CNET logo Why You Can Trust CNET

Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement

2016 Toyota Prius liftback review: The new Prius is the most fuel efficient car without a plug

You may not love the Prius' new look — we certainly don't — but there's no arguing with the hybrid's improvements in comfort, tech and, most importantly, efficiency.

Antuan Goodwin Reviews Editor / Cars
Antuan Goodwin gained his automotive knowledge the old fashioned way, by turning wrenches in a driveway and picking up speeding tickets. From drivetrain tech and electrification to car audio installs and cabin tech, if it's on wheels, Antuan is knowledgeable.
Expertise Reviewing cars and car technology since 2008 focusing on electrification, driver assistance and infotainment Credentials
  • North American Car, Truck and SUV of the Year (NACTOY) Awards Juror
Antuan Goodwin
10 min read

"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.

2016 Toyota Prius four

2016 Toyota Prius liftback

The Good

The Toyota Prius exceeded its already impressive EPA estimates for fuel economy, delivering 59 mpg combined over 500-plus miles of testing. The new rear suspension boost comfort and driveability. The available suite of driver aid technologies includes automatic parallel parking and a well sorted adaptive cruise control system.

The Bad

Toyota's Entune system dumps nearly every function under the "apps" bucket and could use a rethink and redesign. We couldn't get the automatic perpendicular parking to work consistently. The exterior design is... polarizing.

The Bottom Line

The 2016 Toyota Prius is the most fuel efficient car without a plug, but it's also surprisingly easy to live with thanks to its spacious comfortable cabin and an assortment of smart tech amenities.

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.

2016 Toyota Prius four
Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

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.

2016 Toyota Prius exceeds our efficiency expectations (pictures)

See all photos

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.

2016 Toyota Prius four
Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

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.

2016 Toyota Prius four
Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

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.

Unfortunately, neither Apple nor Google can bail you out if you decide you don't like Toyota's interface. The automaker has decided not to support Android Auto or Apple CarPlay for this generation of its Entune infotainment stack.

In its favor, Toyota's navigation software proved to a solid performer. The graphics have been updated since I've last seen the Prius and the animations smoothed out. Routes chosen were logical and turn-by-turn instructions were clear and easy to follow. Most importantly, the voice command software was on point with very accurate speech recognition and the ability to enter a complete address all in one go. Additionally, our example was equipped with Toyota's step-up JBL audio system, which sounded very good in the Prius' quiet cabin.

2016 Toyota Prius four
Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

However, I found that the best, most interesting and useful, tech in the Prius' cabin doesn't reside in the central screen, it's at the top of the dashboard in the Prius' full-color instrument cluster. All generations of Prius have forgone the traditional circular gauges behind the steering wheel instrument cluster in favor of a horizontal, digital bank of displays at the center of the dashboard, near the base of the windshield. Here is where you'll find the digital speedometer and trip computer information and so much more.

The eyebrow display is reconfigurable via controls on the Prius' steering wheel and can be setup to show information about the workings of the hybrid powertrain or display a drive monitor helps to train the driver to keep a light right foot and drive efficiently. With the flick of a thumb, I could access turn-by-turn navigation information, my current audio source and fuel economy. It doesn't just stop at mpgs; the Prius can be configured to show historical fuel efficiency for the past few mile or the past few weeks or, if you input a reference fuel economy and the current fuel prices, to calculate how much fuel and money the Prius is saving you in real time. I chose to punch in the 2016 Camry's 28 mpg combined and the current average of $2.85/gallon fuel cost for San Francisco and could watch the Prius literally pay for itself.

The eyebrow displays are also where the driver can interact with and adjust the Prius' various advanced driver aid features, which we'll get back to momentarily.

It's weird, but I found that I liked the eyebrow displays because they allowed me to monitor and interact with a wide range of functions without ever removing a hand from the steering wheel. They also put that information high in my line of sight, which helped me to keep my eyes on the road. The Prius is also available with an optional head-up display, which does and even better job of putting information, including the speedometer, navigation info and the eco-driving monitor, in the driver's line of sight. However, it's not the best HUD that I've tested and I needed to constantly fiddle with the settings to keep it lined up with my field of view as I shifted in the Prius' seat.

Driver aid and auto-parking

The Prius is available with what feels like a mixed bag of Toyota's driver aid technologies. On paper, it checks all of the right boxes, but some of its more advanced features feel a bit half-baked.

Highlights include forward collision mitigation braking with pedestrian detection and adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go traffic function. There's blind spot monitoring, which comes in handy despite the Prius' excellent visibility.

2016 Toyota Prius four
Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Lane departure alert and keeping assistance felt more like annoyances than aids. The former seemed to beep if I was even slightly off-center in my lane; the latter didn't really seem to add any sort of steering assistance even as I crossed over the markers. Fortunately, I was able to quickly tweak the sensitivity of the alert via the eyebrow display.

One of the coolest features available to the Prius owner is semi-autonomous parallel parking and perpendicular parking. Parallel parking is easy; just press the park assist button, roll forward until the sensors detect a space that the Prius can fit into, place the car in reverse and ease off of the brakes while the computers do the steering. I'm a very good parallel parker, but even I can appreciate the convenience and speed of letting the Prius size up tight spaces and park itself.

Perpendicular parking was more troublesome, mostly because I couldn't figure out how to consistently switch into this mode from the default parallel. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. Most of the time, I found that it simply took less time to just park it myself.

Value, pricing, competition

The 2016 Toyota Prius starts at around $24,200 for a base level Prius Two trim level which, as I stated earlier, carries over the older NiMH battery pack, but is still good for the EPA's 52 mpg combined estimate. It's more spacious, more comfortable and more efficient than ever before and, if you're after budget mpg, that's not a bad place to start. However, you can do better.

For just a few bucks more, the Prius Two Eco steps up to the new Li-ion battery pack and, with its lack of features, the lowest curb weight of all the trim levels. The Eco is also the most efficient of the Prii, with its own rating of 58 city, 53 highway and 56 combined mpg. If you're after the best possible fuel economy and don't mind doing without many of the nicer amenities and features, this is probably the best place to start at $24,700, just $500 more than the base.

2016 Toyota Prius four
Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

The price grows as you move up through the Prius Three, Three Touring and Four trim levels before arriving at our fully-loaded 2016 Prius Four Touring example. A flat $30,000 is the MSRP before adding $835 for destination charges, $395 for Hypersonic Red paint ("$400 for red paint?!," my significant other simply could not believe) and a $1,705 Premium Convenience Package that adds the Entune navigation and apps, JBL GreenEdge premium audio, semi-autonomous parking and pretty much every other available feature that isn't already standard at this tip time level. As tested, we're talking $32,935, which is still a remarkably reasonable price for the most fuel efficient production car without a plug.

If you can get past the looks, the 2016 Toyota Prius is the best at what it does. For those who can't (or can't be bothered to) plug-in, there's not much today that can go toe-to-toe with the Toyota Prius where fuel efficiency is concerned. Plus, you can't see the wonky fascia or rear end from the driver's seat.

However, expand the eco car worldview to include PHEVs and BEVs and things get more complicated, especially with Chevrolet's Volt offering more EV mileage than even the upcoming Prius Prime and the Chevrolet Volt and Tesla Model 3 aiming to bring 200-plus-mile electrics to the masses for a similar price.

2016 Toyota Prius four

2016 Toyota Prius liftback

Score Breakdown

Performance 10Features 8Design 7Media 7