An all-new version of the popular hybrid four-door hatchback, the 2016 Toyota Prius is more efficient and better-driving than ever before.
What Is It?
It used to be that the Prius was a niche vehicle, a rolling proclamation of counterculture eco-mindedness. Today the Prius is so ubiquitous that it is regarded as the default commuter choice in the minds of many consumers. With the 2016 Prius, the fourth generation of Toyota's standard-bearing nameplate, the formula remains the same. It's still a four-door hatchback with a hybridized four-cylinder engine that drives the front wheels.
There's a wider variety of trim levels on offer now. The 2016 model will be offered in six flavors: Two, Two Eco, Three, Three Touring, Four and Four Touring. "Touring" trim levels bring more equipment while the "Eco" model is even more miserly with fuel than the base version.
What's New Under the Skin?
The 2016 Toyota Prius is built on an all-new platform that will underpin several future Toyota models, including the next Corolla. The new Prius rides on the same 106.3-inch wheelbase as the outgoing model, though the new car is a hair lower and wider and a couple of inches longer.
Its new structure is stiffer, too, which — along with relocating the hybrid battery from the cargo area to under the backseat — facilitated the adoption of a new rear suspension layout. Gone is the old Prius' pedestrian twist-beam rear suspension. In its place is a double-wishbone layout, the promise of which is enhanced wheel control for improved ride and handling.
Roughly speaking, the double-wishbone arrangement added back about 100 pounds that were offset by weight-saving measures elsewhere in the 2016 Prius' construction. The end result is that curb weight hasn't changed significantly; depending on trim level, the new Prius weighs between 3,010 and 3,080 pounds (the 2015 Prius is 3,042 pounds). Though the new car is no lighter, its center of gravity was lowered by an inch, another suggestion that the new Prius will drive more keenly.
What's New Under the Hood?
A revised version of the existing 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine ekes out more efficiency and delivers 95 horsepower and 105 pound-feet of torque. Combined with the revamped electrical side of the Prius' hybrid equation, the total system output is now 121 hp. This is actually less peak power than the outgoing model, which generated 134 total system horsepower.
Despite the power deficit and similar weight, Toyota says the new car's acceleration to 60 mph (10.6 seconds) matches the old car. What gives? Essentially, the new car draws more heavily from its electrical components at low vehicle speeds than does the outgoing model. Thus, the 2016 model's low-speed thrust is juicier, and this is enough to offset its peak power shortfall in the sprint to 60 mph.
What Else Is New?
A nickel-metal hydride (Ni-MH) battery is still employed, but only in the entry-level Two version. All other 2016 Prius models receive a lighter, more capable lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery pack. The less-costly Ni-MH battery (also employed in other global regions where Li-ion disposal/recycling is trickier) allows the base version of the new Prius to ring in at exactly the same base price as the 2015 model.
One characteristic familiar to hybrid owners is curiously absent in the 2016 Prius: There are no telltale high-voltage orange electrical cables under the hood. For 2016, engineers shrunk the inverter and power electronics so significantly that these components are now integrated directly into the top of the transaxle.
In the bargain, the orange cables and their attendant copper losses were jettisoned, reducing clutter and boosting electrical efficiency. So much space was liberated up front that the traditional 12-volt battery was relocated from the cargo area to the engine compartment. The continuously variable transaxle, too, was redesigned in the interests of packaging and slashing parasitic losses.
What About Its Fuel Economy?
Official EPA fuel economy numbers are still forthcoming, but Toyota's own projections rate the new Prius at 52 mpg combined (54 city/50 highway), a 2-mpg improvement over the outgoing model. Note that the 2016 Prius' numbers were divined in adherence of the EPA's more rigorous testing guidelines that take effect for 2017 models.
Eco models are projected to achieve 56 mpg combined (58 city/53 highway), courtesy of lower-rolling-resistance tires and a slight weight reduction. While the Eco's fuel-sipping ways are impressive, the savings may not pencil out for some buyers, as at today's fuel prices it would take more than a decade for the Eco model's fuel savings to pay off its $500 purchase premium over the base 2016 Prius.
How Does It Drive?
Our drive of the 2016 Prius was limited to the boulevards and freeways in Laguna Beach, California, but this much is clear: The new Prius picks up its feet with more sophistication than the old car. The ride quality has far less busy-ness at the rear and the car steers along your intended path more faithfully than the 2015 model we drove it back to back against.
It moves off the line briskly, leaving us with no reason to doubt Toyota's acceleration claims. It also blends its regenerative and friction brakes more seamlessly, and the engine has noticeably better noise isolation. Wind noise was prominent at the A-pillars, however.
The new car's newfound adroitness simply makes it drive like a more expensive car, and it's the kind of improvement that's noticeable even in routine driving well below the ultimate limit of tire grip. It's no sports car, of course, but the changes to the rear suspension have produced a real difference you can feel by the seat of your pants every time you drive it.
What's the Interior Like?
There's no question that the exterior styling, to be charitable, has a face only Mother Toyota could love. Fortunately, the revisions to the interior will be more universally well received. The first thing you notice is the new car's lower seating position. The hip point is a significant 2.3 inches lower, so sitting in a Prius no longer feels like you're perched atop a stack of phone books. Headroom is more generous than in the old car, too. There's a telescoping wheel as standard, but its adjustment range is limited.
The outgoing car's floating center console was binned, which opens up the sense of space in the cabin. Materials are now noticeably less cheap-looking (and feeling), while the full-color central information display is much easier to read than the outgoing monochrome blue-green affair.
Cargo volume has grown appreciably to 24.6 cubic feet (27.3 cubic feet for models without a spare tire), an increase of 3.0 cubic feet over the old Prius. This comes at the price of a decrease in backseat legroom.
What Features Come Standard?
Standard equipment on the 2016 Toyota Prius includes keyless entry, full LED lighting, a 6.1-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth compatibility and active grille shutters. Higher trim levels are equipped with power seats, 17-inch wheels, a more capable and larger multimedia system and wireless smartphone charging (assuming you have a Qi case).
Optional equipment available in various packages includes semi-automated parking, a moonroof and a head-up display. Tech-seeking buyers should turn their attention to the Prius Three and Four, which offer adaptive cruise control, automatic high beams and a collision prevention system that can detect and respond to pedestrians. These higher trim levels also have blind spot detection and rear cross-traffic alerts as standard equipment.
How Much Does It Cost?
Base prices range from $25,035-$30,835, both of which are unchanged from last year's car. Considering the tangible improvements made to the model, holding the line on pricing is a pleasant surprise.
What Competing Models Should You Also Consider?
Chevrolet Volt: All-new for 2016, it's a plug-in hybrid that has an impressive electric-only range that's easily extended by the efficient gasoline engine.
Mazda 3: Delivers top-shelf fuel economy among non-hybrids, along with sharp dynamics and a sense of style inside and out.
Why Should You Consider This Car?
When fuel economy tops your priority list, the Prius has been a traditional go-to choice, and the new car only reinforces its dominance in this regard. There's a host of new equipment available in the comprehensively upgraded cabin, yet the ride and handling improvements alone make it easily the most agreeable-driving Prius yet.
Why Should You Think Twice About This Car?
It's still on the slow side, and there's slightly less rear passenger space than before.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.