2016 Toyota Prius First Drive - Better, and That's The Point

Aaron Cole
by Aaron Cole
Fast Facts

2016 Toyota Prius

1.8-liter DOHC 4-cylinder, VVT-i, Atkinson-style cycle (95 horsepower @ 5,200 rpm; 105 pounds-feet @ 3,600 rpm)
Permanent Magnet Synchronous Motor (71 hp/53 kW; 120 pounds-feet)
121 hp Hybrid system net
Electronically Controlled Continuously Variable Transmission
54 city/50 highway/52 combined (EPA Rating, MPG)
Base Price
As Tested
$30,835 Prius Four Touring, $25,535 Prius Two Eco*
* Prices include $835 destination charge.

Seemingly overnight, the Toyota Prius became a victim of its own success. A frumpy, frugal automotive fringe player was suddenly a Hollywood starlet and a Conservative America villain, all at the same time.

Toyota got the message but ignored all the criticism. It didn’t matter that the seats were quasi-uncomfortable, the dash was the color of unroasted tofurkey (which I love, by the way) or that the Prius looked like a space egg on low-rolling resistance tires. An automotive icon needs less attention than a vehicle, apparently.

The last Prius came in 2009, which was timed worse than a teenage pregnancy. The world was looking at cheap gas and salivating at expensive trucks with equal amounts of cash burning through its pockets. The Prius kept pace with eco, budget buyers, but couldn’t sustain the car’s meteoric rise from the previous generation. The follow-up is the worst part.

But like any college coach will tell you, it’s not the job after the legend leaves — it’s the job after the job after the legend leaves. So here we are with the 2016 Toyota Prius. Expectations may be lower, but that’s only because the world is a different place (for now). The time is right for a new Prius.

Its exterior isn’t completely different (it still looks like a space egg) but that’s only half the story. Inside, the Prius is completely new and that’s the best start for a car that was once ahead of its time, but now behind the ball in the eyes of eco buyers.


If the last generation Prius was guilty of not trying at all, then the new, fourth-generation Prius may be guilty of trying too hard.

While the 2016 Toyota Prius retains all of the proportions that will keep it a rolling, instantly recognizable billboard for the eco-minded family throughout the States, it also looks like the edgy cousin from the coast. Its sharper nose, sleeker hips and tidier glutes are the good news. The blacked-out C-pillar, angled sheet metal and oh my goodness, those tail lamps.

The old Prius was respectable. The new Prius feels like the leather-jacket wearing lost years of “Saved by the Bell.”

[If Belding were still around, he’d buy this to show A.C. Slater how cool he really is. —Mark]

Aside from the optics, the new Prius is fully 2 inches longer, 0.6 inches wider and 0.6 inches lower than the outgoing Prius despite having the same wheelbase. None of those measurements are impressive on their own, but the difference is tangible. I know half of an inch is splitting hairs, but the 2016 Prius looks remarkably lower thanks to the new, angular nose. Two inches longer and half an inch wider is usually what happens to me after Thanksgiving dinner, but the new Prius sports nearly 4 more cubes in cargo area over the last generation.

Built on the new Toyota New Global Architecture, the new Prius looks promising next to models such as the Scion C-HR, from which it shares a platform. It’s promising because we know the sheet metal is flexible from car to car — perhaps within the same generation? Maybe there’s hope in global consolidation after all.


The new Prius couldn’t stand to carry over any of the previous generation’s interior. Not again. From the outdated center dash display to the steering wheel shaped like Dr. Doom’s mask, the Prius needed a new interior yesterday.

Thankfully, the 2016 Prius picks up and goes beyond the call — albeit a little unfortunately.

First and foremost, the driver and passenger seats aren’t penalty box benches anymore. With more support and a little more give, both front chairs are no longer sendups of the uncomfortable pews I spent Sundays in growing up. In back, the low-weight and low-plush, but marginally comfortable, 60/40-split folding seats are better suited for long hauls than previous generations.

Similarly, the dash in the 2016 Prius appears to be something put together by designers instead of overly tired engineers. The new, 4.2-inch multi-color information is bright and informative and the wing accent extending from the middle to both passenger’s and driver’s side is a nice touch. Hell, even the air vents look good.

