s lower by a stunning 2.4 inches, and a beltline that’s lower by an equally impressive 2.2 inches. (Of course, overall height is also lower by 0.8 inches.)
For all this, the biggest difference is Toyota’s new modular platform that lies beneath the skin. As you might expect, it’s a modern aluminum-intensive structure reinforced by high-strength steel in key areas. What the driver really notices is a front suspension that better controls body roll, electric-assist steering that works pretty well even though the motor is mounted on the steering column instead of the rack, and an independent rear suspension that the Prius chief engineer successfully defended against the corporate bean counters when they complained it was heavier and more expensive than the former torsion-beam setup.
As a result, the Prius Four Touring rides the bumps with an easy, controlled compliance, and while there’s not a lot of suspension travel, the P215/45R-17 tires (V-rated!) furnish good cornering grip. Part of the goodness comes from the Prius’ new smaller, lighter lithium-ion battery pack, which nicely fits beneath the rear seat cushion instead of behind the rear seatback as before, so the car doesn’t want to wag its tail anymore when you get all loony on curving freeway off-ramp. And when you lay into the throttle pedal, the engine winds up with authority and the electric motor delivers a noticeable boost when you select Power mode.
And yet still a pod, only in a good way
There are no less than six grades of the 2016 Toyota Prius. You start out with a particularly cheap one that features a nickel-metal hydride battery, the $25,035 Prius Two. Or maybe you’d prefer a particularly fuel-efficient one with an EPA rating of 58/53 mpg city/highway, which would be the $25,535 Prius Two Eco. We prefer the $30,835 Prius Four Touring because it not only drives best but also incorporates all the features that make the Prius a good transportation solution in urban environments.
For example, the 2016 Prius Four Touring can be had with trick JBL premium audio system with 10 speakers, six channels, and 400 watts. (In such a quiet cabin environment, why not take advantage?) It has the full Toyota Entune system that’s hands-free and app friendly, plus it has wireless phone charging. (We still prefer in-car navigation to app-based solutions, though.) More important, the Prius Four Touring has Toyota’s latest suite of active safety measures, including lane-keeping warning and assist, forward-collision warning and braking (with pedestrian recognition), and full-speed radar-controlled cruise control so the car can automatically keep pace with the car ahead even in slow stop-and-go traffic. Even better, when you arrive at your destination, Toyota’s new Intelligent Parking Assist will park the car in both parallel and perpendicular spaces, and warning sonar will keep you from creasing any bodywork when you depart.
For a long time, Toyota has been telling us that it plans to lead the way. And when it comes to covering the planet with vehicles, the company has certainly delivered. But we’ve also expected Toyota to lead the way in the kind of vehicles its builds, promising to be brainy as well as simply productive. Maybe the best thing about the 2016 Toyota Prius is the way that it combines both these aspects of the corporate personality. It’s a pretty nice device for futuristic personal mobility, and it comes at a price that ensures it should find its way into the garages of lots and lots of people too.
2016 Toyota Prius Four Touring Specifications
- On Sale: Spring 2016
- Price: $30,835/$30,835 (base/as tested)
- Engine: 1.8L DOHC 16-valve I-4/95 hp @ 5,200 rpm, 105 lb-ft @ 3,600 rpm plus AC electric motor/71 hp/53 kW, 120 lb-ft
- Transmission: Continuously variable
- Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan
- EPA Mileage: 50/54 mpg (city/hwy)
- Suspension: Struts, coil springs/twin wishbones, coil springs
- Brakes: Vented discs/discs
- Tires: P215/45R-17 Yokohama BluEarth S34
- L x W x H: 178.7 x 69.3 x 58.1 in
- Wheelbase: 106.3 in
- Headroom F/R: 39.4/37.4 in
- Legroom F/R: 43.2/33.4 in
- Shoulder Room F/R: 55.0/53.0 in
- Cargo Room: 27.4 cu ft
- Weight: 3,080 lb
- Weight Dist. F/R: N/A
- Â¼ Mile: N/A
- Top Speed: N/A