I don't think the Toyota Prius is supposed to be driven on an auto cross. However, it was a brilliant exercise to demonstrate the difference in handling between the 2015 and 2016 models.
During the press preview, the presenters mentioned the lower center of gravity and the 60-percent stiffer chassis, which they insisted would make a marked difference in how the Prius handled.
They even hinted that the little hybrid would be (gasp) fun to drive.
My driving partner and I approached the auto cross with skepticism, but low and behold, it actually did fairly well on the tight corners, and I was downright impressed with how it handled a hairpin curve.
And, I'll admit, I even giggled a little.
But would it really be that different from the outgoing Prius?
The 2015 Prius was sloppy, loose and heavy in all the wrong places, and there was definitely some cone carnage left in our wake.
I would say the all-new 2016 Prius stops just shy of being fun, but it is absolutely eons ahead of the last generation - in terms of not only ride and handling but also pretty much every other aspect of the vehicle.
Interestingly, the next-gen Prius is equipped with the same 1.8-liter, 4-cylinder engine as the outgoing model, but Toyota has retuned it to be quieter and more efficient.
The Hybrid Synergy Drive combines the gasoline engine with two motors and a continuously variable transmission. The engine alone delivers 95 horsepower, but the combined system output is 121 horsepower.
Interestingly, Toyota retains the nickel-metal hydride battery from the previous generation for one 2016 model: The base Prius Two trim. All the other Prii get a new lithium-ion hydride battery.
Though the EPA hadn't officially tested the 2016 Prius at the time of writing this review, Toyota estimates that the new Prius will get 54 mpg in the city and 50 mpg on the highway for a combined rating of 52 mpg. That's a combined boost of 2 mpg over the previous model.
For 2016, Toyota is also introducing an Eco model, which it estimates should get 58 mpg in the city and 53 mpg on the highway for a combined rating of 56 mpg.
What accounts for the increased efficiency? In addition to weighing 65 pounds less than the regular models, the Eco model has some aerodynamic tweaks and material changes that help reduce HVAC load, which in turn help it eke out the extra mileage.
My driving partner and I decided to put the fuel economy to the test, so we chose an hour-and-a-half, 53-mile driving loop through the mountains. Then we drove the Eco and regular models on the same loop to see how they would stack up.
The results were kind of surprising.
Yeah, the Eco model did better, but it was the actual mileage of both vehicles that threw us for a loop. We put each vehicle in Eco mode, and we tried not to drive with a lead foot, but we didn't go under the speed limits and kept up with the flow of traffic -- even on the up-hill stints. So, basically we tried not to drive aggressively, but we weren't trying to hypermile either.
Which is why the combined mileage of 59.9 mpg was a surprise. Oh, and did I mention that this was for the regular model? In the Eco model, we managed to get 70.6 mpg.
Without really trying. Through mountains.
I wouldn't be surprised if the EPA came back with higher numbers than Toyota's guestimates.
In addition to fuel economy, the other big story with the new Prius is obviously the aggressive and somewhat polarizing design. I seem to be using that word a lot lately with Toyota, Lexus and Scion products, but the 2016 Prius seems to fall into the love-it-or-hate-it category with very little middle ground.
While it retains the iconic egg shape that the Prius is known for, the wide stance, sculpted lines and hard angles give it a distinct family resemblance to the Mirai fuel cell vehicle, signaling that this is something different.
I fall into the "love it" category on this one. I think Toyota did a great job of maintaining the Prius genealogy while giving it an edge that modernizes the design, bringing it into the future.
The interior also gets a serious upgrade with up-level materials and four-color displays. However, it also has the potential to be a tad polarizing because of one very interesting design choice: the white lacquer inserts on the center console and steering wheel. Depending on the trim level, the white lacquer surrounds both the gearshift area on the center stack as well as the cup holders on the center console.
On this one, I fall more into the "hate it" camp. The white was overpowering and, frankly, made me think of a toilet. The goal was to look futuristic - especially with the available cordless Qi phone-charging pad - but it just didn't work for me. And apparently someone at Toyota anticipated this reaction because an available black insert that will cover the white on the cup-holder area is in the works.
Another interior point of contention: I like the looks of the black lacquer inserts surrounding the info screen, but they are a huge dust catcher. Even though the vehicles had been detailed before we drove them, they were instantly dusty.
The 2016 Prius will have 6 trim levels, ranging from basic to lux-level:
- Two ($25,035): At the base level, Prius comes standard with a rear backup camera, fabric seats, cruise control, EV/Eco/Power modes, smart-key access on the driver's door, push-button start, 15-inch wheels and tonneau cover. This is the only trim that gets the nickel-metal hydride battery pack.
- Two Eco ($25,535): This level adds the lithium-ion hydride battery pack, increased fuel economy and smart-key access on all doors.
- Three ($27,085): This level adds steering wheel audio and phone controls; white accents on the steering wheel, center console and shifter; and Qi-compatible phone charger.
- Three Touring ($28,935): The Touring trim adds SofTex-trimmed front seats, 17-inch wheels and a Touring grade rear bumper treatment.
- Four ($29,485): The Four adds on to the Three trim standard features, adding heated front seats, power adjustable seats, rain sensing wipers, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert.
- Four Touring ($30,835): This trim combines everything from Three Touring and Four.
The one area where I think Toyota misses the boat is its insistence on sticking with the Entune app suite. Where other automakers are embracing Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, Toyota stubbornly sticks with its own proprietary software. I understand that this gives Toyota greater control over the product - and the information they can gather on their clients - but it also means that the system will be quickly outdated as people swap smartphones on a yearly basis.
Frankly, now that I've had a taste of how easy CarPlay and Auto can be, all I want from every automaker is a system that will mirror my phone.
Entune stubbornness aside, Toyota does include some cool new technology on the 2016 Prius including full-speed dynamic radar cruise control, intelligent park assist and a pre-collision system with pedestrian sensing.
Overall, I liked the Prius in the brief time I spent with it. I like the unique (and, yes, polarizing) styling, and the ride and handling is a ton better than the previous generation. Plus, you really can't beat the efficiency.
Toyota manages to raise the hybrid bar again with this next-gen Prius, and I look forward to a longer test to see how it fares in true city driving.
The 2016 Toyota Prius will be available in dealerships in early 2016.