2016 Toyota Prius Tony Schaefer Prius is the top-selling hybrid, it’s become the Kleenex of all hybrids, it’s instantly recognizable, and it continues to set the bar in terms of fuel efficiency for non-EVs. All that was achieved with the second and third generation Prius models. With such a stellar track record and brand loyalty, why on Earth would Toyota even consider rocking that boat? Well, to be honest, because other cars are starting to catch up. Because the Prius was starting to become a bit stale. Also because for all the achievements heaped upon the Prius over the last decade, there are still people who wouldn’t touch a Prius with a ten-foot pole and blame someone else. Toyota set out with one heck of a punch list: revamp a mature vehicle, further increase its overall efficiency, introduce new levels of technology, and when you’re done with that find a way for non-Prius owners to like it. The new Prius is built on a new platform. Lithium Ion is available for the first time in the Liftback model. The styling keeps the oh-so-Prius triangular shape but introduces new curves. Have they done enough or have they gone too far? I got to drive the 2016 Prius for two weeks as my daily driver in order to get a feeling for the car from the perspective as an average owner. Here’s what I learned. Overview There are two types of people who might be looking at the fourth generation of the Prius: those who already own a Prius and those who have never even ridden in one. For existing owners, Toyota has to present a car that is familiar enough that they will stick with the brand. For new owners, well, there’s probably a very valid reason they skipped over the last decade of Prius. For both groups, Toyota has to differentiate the Prius from the growing list of hybrids, range-extending plug-ins, and increasingly attractive EVs. My goal was to drive the new Prius as an existing owner but also try to look at it through the eyes of a newcomer. To help with that, I solicited the opinions of family and coworkers. Exterior The 2016 Prius is and is not a familiar Prius. It’s definitely a Prius in that if you smooth out the new stylings, it clearly has that short-hood, rounded top, hatchback Prius silhouette. It’s not a Prius because of all the new styling, including the aggressive front, sharply cutting headlights, side molding, and an angular rear end. The front of the Prius has been lowered for aerodynamics. A benefit of this design is that it feels less “family sedan” and more “sports car” in posture. Previous Prius models have large, squarish, boring headlights; this is not the case with the 2016, showing off projection beams and optional fog lamps in a multi-faceted fascia. One facet of the hood is the “ledge” at the top of the hood just in front of the windshield. No doubt Toyota wanted to direct air over the windshield wipers but knew extending the hood any higher would obscure close-range vision for the driver. Here’s the clever part: the ledge isn’t flat, it’s slightly curved downward. This creates eddies of air as it dips downward into the curve and pushes the prevailing air up and over the wipers. This is just one of the subtle design features that can be found. Rain: The poor man's wind tunnel From the side, the Gen2 Prius has all the aerodynamic characteristics of a cinder block. For this reason, when on the interstate and getting hit from the side by a gust of wind, the car gets pushed around. The Gen3 improved on this and the Gen4 is even better. This car is more rounded where it needs to be and has enough outlets for air to escape without pushing the car sideways. I drove home from work in a pretty active thunderstorm and could tell the wind was coming sideways but the Prius stood its ground. The rear of the car has received some criticism from current owners and other reviewers alike. From the side, it has been compared to the Ford Probe or a Saturn. I have to admit that when I first saw this car, I drew the same comparison. But here’s the thing: after having the car for a few days, I would park it, walk away, look back at it, and just not care anymore. The hatchback has a flatter angle, which is caused by the roof’s high point moving forward allowing it to start its downward slope sooner. One interesting tidbit: when I got the loaner, it was pretty filthy and even though the entire car had air flow filth as though it had driven through the rain, picking up dirt, the rear window was essentially spotless as though no airflow ever touched it. I’m no engineer and can’t explain how they did it, but that boggled my mind. Somehow the rear window remained clean Speaking of the rear window, Prius owners know that the rear wiper does not lift more than a few inches. In the Gen2, the plastic cover could be removed and a restrictive piece of plastic could be removed to allow the arm to move all the way up and stay. The Gen4 went one step further: the plastic piece is designed to swing up and allow the arm to articulate all the way up. Considering it’s such a tiny thing, this is a huge deal. The rear wiper stays up without having to hack the cover The coolest neat little touches are the rear lights. Rather than just having square rear lights, Toyota went with LED zags that start