The Toyota Prius remains the world's best-selling hybrid. Worldwide, Toyota has sold more than three million copies since the late 1990s; half of them in the United States. The Prius positively dominates the hybrid category, accounting for 40 percent of all hybrid vehicles sold in the U.S.
Now in its third generation, the Toyota Prius has blossomed into a small family of fuel-efficient hybrids. In addition to the standard Liftback and its Plug-In variant reviewed here; Toyota also offers the smaller, city-friendly Prius c, and the wagon-like Prius v, which we have reviewed separately.
The biggest change for the 2014 model year is a significant price reduction for the Plug-In: from $32,000 to $29,990 for the base Plug-In, and from $39,525 to $34,905 for the better-equipped Plug-In Advanced. Prices for other Prius models remain unchanged.
Both the Liftback and the Plug-in use Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive powertrain, which pairs a 1.8-liter gasoline engine along with an electric motor. The regular Prius Liftback uses nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries and operates like a traditional hybrid.
The Prius Plug-in Hybrid employs lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries and can be plugged in like an electric car to extend its range. The Prius Plug-in Hybrid will allow true electric-vehicle operation for up to 15 miles at speeds up to 62 mph, according to Toyota, along with quick home charging using a standard AC outlet and 15-amp dedicated circuit. The Plug-in Hybrid comes with an easy-to-use external charging cable, but you'll want an electrician to set up a dedicated fast-charger for the quickest charge times.
Fuel economy is the number one reason to buy a Prius. The Prius Liftback gets an EPA-rated 51/48 mpg City/Highway, and a combined rating of 50 mpg. It runs on Regular gasoline.
The Prius Plug-in Hybrid is rated 51/49 mpg City/Highway, or 50 mpg Combined. Because it also runs on electricity, the Environmental Protection Agency gives it a special rating of 95 miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe). The Federal government's 2014 fuel cost estimates are $850 a year for the Prius Plug-In, compared to $950 for the traditional Prius.
While fuel economy is remarkable, acceleration performance from the Prius is far from it: 0 to 60 mph in an excruciating 9.8 seconds. (Well, excruciating according to the latest fashion; not so long ago, zero-to-60 in less than 10 seconds would have been considered pretty snappy.) On the bright side, the continuously variable transmission (CVT), is smooth, a quality not always found in this type of transmission.
Prius comes loaded with technology. The Touch Tracer Display projects information before your eyes, so you can keep them on the road. A solar-powered ventilation system is available, with remote pre-cooling to cool the car down to ambient temperature before you climb in on a hot day. Other features include lane departure warning, radar cruise control and Intelligent Parking Assist, which will automatically parallel park the vehicle.
The Prius is capable of seating five, but the ride will be most comfortable with only four. Front seats are roomy, though some may find the upright seating position a bit uncomfortable. In the back, there's am adequate 36 inches of legroom. The EPA classifies these cars as midsize, but we see them as large compacts.
Cargo space is generous with nearly 40 cubic feet of capacity when the back seats are dropped flat, and the big liftgate makes loading easy.
While the Prius continues to dominate the hybrid market, other alternative fuel vehicles have sprung up in recent years to give Toyota's darling a run for its money. The Ford C-Max, available as both a hybrid and a plug-in, boasts a fresher design and sharper driving dynamics. The Chevrolet Volt plug-in feels more sophisticated and more upscale than the Prius does. Shoppers might also consider the sleek Ford Fusion hybrid and plug-in sedans, as well as the Toyota Camry hybrid.
Love it or hate it, the tall, wedge shape of the Prius has made it one of the most distinguishable cars on the road. The blue-tinted headlights are elegant wraparound trapezoids, with optional LED lenses consuming 17 percent less battery power. There's a styling tweak, like a wave or a lip or, with a stretch of the imagination, a lightning bolt at the top, and it works, to deliver distinction. The taillights are standard LED, reducing power draw by 88 percent.
The rear wiper is huge, and effective in keeping rain off all that glass back there. The matt black trim around the windows on the Prius Two and Three trim levels doesn't do much to complement the car; the satin black finish on the Prius Four and Five is nicer.
The standard-equipment, five-spoke, 15-inch alloy wheels are plain, functional, and correspondingly quite handsome. The 17-inch rims on upmarket models look similar, but with a little added drama from slightly curved spokes. Somewhat frilly ten-spoke rims provide the Plug-In with its only visual distinction from the unpluggable models.
The Prius interior has a nice cozy cockpit feeling in the driver's seat, nestled by a stylish center console that runs from dashboard to between the seats at a gentle slope. Still, the quality and finish of some interior materials don't quite measure up. Prius uses a floating console design, which looks awkward to some but makes it ergonomically friendly. Inconveniently, the seat-heater button is located on the floor under the console.
The front seats are comfortable with good bolstering and adjustability. The trim is made of plant-derived resin, which, Toyota says, is highly recyclable. The upper and lower gloveboxes hold a magnificent 12 liters.
The rear seats offer 36 inches of legroom, which is adequate for this size of a vehicle. The rear seats have a folding center armrest with two cupholders.
