"It's hideous! What was Toyota thinking?!" "Kill it with fire." "I wouldn't be caught dead driving something that looks like that." "It's not so ba--oh, wait, yes it is." This is a very brief selection of reactions I encountered during my week with the new 2016 Toyota Prius. I get it. The new Prius is ugly, but it's also better. Trust me.
Between the new squinty face and too busy rear end is a revised version of one of the most fuel efficient self-contained powertrains on the road, a more aerodynamic version of one of the slipperiest production car bodies to ever grace a wind tunnel and handling that's remarkably good... for a Prius. The new Prius is more spacious and more comfortable than ever and it's packing a loadout of premium tech and driver aid features.
Hybrid Synergy revised
Beneath the Prius' hood is a mostly familiar version of Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD) powertrain. The system pairs a 1.8-liter Atkinson cycle four-cylinder engine with a 53 kW electric motor. The gasoline engine supplies 95 horsepower and 105 pound-feet of torque and the electric motor adds 71 horsepower and 120 pound-feet of torque to the mix. Peak system power is stated at 121 horsepower, because hybrid math is never as simple as addition; total system torque is not stated.
Surplus and recaptured energy is stored in one of two possible battery packs. Every trim level above the base model is packing a new 0.75 kWh (3.6 ampere hour) lithium-ion battery pack that is physically more compact and about 35 pounds lighter than before. Less weight means more efficient acceleration and braking for the new Prius. The base "Prius Two" trim level makes use of the same 1.31 kWh (6.5 ampere hour) nickel metal-hydride battery pack as the previous generation.
Doing more with less
Fans and followers of the previous generation Prius' specs may notice the new model's stated output and battery capacity is lower than before. This new Prius is about doing more with less.
The new lithium ion battery pack, for example, has a smaller total capacity, but that's only half the story. Hybrid vehicles never use all of their total capacity because fully discharging or recharging a battery can reduce its effective lifespan and these batteries have to serve the driver for 10-plus years. So the old NiMH battery pack only used about 40-percent of its total capacity. The new Li-ion pack has a much larger 70-percent effective capacity. So the effective capacity of both battery packs is is the same 0.525-ish kWh, but the Li-ion pack has the additional efficiency advantage of being about 40-percent lighter -- more from less.
The HSD powertrain is down about 13 horsepower overall, but -- thanks to the new battery pack -- the vehicle has less weight to accelerate than before, which helps its city fuel efficiency. Further, the Prius is more aerodynamic, which boosts the highway efficiency. The body sits 20mm lower, active shutters in the grille reduce turbulence at speed and the hybrid's new look hides elements that help lower the coefficient of drag from an already impressive 0.25 CD to 0.24 CD -- you'd be hard pressed to find a more slippery production car for sale.
Additionally, the electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (eCVT) that links the gasoline and electric motors has undergone a redesign, replacing the second of its two planetary gearset with a simpler two-axis design. That's a lot of engineering babble, but the result is less friction in the transmission, which allows the Prius to make better use of its reduced power.
And now the answer to the question you've come here for: how much more efficient is this new Prius. The stated EPA estimated fuel economy for the 2016 Toyota Prius sits at 54 mpg city, 50 mpg highway and 52 mpg combined -- up 2 to 3 mpg across the board. As I learned during my hundreds of miles of testing, that's just the start...
Rear double wishbone suspension
The Prius has never been a car that's known for its exceptional driving dynamics and this fourth-generation model doesn't redefine that reputation. However, Toyota does make major strides in the right direction with a totally new rear suspension setup for the liftback. Out goes the old torsion beam rear axle; in its place the automaker has fitted the Prius with an independent, double wishbone suspension.
The new suspension doesn't transform the eco car into an eco carver, but it does help the Prius feel more planted over bumps, quieter on the highway and more stable during cornering, emergency lane changes and off-ramp acceleration. The new rear suspension also frees up a bit of space in the rear stowage area, which grows from 21.6 cubic feet to 27.4.
Yes, it's still a driving appliance. Driving one isn't engaging or exciting, but in its own way, that is freeing and relaxing when you're stuck in a traffic jam, but you look up and see that at least you're getting 50-plus mpg, you're comfortable and the cabin is quiet relaxing and spacious. The Prius is sort of an un-driver's car, which for enthusiasts can be a hard sell. Fortunately, the Prius isn't a car for enthusiasts and it doesn't really need your or my approval. Its numbers speak for themselves.
The Prius features a few driving modes that allow some flexibility from the hybrid powertrain. The normal mode is the baseline; power mode increases the sensitivity of the throttle, allowing the driver maximum acceleration; and the eco mode tweaks the performance of the powertrain for maximum fuel efficiency. The last setting is an EV mode that allows very limited electric-only driving, but the setting only works at very low speeds, with a very light throttle application and for a very limited range. Drivers interested in a more comprehensive EV experience should either wait for the upcoming Prius Prime or, just buy a Chevrolet Volt.
Under the influence of the eco mode, I was able to average 59 mpg over 562.1 miles driven, beating the EPA's estimates for the Prius by 7 mpg. I didn't hypermile. I didn't drive like a granny. I just set the Prius to eco and drove it like a regular, boring car and it delivered amazing fuel economy that I was so so excited about that I found myself sharing screenshots of the trip computer on Twitter.
Entune Apps and nav
In the center of the dashboard is a 7-inch color touchscreen that is home to Toyota's Entune suite of infotainment tech. I'm not the biggest fan of Entune for a few reasons.
My biggest problem is that Toyota's organization of features seems a bit, well, stupid. Nearly every feature is tucked under the Apps submenu, which means that gaining access to basic functions requires an extra key-press just to see the list. Meanwhile, the useless Home screen has a button all its own. Navigation isn't an "app," Toyota, and neither is hands-free calling.
When connected to a smartphone running Toyota's Entune host app, the Prius gains access to over a half dozen actual connected applications in its dashboard -- though, not all of them are useful. In the useful column, there are Bing, Facebook Places and Yelp search that help drivers to find businesses for navigation, while Slacker, iHeartRadio and Pandora provide streaming audio. In the useless gimmick column, MovieTickets.com and OpenTable access allow the driver to find and buy movie tickets and make dinner reservations from the dashboard while parked, features that I'd rather tackle on a smartphone before I get behind the wheel.