at the rear spoiler and swing out before coming back in and down. They cut a very identifiable mark in the dark. The coolest rear lights on the road And about that spoiler. Yes, it’s still part of the rear window with the hatch above and a sliver of a window below. This one is noticeably thinner than the Gen2 which allows for a taller window below. And rear visibility is increased as a result. New drivers almost always mention it the first time they look at the rearview mirror. It turns out the spoiler blocks the headlights of the car behind. It’s hard to believe this was intentional but it’s very handy at night. Impressions of the Exterior As the owner of a Gen2 Prius, I feel the new look is fresh, somewhat aggressive, and I like it. The rear end originally reminded me of a Probe but that went away. After parking the car looking back, yeah I liked it. Walking out to the car after a day at work, I enjoyed seeing it there. A coworker happened to email me about the new Prius. Perfect timing! We went out to lunch and he scrutinized it in the parking lot. My suggestion was that he considered buying a 2015 since this would be a good time to get a great deal. He doesn’t like its look because it’s too bland; too “Prius”. He walked around the new car, pursing his lips and nodding his head. He owns a big truck, originates from a Southern state, and chews tobacco. This guy, the most unlikely Prius owner, really and honestly likes the 2016 Prius. Rolling down the street, a few heads turned and some people noticeably stared and checked it out. The daily commute involves multiple situations of stop-and-go traffic. Many people in a Gen2 or Gen3 Prius were probably seeing the Gen4 in person for the first time. It was very tempting to randomly stop people and ask what they thought but that might have blurred the line between research and creepy. Not all were thrilled, however, a few coworkers and a family member felt that the rear was “too much”. It was as though Toyota “tried too hard.” People are accustomed to mass-market cars with straight lines and basic functionality; save the extraneous curves, bends, and angles for niche supercars. Even if Toyota could completely justify every bend and angle, the rear looks like an attempt to make a regular car look like a supercar. Interior There are two reasons I know more about the inside of the Prius than the outside. 1) I spent most of the time with the car driving it. 2) It was January. In Chicago. There was not a lot of outside stuff going on. Everyone who got into the car commented on how much they like the dash and overall cabin area. Capacitance and otherwise flush buttons keep the overall feel clean and smooth in a minimalistic way. The car I drove was black with some gray. The mixture of the black and gray along with the different textures makes for an intriguing and engaging cockpit. 2016 Prius Cockpit A quick note about those capacitance buttons, though. They do not work while wearing gloves. The good news is that capacitance buttons are not used for the air conditioning, which means it is not necessary to take off your gloves to turn on the heat (this is sort of a big deal when it’s below freezing). Only infotainment functions use capacitance buttons. Hopefully the cabin will be up to temp before you are temped to change audio source. Bluetooth integration is standard on all Prius packages and ridiculously easy to connect a phone. Hands free phone calling is considerably nicer than previous Prius generations. You are treated to a pleasant lady’s voice asking how she (it?) can assist you and then prompting you through the process. “[that person] has multiple phone numbers, would you like to call Home, Work, or Cell?” Very nice. The Gen2 Prius beeps and displays a message every time the car connects with a phone. This is something an owner just gets accustomed to. The Gen4 Prius does not, which leads to an interesting question: should it? After all, it’s expected that things should just work; should everything report that it’s successfully doing what it is programmed to do? After a while, it was nice to not receive the notification. Just one less beep. Listeners of audio books (myself included) will enjoy streaming through the Gen4. It picks up right where you left off as soon as you start the car. This is good and bad because you might be busy backing out of a driveway or parking spot and not ready to re-engage with the narrative. Either turn the audio off when you stop the car so you can control when it comes back on, or press-and-hold the thumb button on the left of the steering wheel to quickly rewind a little bit and catch what you missed. Buttons on the steering wheel are well placed and make sense. They make sense in that the left hand buttons control the audio and phone: change audio mode, increase/decrease volume, move forward/backward in music, answer/disconnect phone calls, and initiate the voice commands. The only exception to the audio buttons is the small “TRIP” button which allows you to toggle through the multiple trip calculators and displays. The right thumb is used to control the dash display by flipping through display options. Compared to the Gen2, some buttons have been removed with their controls moved to the center console; for example, all the cabin comfort controls. 