The use of high-gloss plastics seems … unfortunate. On the steering wheel, I could see how upper trims of the Prius could use a little visual separation, but around the center console and storage, our bright white plastic looked like it’d dull and scratch 20 minutes after the car was driven off the lot. I’m all for breaking up the sea of black in cars’ interiors, but I’d prefer not to see a shock of white brighter than Billy Idol’s hair. A definite miss.


Toyota’s Entune system is rock solid and dependable, just like taxes. It’s worth noting (repeatedly) that it still takes two button presses to bring up a map, but there are worse things in life.

In the highest trim, Toyota will cram in its 10-speaker JBL premium audio system in the thin doors of the Prius, but the system actually sounds better there than a similar system in the new RAV4 — or even the Mark Levinson system in the Lexus ES 350. I’ll take the Pepsi challenge with David Bowie any day in all three cars.

Better minds have argued the Prius doesn’t lead with its Entune system — rather it follows closely behind with a repeatable system that lacks flash and flair, but adds repeatable, consistent performance instead. I won’t argue with that.


There’s very little surprise left in the gasoline-battery combo stuffed in each Prius. The 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle-style four remains, although power is slightly lower over last year. The internal combustion engine produces 95 horsepower this time around — down from 98 last year — and is 40 percent more heat efficient, according to the automaker.

Toyota ditched the nickel-metal hydride battery pack in all but its base model of the new Prius in favor of lithium-ion packs that are smaller and take up less cargo space in the trunk. There’s still somewhat of an awkward “shelf” in the cargo area, though.

(Nickel-metal packs were still included for developing markets that can easier dispose of those units than lithium-ion batteries, Toyota says. Or that nickel-metal batteries are still preferred for taxi and fleet buyers that Toyota famously doesn’t build cars for. You choose what you want to believe.)

The electric motor is slightly smaller this year than last year. A 71-horsepower, 53 kW motor replaces the old 80 horsepower, 60 kW unit, which is effectively negligible according to the butt dyno. Toyota admits that the 2016 Prius is slightly down on power, 121 combined hp vs. 134 combined hp, but said that the actual difference is smaller due to a new method for calculating combined hybrid might.

Could they apply the “new math” to the old car to figure the actual difference? Unpossible, say engineers. Sure, whatever you say.

The new Prius is still front-wheel drive, although all-wheel drive variants exist overseas. If Boulder, Colorado and Ann Arbor, Michigan buyers scream loud enough, I could see a “Prius X” coming our way soon.

The headline is that the new Prius manages 54 mpg in city driving — 58 mpg in Prius Two Eco trim that removes the spare tire for weight savings. That’s short of the 60 mpg mark that many believed it would achieve, but more than any other car without a cord. Even more remarkable than the number: The repeatable feat of eking out more than 50 mpg = doesn’t feel like holding your breath anymore. It’s actually comfortable in the 2016 Prius.


I’ll say it to a priest without breaking a sweat: Driving the 2016 Prius isn’t completely boring.

With a center of gravity more than two inches lower than the outgoing car and a new rear suspension, the Prius no longer feels like a top-heavy egg rolling around. It’s far from planted or composed, but the 2016 Prius is something, and that’s a marked improvement for this eco-friendly pod.

My notes read:

Better braking and a little more planted than 2015. W/O nanny state shit, the Prius on no-grip tires is actually fun. No kidding.

Our drive took us to an empty runway in Irvine, California for light hoonage and plenty of squealing.

Around town, the Prius is decidedly sharper and more fun than the lazy liftback it replaces. It’s no sportscar, I don’t care where the badges are (ask me later), but the Prius makes a case that dimensions — not power — and double wishbones in the back can make all the difference sometime.

(I also noted that its heavy understeer felt relatively the same from 2015 to 2016, but that I drink a lot of coffee too.)

Aside from handling characteristics that very few new Prius buyers would ever notice, the 2016 Prius comes loaded with safety features that make sense in a car desperately in need of bleeding-edge tech.

Features such as adaptive cruise, blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning and emergency braking are commonplace, to which the 2016 Prius adds pedestrian detection and avoidance and intelligent parking assist features. Those features don’t make the 2016 Prius the best, but it is much better.

Which means that Toyota got the memo: the 2016 Prius needs to be a better car, not a better Prius. Toyota delivered.

