Editor’s note: This review was written in December 2015 about the 2016 Toyota Prius, but little of substance has changed. To see what’s new for 2017, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
With improved driving performance and interior design, the new 2016 Toyota Prius could be the first of its breed to attract people who care about more than just getting the highest mileage available — though the new Prius manages to get even better mileage, as well.
I drove several trim levels of the new Prius on roads and a small track to test the vehicle’s dynamics. While there are still some rough spots, it’s an impressive effort.
The Prius competes with other hybrids, such as the Chevrolet Volt and Ford C-Max Hybrid. You can compare them here. You can compare the 2016 model to the 2015 here.
Exterior & Styling
The Prius hasn’t looked like anything else on the road since it ditched the first generation’s generic compact-sedan styling. That’s still the case, but the 2016 model — the fourth generation of Prius sold in the U.S. — looks smaller than the previous model, even though it’s 2.4 inches longer and almost an inch wider. Part of the illusion could be that the new model’s roofline is about an inch lower than the previous model, though ground clearance is only reduced by about a quarter of an inch. The Prius is still a hatchback, but instead of the more upright styling of the previous model, the new car is more low-slung.
It also looks sleeker because the grille opening and other vents appear much smaller. The rear styling features more sharp angles and shapes than the previous model. Taken as a whole, it still doesn’t look like anything else on the road; to my eyes, it more closely resembles what people 20 years ago thought cars today would look like. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “pretty,” but it’s certainly stunning.
The changes aren’t just cosmetic, though. The exterior was reworked both on top and below to help achieve a slightly lower coefficient of drag. Up top, the peak in the roofline is shifted slightly forward. Underneath the car, panels cover up a lot of the underbody gaps and mechanical pieces that would otherwise “grab” air and create more drag.
How It Drives
The new Prius has a stiffer chassis, a lower center of gravity and new suspension tuning that result in it being the best-handling version of the car to date. This car is not aimed at driving enthusiasts or those looking to go racing, but the Prius responded quickly and predictably in my track test.
I was able to test the new version back-to-back with a previous-generation model. The outgoing car felt sloppy, as if it were riding on underinflated tires, and displayed a lot of body lean. The new Prius responds quicker, feels more composed and has less lean. The improvement is definite.
When it comes to power, though, the results aren’t as impressive. New testing procedures in the U.S., Toyota says, have dropped the new model’s horsepower rating from last year: It’s listed at 121 hp in the 2016 Prius versus 134 hp in the previous generation. According to Toyota, however, “in the real world,” performance should actually be better in the new version, as it worked on the drivetrain to create more immediate response from zero to 30 mph.
While I did notice more grunt pulling off the line, the Prius remains modestly powered. It’s not obnoxiously slow, but once the initial grunt wears off, the car’s gas engine makes a steady drone but doesn’t rocket you forward. It’s particularly noticeable while passing on the highway.
The 2016 Prius’ ride is also somewhat better than the previous model, but that’s not saying a lot, given we found the 2015 model to have a busy ride in need of better damping to absorb bumps in the road. The new version is about 60 percent stiffer than the previous model, yet it absorbs those bumps a little better thanks to suspension changes.
The Prius still rides on the firm side. In fact, measured against the competition, the Prius has the firmest ride; the C-Max Hybrid comes very close to it, while the Chevrolet Volt has the most supple ride.
For many Prius buyers, though, handling and acceleration still take a backseat to how well the car performs in another area: mileage. While the new version has not yet been tested by the EPA, Toyota estimates mileage to be 54/50/52 mpg city/highway/combined in standard models and 58/53/56 mpg in the Eco trim. If these numbers bear out, it will represent an improvement of 2 to 6 mpg versus the 2015’s EPA-estimated 51/48/50 mpg. The Ford C-Max Hybrid gets just 42/37/40 mpg, excluding the plug-in C-Max.
The reasons for the Prius’ improvement range from a new, more efficient transmission and a retuned engine with less internal friction to active grille shutters for improved aerodynamics at higher speeds.
In addition, most 2016 Prius trims will get lithium-ion batteries, which are lighter and have greater energy density than the nickel-metal-hydride batteries of previous generations. Now, only the Prius Two will soldier on with the older battery technology, but even that will only be true in non-Eco versions; Eco trims also get the lithium-ion batteries.
For my money, Toyota has made the greatest improvements in the Prius’ cabin. Simply put, it’s gone from a dull, barren interior with ugly graphics to a car that, for the first time, feels like it could be from the future. It’s impressive.
For starters, there are a lot more shapes and materials used across the cabin, particularly in the dashboard. Instead of staring at a flat piece of plastic, as in 2015 models, drivers will see some curves and lines. The doors, too, have a neat scalloping effect around the climate vents. Also, there’s a mix of gloss and matte finishes that make it more appealing.
Toyota says it wanted the design to make the car feels more open and airy, and I’d say it succeeded. The large center console, which contained a useful cupholder but took up a lot of space, is gone. Visibility is also improved, as it feels like the dashboard and belt line are lower.
