The 2014 Toyota Prius hybrid is spacious and its extreme efficiency is impressive, but you have to put up with a noisy, bumpy ride and an interior that's showing its age.
The third-generation Prius has been around for five model years now, and it remains one of the most fuel-efficient cars you can buy, not counting fully electric cars; the EPA rates it at 51/48/50 mpg city/highway/combined. Toyota also sells a plug-in hybrid version of the Prius, as well as a subcompact Prius c hatchback and larger Prius v wagon that has more interior room. (To see their specs compared, click here.)
The Prius' base price is $25,025 including an $825 destination charge. Our Prius Five test car's as-tested price was considerably more — $37,267, including destination — due in part to a number of technologies, including a navigation system, head-up display and lane departure prevention.
How It Drives
The Prius driving experience is refined, with mostly seamless transitions between its gas and electric power sources. It accelerates from a stop readily, and the gas engine fires smoothly to help the car keep going. The brakes grab immediately when you touch the pedal, and for a hybrid they have good linearity and predictability all the way to a complete stop. The only aspect that may be unusual for those accustomed to conventional cars with traditional automatic transmissions is the way the sounds of the engine don't always rise and fall in a familiar way.
The Prius feels as quick as your average compact car. The drivetrain's various modes — Normal, Eco and Power — alter accelerator responsiveness. Normal is tolerable; you just have to press harder on the pedal than in most conventional cars for adequate acceleration. Eco is mostly frustrating, as a good portion of the gas pedal's travel doesn't produce any acceleration. With Power selected, the Prius feels livelier off the line, and the gas engine is quicker to come on.
The most remarkable thing about the Prius is how it gets consistently superior gas mileage. The car's trip computer showed mpg readings in the mid- to high 50s whether I was commuting to work in traffic or traveling on congestion-free roads. The Prius doesn't make you work for that kind of mileage, either; I wasn't taking any steps to maximize my fuel economy. Over the course of a few summer days I drove 100 miles, and the trip computer's average mpg stood at 55.7. Midsize hybrids that approach the Prius' 50-mpg combined rating are the Honda Accord Hybrid (47 mpg) and Ford Fusion Hybrid (42 mpg), but gas mileage for the Ford C-Max Hybrid, one of the Prius' chief competitors, is just 40 mpg combined. (See these cars compared here.)
Note that mild temperatures benefit hybrid efficiency, and all these models can be expected to exhibit lower mileage in cold weather — sometimes dramatically lower. The Prius is no exception.
To enjoy the Prius' great gas mileage you have to put up with a bumpy, noisy ride. Ride quality isn't overly firm, but it's busy, and damping could be better over bumps and cracks in the road, which produce a loud thwack. In addition to suspension noise, road and tire noise becomes bothersome at highway speeds. The Prius is a relatively light car with a curb weight a little over 3,000 pounds. That's about what the Chevrolet Cruze compact car weighs, but you get the feeling it's that light because Toyota included as little sound-deadening material as possible.
Steering response is predictable, with high assist levels; it feels like driving-simulator steering in the days before force-feedback attempted to add some realism.
The other impressive thing about the Prius is how accommodating it is. Five adults fit in the car on front bucket seats and a three-person rear bench. Headroom is limited for taller people, but there's almost as much rear-seat legroom as in Toyota's Camry midsize sedan. The middle rear seat is a little hard, but the flat floor makes this spot more practical.
The Prius is also very easy to see out of from the driver's seat. This isn't as much of a given as it used to be, as more and more cars seem to be trading visibility for distinctive exterior styling and/or aerodynamics. The Prius has a unique swept-back look, but Toyota has managed to retain good over-shoulder visibility for checking your blind spot, and the front roof pillars don't restrict your sight lines like they can in some cars. The crossbar separating the upper and lower liftgate glass is constantly visible in the rearview mirror, which I found a little annoying, but it doesn't significantly limit visibility. The rearview mirror blocked my view when making a right turn, however.
The cabin design and materials aren't that impressive. The sweeping, once-futuristic dashboard looks dated, especially the centrally located digital instrument panel. Considering the car's advanced hybrid drivetrain technology, I'm amazed Toyota hasn't updated the instrument panel to a full-color display instead of the green-on-black readout that's been there since the Prius was redesigned for the 2010 model year. The strange graining on the door trim, dashboard and center control panel hasn't aged well, either, and the optional simulated leather upholstery looks cheap. Real leather was discontinued a couple of years ago.
Ergonomics & Electronics
Most of the Prius' controls are familiar, but there are a few that differ significantly from most cars. The high-mounted, center-of-dash instrument panel is an idea that hasn't caught on despite how it lets you keep your eyes closer to the road when checking the gauges. The location wasn't jarring to me, but I've been in the Prius before, as well as a few other cars that have this layout, and I'm accustomed to it. Some drivers dislike it.
The gear selector is also different. It's a small joystick-like thing on the center console that springs back to a center position after selecting Drive or Reverse, for instance. Even though it's quite a bit different from a conventional gear selector, it's easy to use.
The optional touch-screen navigation system in our Prius Five was part of a $4,320 Advanced Technology Package that included a number of other features. The touch-screen is bordered by physical buttons that take you to specific features, like satellite radio channels or the map view. They're packed tightly around the screen and aren't the easiest to distinguish at a glance. The screen had a tendency to wash out in sunlight, which made it hard to see the image from the optional backup camera, for instance.
Pairing an iPhone to the multimedia system using Bluetooth is straightforward and I had immediate access to my contacts and recent calls from the touch-screen. The system includes Bluetooth streaming audio, so you don't have to physically connect your phone to the car to listen to stored music through the car's speakers, but the touch-screen interface has just basic controls; I couldn't skip forward or back to other songs.
Cargo & Storage
The cargo area measures 21.6 cubic feet. That's more than the Prius c (17.1) but less than the Prius v (34.3). The C-Max Hybrid has 24.5 cubic feet of space. The Prius' split-folding backseat is nicely executed and folds flat with the cargo floor when you need more space. The car's sloping roofline, however, reduces the height of the cargo area compared with a small crossover. Toyota's RAV4 crossover has a 38.4-cubic-foot luggage area.
Storage areas include upper and lower glove boxes, neither of which is very large; a small center console bin between the front seats; and a large open storage area under the center console near the base of the dashboard.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety named the 2014 Prius a Top Safety Pick Plus, representing the top rating of good in all dynamic tests except the small-overlap frontal test, where it received a score of acceptable. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave it an overall rating of four out of five stars.
The Advanced Technology Package includes a number of safety features like a backup camera, adaptive cruise control, a pre-collision system, lane departure warning and prevention, and Toyota's Safety Connect emergency communication system. The pre-collision system automatically brakes the car and cinches the front seat belts if a crash is imminent. (The inclusion of this optional equipment is also required for IIHS' Top Safety Pick Plus designation.) Lane departure prevention will steer the car back into your lane if you drift out of it, but one editor felt the system should intervene before crossing a dividing line rather than after. A one-year trial subscription to Safety Connect includes automatic collision notification, stolen vehicle assistance and roadside assistance.
Value in Its Class
The Prius stacks up well when you look at the time it'd take to recoup its price premium over a comparable gas-only car. The Prius doesn't have a direct gas-only sibling, but Toyota's own Camry, which is a midsize car like the Prius, makes a good substitute.
Looking at base versions of both cars and assuming regular gas costs $3.47 a gallon and you drive 15,000 miles a year, the payback time is just a little more than two years. If you want to add some real time between gas station visits and also have room for more than two adults to ride comfortably, the Prius remains a great choice.