When the rear seats, split 60/40, are dropped flat, there's 39.6 cubic feet of cargo volume, easily accessible through the big liftgate. We hauled seven 16-inch wheels shod with Dunlop racing tires in the back. The eighth had to ride in the front seat, but we were impressed with the cargo capacity.
There's another 2 cubic feet of space in a tray under the floor of the cargo area for tools and laptops. The compact spare, which is a rarity on any car these days, is another level down.
There's good forward visibility even over the long dashboard, stretched by the steeply sloped windshield, although you can't see the front corners of the car. Visibility is hindered elsewhere due to large A-pillars and C-pillars, along with the Pruis's aerodynamically sloped roofline and the bar that separates the two pieces of glass.
The four-spoke steering wheel has buttons to access many of the car's functions, including the climate control system. The 6.1-inch screen in front of the driver displays many graphs and images related to driving efficiency, as well as an Energy Monitor that displays the battery charge in real time. The Touch Tracer feature helps keep your eyes on the road, or at least not so far from it, by projecting images of the steering-wheel-mounted controls on the main instrument display, so you can use those controls without looking down at them.
The 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine used in the Prius generates 98 horsepower. Combined with the electric motors, there's a total of 134 horsepower.
The Hybrid Synergy Drive system, with two compact motor generators within the transaxle, delivers operating voltage of 650 volts. It uses gear drive, allowing the motor to turn 13,500 rpm. The Power Control Unit (inverter) is compact. The Nickel-Metal Hydride battery pack is compact and powerful. The Lithium Ion setup in the Plug-in Hybrid weighs a little more. The air conditioning compressor and water pump are driven electrically, which means the air conditioner works, though not full blast, even with the engine turned off.
There are three driving modes: EV, or all-electric, with a very limited distance at 25 mph or less (if there's enough juice in the battery), most useful for underground parking garages.
That's the advantage of the Prius Plug-in Hybrid. It can run at speeds of up to 62 mph in EV mode for up to 15 miles, great for stop-and-go commuting.
ECO mode minimizes fuel consumption by reducing the throttle opening and restricting the air conditioning. The Power mode is for maximum acceleration performance. The difference between Power and ECO is 4.1 seconds from 50 to 70 mph, versus 5.8 seconds. If you're in ECO and floor it, the system will kick itself into Power, which is also the default mode when you start up. So you have to set ECO mode at every stop, to get the best mileage. But we wonder why anyone would drive around town in Power mode, because ECO feels no slower. The Prius accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 9.8 seconds, usually fast enough though slow by modern standards.
When you accelerate hard enough the kick into Power mode can be abrupt, like a transmission kick-down. But like all hybrids the Prius uses a CVT, that is, a continuously variable transmission, which operates automatically but without fixed gear ratios. Most of the time you're not aware the Prius CVT is there, which is how they're supposed to work.
The Prius is EPA-rated at 51 city and 48 highway, for a combined 50 miles per gallon. We got 54 mpg driving gently but still sometimes using Power mode, over 23 miles of city-highway driving; and later 70.5 mpg over a 34-mile street course in a competition with other automotive journalists. We averaged 28 mph, about average for the group.
The winner, a specialist hypermiler, got 94.6 mpg driving by all the tricks. He averaged 19 mph, moving at about 30 mph in the far right emergency lane of the 50-mph highway, showing that it takes travel in an unreal world to achieve those big numbers. That sort of driving affects the driving behavior of others and reduces the fuel efficiency of others. An opposite leadfoot extremist managed to get 26.8 mpg. The other 26 of 28 drivers got between 63.3 and 75.3 mpg.
In an early prototype of the Plug-in Hybrid, we got 41.8 mpg for about 180 miles, 26 of them on full electric, and most of the rest at 65-70 mpg in Power mode.
Ride quality is far from stellar in the Prius Liftback. It's pretty rough over patchy roads, and we noticed a lot of road noise. A test drive in the Prius Plug-in Hybrid, however, felt somewhat smoother. Still, we didn't think it behaved as well as the Ford C-Max plug-in.
We also drove a Prius with the optional 17-inch wheels and 215/45R17 tires, which felt slightly smoother although theoretically they should be firmer; we got better mileage with them, 57.4 mpg, although the Prius chief engineer said the 17s deliver about 5-percent less mileage.
The four-wheel disc brakes are sensitive, and we could hear rubbing at low speeds with ours, partly because there was no engine noise when backing off, and possibly because of the regenerative braking component: the more you use the brakes, the more battery juice you build up, enabling you to use EV mode more. On our 70.5-mpg run, we gently used the brakes a lot in city traffic, so we would get as many blocks as possible out of EV mode.
The handling is light enough around town, but out on the road, if you try to drive the Prius aggressively in corners, it turns heavy and slow. The slower you drive it, the better it is. That said, cornering is much improved over the second-generation (pre-2010 models), thanks to the gen-three's redesigned chassis and suspension.
We also tested the optional Intelligent Parking Assist, which parallel parks the car for you, if the space is big enough. It worked well. But the system requires a margin of 7 feet 9 inches, which won't help if you're trying to fit into a tight spot.
The Toyota Prius is practical and efficient with plenty of cargo space, but newer competitors are nipping at the heels of this perennial favorite.
Sam Moses, Mitch McCullough, Laura Burstein and John F. Katz contributed to this report.