QOTD: Why Hasn't Anyone Out-Gas Mileaged The Prius?

Doug DeMuro
by Doug DeMuro

Fifty-one miles per gallon city. Forty-eight miles per gallon highway. Still the best numbers in the industry for nearly a decade now.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I’m referring to the Toyota Prius, which is a 5-door hatchback that looks a bit like an egg mated with a shopping cart. It’s been a decade since the Prius came out in hatchback form, and a decade since it achieved those impressive fuel economy figures: 51 miles per gallon city. 48 miles per gallon highway. And still, no one has unseated the Prius.

It hasn’t been without trying. After the original Honda Insight failed, Honda came out with a Prius-looking second-generation Insight trying to dethrone the king. But it didn’t even come close, with fuel economy figures reaching just 41 miles per gallon city and 44 mpg on the highway. Even the Civic Hybrid, in its current form, can manage only 44 mpg city and 47 mpg highway.

And then there are the other challengers. The Ford C-MAX, also a hybrid-only 5-door hatchback, originally seemed like it might be close to the Prius’s EPA ratings — until people started complaining that they couldn’t come anywhere near Ford’s published figures. Down the C-MAX’s numbers went to their current resting place of 42 mpg city and 37 mpg on the highway.

The Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid gets close at 42 mpg city and 48 mpg highway. So does the Honda Accord Hybrid, at 50 mpg city and 45 mpg highway. And the Ford Fusion Hybrid, at 44 mpg city and 44 mpg highway. But none of them can unseat the reigning king and champion, the Toyota Prius.

Interestingly, even Toyota doesn’t seem to be able to top the Prius. Proof of that came a few years back, when they debuted the even smaller Prius c, a subcompact hatchback version of the Prius designed to provide a low-cost alternative to the iconic car. Despite a smaller engine, a smaller size, and less weight, its fuel economy ratings are 53 mpg city and 46 mpg highway — no better combined than the Prius’s 51 mpg city and 48 mpg highway.

So how does the Prius do it? It isn’t by cheating. The people on Fuelly all seem to report somewhere between 47 and 49 miles per gallon, which is right there on par with the EPA’s estimate. By comparison, second-generation Honda Insight people all seem to be somewhere between 43 and 45 miles per gallon.

We must assume that the Prius gets its amazing miles per gallon by honest-to-goodness engineering: a streamlined body, a tremendously efficient engine, and a wide range of other modifications that gives this car a leg up on all of its wannabe-Prius competitors. Which brings me to ask: why hasn’t anyone topped the Prius?

If it’s just engineering, someone can certainly do it. After all, this isn’t rocket science. Tear down the Prius. See what they did. Replicate it. This is how Volkswagen created its current-generation Passat, although unfortunately the car they used as the benchmark was a 1995 Camry CE.

So maybe people don’t want to replicate the Prius. What I’m thinking is, other automakers have decided the Prius is old news, and they want to focus instead on plug-in hybrids and electric cars which are all the rage these days. But here’s the problem with that: last year, Toyota sold 207,000 units of the Prius family, compared to roughly 19,000 Chevy Volts, and 30,000 Nissan Leafs. In other words: although electric cars might be all the rage, the “highly efficient hybrid” segment is still exponentially larger than the plug-in EV class.

And so I ask: in today’s world of people trying to conserve energy, save the planet, and lower their carbon footprint, how is it still possible that nobody has managed to equal the Toyota Prius in terms of fuel economy? How is it possible that nobody has beaten it? How has nobody entered this wildly profitable, popular segment and given the Prius a (slow, quiet) run for its money? Because the way it stands now, it doesn’t seem like General Motors should’ve devoted all that energy to making the Chevy Volt. Instead, they should’ve made a Chevy Prius.

Doug DeMuro
Doug DeMuro

More by Doug DeMuro

Join the conversation
2 of 148 comments
  • Jacob Jacob on Aug 14, 2015

    Even though Prius is a marvelous piece of engineering, I fail to see the savings from owning one. The _base_ Prius II that does not even have an electric drivers seat has MSRP of $24K. For under $20K, you can buy a well optioned Corolla or Mazda 3. And you have to drive well over 150,000 miles to recover those 4K in fuel savings. Or another comparison, is Accord LX vs base Prius. Accord LX has MSRP of 22K, but it is a larger classier, much faster car, that rides a lot better than Prius, and you still get 30mpg average. Again, you'd have to drive 60-100K miles in a Prius to simply make up the 2K you lost by not buying the Accord LX, and you are still stuck in that tin can pinching the pennies. Honestly, Prius has the ride, road noise, and wind noise level of a $15K car. That's the problem with it. If the base Prius II cost maybe 22K, and a well optioned model was 24-25K, then maybe, just maybe it would make a better economy argument. Probably Toyota's competition realizes that there exist only so many myopic consumers with no calculator and if there was a second Prius-like car on the market, there would not be enough consumer demand to make it profitable.

  • SC5door SC5door on Aug 16, 2015

    I guess someone hasn't been paying attention to the spy photos of the new Hyundai "Prius" in development.

  • Varezhka The biggest underlying issue of Mitsubishi Motors was that for most of its history the commercial vehicles division was where all the profit was being made, subsidizing the passenger vehicle division losses. Just like Isuzu.And because it was a runt of a giant conglomerate who mainly operated B2G and B2B, it never got the attention it needed to really succeed. So when Daimler came in early 2000s and took away the money making Mitsubishi-Fuso commercial division, it was screwed.Right now it's living off of its legacy user base in SE Asia, while its new parent Nissan is sucking away at its remaining engineering expertise in EV and kei cars. I'd love to see the upcoming US market Delica, so crossing fingers they will last that long.
  • ToolGuy A deep-dive of the TTAC Podcast Archives gleans some valuable insight here.
  • Tassos I heard the same clueless, bigoted BULLSHEET about the Chinese brands, 40 years ago about the Japanese Brands, and more recently about the Koreans.If the Japanese and the Koreans have succeeded in the US market, at the expense of losers such as Fiat, Alfa, Peugeot, and the Domestics,there is ZERO DOUBT in my mind, that if the Chinese want to succeed here, THEY WILL. No matter what one or two bigots do about it.PS try to distinguish between the hard working CHINESE PEOPLE and their GOVERNMENT once in your miserable lives.
  • 28-Cars-Later I guess Santa showed up with bales of cash for Mitsu this past Christmas.
  • Lou_BC I was looking at an extended warranty for my truck. The F&I guy was trying to sell me on the idea by telling me how his wife's Cadillac had 2 infotainment failures costing $4,600 dollars each and how it was very common in all of their products. These idiots can't build a reliable vehicle and they want me to trust them with the vehicle "taking over" for me.