2016 Prius Steering Wheel One noticeable feature about the steering wheel is that there is no gap at the bottom of the wheel for your hand. Yes, yes, a safe driver always has their hands at 10:00 and 2:00. After ten or fifteen minutes, even a safe driver gets tired and wants somewhere else to place their hands. With the steering wheel configuration, choices are restricted to high on either side or low on either side but no bottom-middle. Coming from a Gen2, this took a good deal of getting accustomed to. Someone with a Gen2 must have told Toyota that having the climate controls as one of the screens on the multi-function display really wasn’t a great idea because starting with the Gen3, the climate controls reside front and center right below the display. As a Gen2 owner, this is a welcomed change. Three rocker switches provide a somewhat retro approach to control: temperature, fan speed, and air flow control. It’s curious: these are the only rocker switches in the entire car and you would think they would be out of place. Instead, their location and use are both accurate and easy. Being that they are framed by the climate display on top and four buttons on each side, they just ‘fit’. Rocker switches are easy to use and add nice touch to the flat console To help with efficiency, the Prius offers air conditioning in regular mode and ECO mode. ECO mode air conditioning operates energy efficiently, sacrificing fan speed if that would increase energy draw. Additionally, there is a button that will control whether the air is routed to the entire cabin or exclusively to the front seats. This provides more conditioning to the driver and front passenger which should, in turn, allow the entire air conditioning system to run less. The front and rear defrosters are extremely effective and showed their abilities multiple times during the two weeks. Overall, the cabin heated very quickly. Since my car didn’t have heated seats, I can’t speak to that. My only (admittingly minor) gripe is that the recirculation button is all the way over on the passenger’s side of the center console. When driving to work, there are all sorts of dirty, stinky things on the road: school busses, city busses, Volkswagen diesels, and even dead skunks. In the Gen2, toggling recirculation and closing the outer vents is done with a press of the right thumb on a steering wheel button. Now it is necessary to reach all the way over, look for the button, and press it. Minor? Yeah. In the Gen2, the shifter knob was located within reach of the steering wheel. This made it easy to keep your thumb on the steering wheel and shift gears; great for 3-way turn-arounds, backing into parking, etc. In the Gen 3, Toyota moved the it to the center console and pointed it up, like a traditional shifter. In the Gen4, the shifter is still in the center. However, without the flying buttress, it is mounted on the console and pointing to the rear. I realize the shifter is something you use only a few times during each drive and maybe only once to put the car into gear. With that in mind, putting it low and out of the way seems like a good idea. However, it is hard to believe that an overwhelming percentage of any focus group could possibly have sat in the car, reached to shift into drive and said, “perfect!” Would you believe that there were several Gen2 Prius owners who did not know of all the nooks and crannies and hidden drawers in their cars? It’s true. Every square inch of the Gen2 is used in one way or another. The glovebox is large enough for a shelf or a bottle of wine, the armrest storage is cavernous, there’s a door in the center of the console that hides storage and a hidden drawer under the cup holders most owners don’t even know about. And this is one area in which Gen2 owners will be disappointed. With apologies to Toyota, we are really getting screwed out of storage space. The glove box is now, literally, just barely large enough for a pair of gloves. The armrest opens to reveal a little space for a few things. That’s pretty much it when it comes to storage. In my Gen2, I open the in-dash flip-down storage compartment door and use it as a shelf on which to place my phone. This makes using navigation or information apps such as Waze much easier since I can see the phone with only a glance. Even just to have the phone relatively handy, it’s really nice. Compare that to the Gen4 in which there is nowhere to set your phone other than in the center tray under the shifter. The good news: some models will have inductive charging. The bad news, if you use the inductive charging, this space cannot be used to store anything other than your phone; it becomes a unitasking space. Need somewhere to set that notepad? Screw you! Wanna use Waze? Be prepared to take your eyes completely off the road while you look straight down. For many people, the lack of storage will be no big deal. Others, though, will either find somewhere else to put their stuff or do without. And then there’s the “bone china” plastic accents. Not much to say here. You either like it or you don’t. If you like it, then there it is. If you don’t, rest assured there are already accessories coming