2016 Toyota Prius First Drive - Better, and That's The Point
2016 Toyota Prius
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.
More by Aaron Cole
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