Aaron Cole
Aaron Cole

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3 of 137 comments
  • Mchan1 Mchan1 on Dec 11, 2015

    I can understand the reason of buying a hybrid especially since prices have slowly been dropping so it's a bit more affordable now. At least it's more affordable than an EV vehicle, amongst other things. I'd like to buy a hybrid considering that I commute mostly so it'll be more fuel efficient for me. It helps that gas prices are currently less expensive. Gas prices won't stay this low for long and anyone who thinks otherwise is just fooling themselves. I wish that hybrids would be more roomy for taller people and more comfortable as I've sat in the prior Prius models and didn't find it pleasing. The looks of it is a turn-off but who cares once you get inside and drive it. Hybrid vehicles are built for aerodynamics to help the fuel efficiency but that also kills it for driving pleasure and roominess/comfort. One doesn't buy a hybrid for fun driving. Oh, wait! Let's not tell that to the assh@le hybrid drivers that drive crazily on the highway or on streets.

    • Jacob Jacob on Dec 13, 2015

      Before you start building the argument that driving Prius makes any economic sense whatsoever, get yourself a calculator and a napkin in order to convince yourself that Prius won't save you anything. Case in point is the outgoing Prius. The base "Prius Two" model with 24K MSRP is equipped worse than an entry-level Corolla. You don't get even a drivers power seat (to have that, you had to buy the "Prius Four" with 28K MSRP). Now, Honda Accord LX is classier, faster, more comfortable, and a more pleasing car to drive that still gives you 30-31mpg average while costing about 2K less than the base Prius. So once you leave the dealership in a Prius you're already 2 grand in red compared to much better accord, and you now have to drive this noisy penalty econobox for something like 100,000 miles simply to make up for the cash you could have saved immediately by buying an Accord LX. Moreover, if you really care about saving money on fuel you might as well just buy a Corolla or Civic. With MSRP under 20K, and equipment no worse than on Prius, the 24-25 grand Prius will _never_ make up for the extra cash you need to buy it.

  • Bwilson4web Bwilson4web on Jan 20, 2016

    Many Prius owners choose to buy 'higher mileage' instead of other car 'bling.' What is the payback for 17" wheels or a fancy radio or any other option . . . none. We also looked at the cheat-diesels and even before VW-gate. Even in the user reported milage sites, they were getting lower MPG burning a more expensive fuel. THis past week, 2016 Prius were getting into the hands of new buyers versus the VW TDIs that have not been sold since mid-September. Even the December clearance sales sold over 10,000 Prius hatchbacks. My point is trying to do some faux cost accounting vs payback analysis is silly. If nothing else, Prius people tend to be road warriors with much higher miles per year than 'the average.' The technical term is 'sensitivity analysis', which means realization not everyone drives the same miles per year. Prius people are smart enough to do that which is why we (and taxi companies) keep buying them . . . happily. Bob Wilson, Huntsville AL

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  • Varezhka And why exactly was it that Tesla decided not to coat their stainless steel bodies, again? My old steel capped Volant skis still looks clean without a rust in sight thanks to that metal vapor coating. It's not exactly a new technology.
  • GIJOOOE “Sounds” about as exciting as driving a golf cart, fake gear shifts or not. I truly hope that Dodge and the other big American car makers pull their heads out of the electric clouds and continue to offer performance cars with big horsepower internal combustion engines that require some form of multi gear transmissions and high octane fuel, even if they have to make them in relatively small quantities and market them specifically to gearheads like me. I will resist the ev future for as long as I have breath in my lungs and an excellent credit score/big bank account. People like me, who have loved fast cars for as long as I can remember, need a car that has an engine that sounds properly pissed off when I hit the gas pedal and accelerate through the gears.
  • Kcflyer libs have been subsidizing college for decades. The predictable result is soaring cost of college and dramatic increases in useless degrees. Their solution? More subsidies of course. EV policy will follow the same failed logic. Because it's not like it's their money. Not saying the republicans are any better, they talk a good game but spend like drunken sailors to buy votes just like the libs. The sole function of the U.S. government is to take money from people who earn it and give it away to people who didn't.
  • CecilSaxon Sounds about as smart as VW's "SoundAktor"