to market to cover it with a variety of other finishes. The dash is comprised of two 4.2-inch color displays: the left always showing speed and the right providing vehicle and/or trip information. It took a while and a bit of playing around, but the screen configuration that appealed to me was to have a split-screen on the left with speed and real-time MPG and the right screen showing what’s called the “Energy Monitor”. All the possible screens and their uses are far too complex for this review but suffice it to say there are enough screens and configurations to provide a little or a lot of information. Left and right sides are customizable. Also, 73MPG! One thing about the dashboard that caught me quite by surprise: for several days there was no display of MPG anywhere to be found. Absolutely none. What happened was that someone before me had apparently toggled the “Trip” button to hide all trip information from the left dash display, directly below the speedometer. It is possible to display MPG readings for Trip-A, Trip-B, This Trip, and Total Lifetime. Or completely hide all MPG information. This is not a subtle point to be taken lightly. The Toyota Prius, the MPG King, the car founded on high mileage, loved by millions for its MPG ratings, driven by those who want to save money by consuming less fuel, makes it possible to completely and absolutely remove any inference to MPG. Combine this with Toyota’s new Prius marketing campaign and it is easy to see they are no longer appealing exclusively to the hypermiler crowd; they are downplaying the MPG and highlighting the fact that this car is new, sexy, and damn fun to drive. Driving Impressions Toyota loaded up the Gen4 Prius with additional sound deadening materials to reduce road noise. Two words: it works. The ride is extremely quiet with very little engine or road noise. The only exception would be at high strain situations but at regular driving it’s extremely quiet. New to the Prius – and borrowed from Lexus – is the manufacturing process of using more welds per seam to create a more rigid frame. Then they mounted this on top of their new TNGA chassis to deliver rigid and sporty driving characteristics. Coming from a Gen2 and getting into this car is not an evolution of driving but more like a complete revolution. The Gen4 is smooth, and quiet, and sporty when needed. There is no comparing it to the Gen2. Don’t even try. Quite often, the first question people asked is “how does it drive?” The only response I could come up with was “like butter”. It’s smooth and easy. Whether on the interstate or just on streets, driving this car was a complete joy. Straight-on driving was easy with no fighting for control or working to hold a line. When I needed to move from one lane to another, the Prius was responsive, quick, and nimble. Adding to the smoothness of the Gen4, the transition from gasoline engine to battery is practically unnoticeable. When simply driving along, the car transitions from one to another and back again without the driver knowing it ever happened. That’s the way it should be. In this regard, Toyota completely nailed it. Next to the shifter, in the center console, is a three-way toggle button controlling the drive mode. The driver can choose between Normal, Power, and Eco. Unlike the Gen3, which always starts in Normal, the Gen4 starts in the drive mode it was last using. So if you want the Prius to always be a sports car, then put it into Power mode and simply leave it there. How do these power modes work? It’s more complicated than this, but basically, they control the power-to-pedal ratio. Draw a 45˚ line up and to the right and that’s a 1:1 pedal-to-power ratio. That’s what Normal looks like. Power Mode curves up fast at first, leveling off as it gets to the top-right. So a little pedal pressure will cause an increased surge in power. Eco Mode is the opposite, starting with a slow curve and bending up towards the end. As you press on the pedal, the Prius reacts with only minor power. Normal Mode is exactly that: normal. It’s exactly how anyone would expect a car to behave. To help distinguish which Drive Mode the Prius is currently in, Toyota changes the color of the background on the dash. Normal Mode is green. Power Mode is highlighted with a red background and that seems pretty fitting. Power Mode is the “get out of my way, old man” mode. It’s “I’m jacked up on Mountain Dew and I’m gonna come at you like a spider monkey” mode. Put bluntly: Power Mode is fun and it’s addictive. There are draw-backs, however. Do not use Power Mode when stuck in stop-and-go traffic or when feathering the pedal is preferred. The power-to-pedal ratio is far too great and you end up lunging. Eco Mode received a blue background. Eco Mode, the most laid back of the modes is akin to a pot smoking turtle in no hurry walking across fly paper. You should never, ever, switch from a long stretch of Power Mode into Eco Mode. The mental transition from “Giddy Up” to Yurtle the Turtle is too much to handle. Off the line at a stoplight, Eco Mode can irritate those behind you because you might not accelerate fast enough for them. Eco Mode is extremely useful, though, for steady-state driving, stop-and-go driving, and