Toyota Prius First Drive Review: Reborn, Indeed
Let’s be honest: the Toyota Prius has been kind of a snoozer in recent years. It lost its Hollywood sheen sometime between the dazzling moment Leonardo DiCaprio proclaimed it “a step in the right direction” and the rise in hybrid competition ever since.
The Toyota Prius isn’t taking that lying down. It’s stepping out with new shoes and a fresh suit, and it’s going dancing. Toyota is hoping the updated hybrid will catch some new partners’ eyes in this turn around the ballroom; even the hybrid’s legion of loyal fans could turn its collective head toward a new groove if the Prius doesn’t perform.
This Prius rebirth isn’t just a cosmetic overhaul, either. Toyota injected a fresh dose of horsepower and torque, upgraded the suspension and steering, and added brake hold as standard. It’s lower, wider, and longer, inspiring curious onlookers to wonder: “Is that really a Prius?” If the previous generation was intentionally defiant and geeky, the new one is gliding into the room with more sophistication and a more enjoyable ride. It’s true: the Prius has a whole new attitude, and the improvement is stark. Let’s dance.
Finally, The Prius Shows Some Teeth
Aside from the obvious updates in the looks department, Toyota gave the Prius’ powertrain a massive kick in the pants to increase its output. the hybrid gets a larger gas engine with more horsepower and more torque, and neither is a small increase. Horsepower is up from 121 to 194 horsepower, or 60 percent. Sixty. Percent.
Prius Chief Engineer Satoki Oya sat down with me at the San Diego drive for the launch, and he said the power surge is a result of each engineering team improving its own specialty. As a result, the new system is the culmination of minor tweaking and not a wholesale replacement.
“It wasn’t a matter of some revolutionary new technology that allowed us to do this,” Oya said.
The new engine – a 2.0-liter versus last year’s 1.8 – is matched with a fresh lithium-ion battery pack that promises 14 percent more output. An electronic continuously variable transmission, two motor-generators, and a new drive motor combine with two supplementary magnets for additional output, further illustrating Oya’s point about improvements for each component. All that, and the Prius retains the excellent fuel economy it’s known for, ranging from 52 to 57 miles per gallon combined, depending on the trim and whether it’s front- or all-wheel drive.
Equipped with three drive modes (Eco, Normal, and Sport), the Prius is best experienced starting off the line in either of the latter two before switching to Eco mode for longer distances. That’s where I noticed the car exhibited its weight loss and was not as sluggish off the line, even in Eco mode. Driving the old Prius was like coaxing along an elderly sheep and now it needs noticeably less persuading.
On the road, the new Prius hides the uneven surfaces of railroad tracks or small bumps well. Clearly, the Prius isn’t meant for spirited canyon carving or off-roading on more than minor bumps and lumps. For what it’s meant to do, though, the handling feels improved over the previous version. The steering, while still slightly numb, will please die-hard Prius fans and potentially new ones as well.
Toyota employs an active hydraulic booster on the non-regenerative braking system, leading to an even ride and consistent braking experience. Brake hold is now standard, and it’s well done; the car releases the hold with a light touch of the accelerator. Those driving in stop-and-go traffic will appreciate the option to take their foot off the pedal, reducing fatigue.