However, all is not perfect inside the Prius. The glossy white plastic trim around the cupholders, which is the only option on upper trim levels, looks like bathroom porcelain — and it managed to grab a lot of dirt and debris over the course of the day. There’s talk of an optional black covering for that trim, but for now upper trims get the white plastic.
The lack of padding on the windowsill and the thin padding on the door armrest grew tiresome during my time in the Prius. Also, while the seats are bolstered more than in previous models, the cushioning in both the bolsters and the seat in general are too soft for my taste.
Ergonomics & Electronics
The graphics on the center display are improved in all trim levels. All the displays are crisp and look modern now, with full-color graphics. It can seem like a small thing, but when a cheap smartphone can display pretty, crisp graphics, why shouldn’t a car? I also found the center touch-screen to respond quickly to inputs.
Some settings previously controlled by buttons in the dashboard — including lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring and a precollision system — have been moved to the steering wheel. If you’re the sort who turns these systems on and off, it will be easier to do so now with the buttons there.
The biggest complaint I have on the ergonomic front is that there are a lot of touch-screen controls — instead of physical buttons — but they do respond quickly, so at least that’s a positive. It’s all part of the futuristic design, I guess.
Cargo & Storage
Because the 2016 Prius looks sleeker from the outside, one could be forgiven for thinking the car offers less cargo room, but that’s not the case. The new model offers up to 5.7 cubic feet more storage, depending on whether there’s a temporary spare tire or a flat-repair kit inside.
Aside from the car’s slightly larger exterior dimensions, another reason for the increased cargo space is that the battery pack that powers the car has been moved from under the cargo floor to under the backseat. The 12-volt battery has been moved to the front, under the hood.
What’s interesting is that while these changes result in more room, they raise one problem: Before, after folding the rear seats there was a flat load floor from the back of the car to the front, so you could set items on the rear of the cargo area and slide them in and out. Now there’s a pronounced lip in the back of the cargo area. While the load floor is still flat, the lip now prevents you from easily sliding things in and out.
With the rear seats in place, the Prius has either 27.4 cubic feet or 24.6 cubic feet of cargo area. The difference depends on having the flat-repair kit or the larger temporary spare tire. Considered against the C-Max (24.5 cubic feet) and Volt (10.6), the Prius has more space, albeit only slightly more than the C-Max in some configurations. For my money, though, the Prius — even with that annoying lip on the cargo area — still has the most useful cargo area of the three, thanks to its wide, deep, rectangular shape.
There are a variety of cup- and bottleholders in every version of the Prius, and I was never at a loss for a place to put my drink. On uplevel trims, there’s a useful tray in front of the cupholders that can wirelessly charge some cellphones, though not an iPhone without an adapter. It’s large enough to hold most larger cellphones.
As of publication, the 2016 Toyota Prius had not been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Beyond the required front airbags, antilock brakes and electronic stability system, Toyota offers a number of safety options in the 2016 Prius. Several are grouped in a Toyota Safety Sense option package that’s available on higher Prius Three and Prius Four trims; it’s standard on Touring models. Bundled in that package are a precollision braking system designed to recognize pedestrians and apply the brakes; lane departure alert that also steers you back into your lane; and adaptive cruise control. In addition, a rear cross-traffic alert system is standard in Prius Four and Prius Four Touring models.
Bundled in that package are a precollision braking system designed to recognize pedestrians and apply the brakes; lane departure alert that also steers you back into your lane; and adaptive cruise control. In addition, a rear cross-traffic alert system is standard in Prius Four and Prius Four Touring models. You can check more safety features here.
Value in Its Class
The 2016 Toyota Prius will range in price from about $25,000 to $31,000, though final pricing hadn’t been set as of this writing. The 2016 Ford C-Max Hybrid starts at $25,045 and tops out at $28,045, including $875 for delivery. The redesigned 2016 Chevrolet Volt starts at $33,995 and tops out at $38,345, including an $825 delivery charge. So the Prius and C-Max Hybrid are similarly priced, and both undercut the Volt by a significant margin. That keeps the redesigned Prius competitive with the market on price.
To me, though, the most significant thing is that the Prius has made its biggest step forward with the 2016 redesign. And it’s done so while remaining true to its mission of being a high-mileage, efficient car attractive to people interested in technology and/or having a lower environmental impact. (Toyota’s decision to attempt to woo buyers who want more than just an eco-friendly, high-mileage car seems especially smart now, when gas prices are fairly low; the “savings at the pump” argument isn’t as compelling now as it has been in the past, or as it may be in the future.)
The Prius’ firm ride and modest overall acceleration still remind you that you’re driving a Prius, not a conventional gas car, and that’s going to limit its appeal with some buyers. However, its interior improvements and sleek, futuristic styling argue toward broader acceptance.
All in all, with the 2016 redesign, the Prius — for the first time ever — feels like it could be a car people would want to drive as a car, not just as a symbol of environmental piety.