maximizing your mileage. My only negative about driving isn’t even really about driving at all. In my opinion, Toyota is trying much too hard to introduce “gamification” into driving the Prius. You earn points based on how well you accelerate, cruise, and decelerate. Like any game, the better you perform, the more points you earn, from 0 to 100. Is this going to make people more fuel-efficient drivers? Maybe some and maybe for a while. In my opinion, not many and not for long. By default, almost everything you do is animated in some fashion. When you switch from outside air to recirculation, the dash animates the process and informs you how this impacts your Eco Score. Change the flow control of the A/C and you get to see how this impacts your Eco Score. Buy gas and you are prompted to enter the price in order to keep track of your Eco Savings. Far too late did I find the configuration screens where those can be turned off. Sadly, while you can turn off the prompting for the price of gas, you cannot remove the Eco Savings screen from the carousel of screens. So even if you are not interested in ever tracking the price of gasoline, you are forced to forever scroll past a screen showing a bunch of zeros. The owner of the car should be able to select which screens to have available and in which order. Hypermilability Toyota has completely downplayed the Prius as high mileage vehicle. No longer is Prius the glowing star for hybrid vehicles raised on high for its amazing MPG. Prius has become a really kick-nice person vehicle that also happens to get the best MPG of any non-EV. The difference might seem subtle, but think about it. Once it became clear that the Prius was crushing the mileage and posting numbers practically unachievable in a Gen2, the goal of high mileage seemed relatively passé. Seriously, I stopped trying and just enjoyed the drive; the mileage came all on its own even with very little effort on my part. For most of my years driving a Gen2, I tracked the mileage and average temperature for every single tank. This helped show the kinds of MPG achievable by the Prius and also cemented the direct impact of temperature on the car’s mileage. On average, when the outside temperature was between 32 – 40˚F my Gen2 averages around 52MPG. My daily commute, one-way, is 24 miles and typically takes around 50 minutes due to stoplights, stop signs, and no high-speed highway. In order to provide a real-world test, the Gen4 Automatic A/C was on the whole time and set to 68˚F. Most of the time, I drove just to get from point A to B with little-if-any effort to hypermile. Most nights, the Gen4 was parked outside where it always dropped below freezing. In the Gen4, my worst day was at 37˚ when I averaged only 58.9MPG. That evening, the commute was highlighted with a winter storm of mixed snow and rain. Traffic was as thick as the snow. For many reasons, this was the worst drive of the bunch. The best drive was an evening when the temperature got up to 40˚ and the roads were dry. On that drive, it averaged 73.7MPG. That is not a typo. There were periods where the mileage was above 80 but the need for the gasoline engine knocked it back down. And mind you, this was at 40˚! Shudder to think what an 85˚ day would deliver with a warm battery and no A/C. At the end of two weeks, I had driven the car for 17 total hours at an average 26 MPH, 52% of the time was in EV mode. The final mileage for my time was 62.3MPG. With my Gen2, the highest recorded mileage topped 70MPG at 70˚. Could you extrapolate that since the Gen2 ranges from 52 – 70MPG, the Gen 4 will range from 70 – 90? I seriously doubt it but wouldn’t bet against it. Drivers will be posting images of 80+MPG tanks this summer. That’s for sure. Conclusion To think the Gen4 the same old Prius is not only short-sighted, it’s flat-out wrong. Don’t misunderstand, existing Prius owners will feel right at home because it’s easy to see familiar Prius attributes. It’s just that perspective first-time Prius buyers will find serious appeal in ways they never expected from a Prius. This car is sleek, angled, and aerodynamic. Exciting to some, over-the-top to others. Whether you like the new look or not, it slips through the air and provide a smooth, quiet ride. Staunch Prius owners have complained that, inside and out, the new Prius moves away from fundamental Prius values by featuring form over function. This is not the case; in the Gen4, form is merely catching up to function. All the function – plus a whole lot more – is still there. Existing owners interested in finding ways the Gen4 is not like their Gen2 or Gen3 will have no shortage of inspiration. There is less storage than the Gen2; there is no flying buttress like the Gen3. If the boxy Prius exterior is what you’re into, you’re not going to like the curves. Every time a new model of an existing product is brought to market, existing owners are in an uproar. If they honestly give it an opportunity, they’ll like it. No doubt. In 2004, the Gen2 turned heads because it was unlike anything else on the road at the time. In 2010, the Gen3 was simply an evolution and garnered little interest from the non-Prius crowd. In 2016, the Gen4 is the Prius revolution that will turn heads again.