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Toyota focuses on handling, style with new Prius

Toyota gives the new generation Prius a new platform, improving handling and a new look.

A pair of green flags marks the entrance to a cone course, and I'm all set to tackle the quick turns and mini-slalom. However, I'm in a Prius, not exactly the first, second or third choice for autocross participants.

As part of its preview drive program for journalists, Toyota invited me down to Orange County to experience the all new 2016 Prius, including this autocross as part of the program. That speaks of high confidence or unfounded ambition.

I slam the accelerator for the first straight, and the Prius gives its all to the effort, which amounts to 121 horsepower. Not exactly a neck-snapping start even in its Power mode. At the first turn I grab the brakes then aim for the apex. To my amusement, the body doesn't pull sickeningly to the side nor do I crash through the cones.

Style and handling

The 2016 Prius, while far from sporty, delivers the handling of a modern mid-size car, a substantial improvement over its predecessor.

And that was one of Toyota's primary goals in redesigning the Prius for this, its fourth generation. During a presentation on the new Prius, Toyota General Manager Bill Fay pointed out that new Prius customers want more than just fuel efficiency, but are also looking for good driving dynamics and style.

To achieve the former, Toyota built the 2016 Prius on its Toyota New Global Architecture, a new platform which will also likely see use as the underpinning for other models. That new platform uses a fully-independent rear wishbone suspension instead of the Prius' previous torsion bar. The wishbone suspension let Toyota engineers better tune the car for handling.

2016 Toyota Prius

A new platform lowers the Prius' center of gravity and fits it with a fully independent rear suspension, creating much better handling dynamics.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

That new suspension certainly made a difference on the cone course, letting me make quick corrections and maintaining better control. The Prius tires still shrieked under hard cornering, and I had to apply plenty of steering input to control understeer, but it handled similar to many other cars, mid-size sedans and compacts meant for the everyday commute, I've driven.

As for styling, the hood bulges up a little then dips down for the cabin, and strong, geometric contour lines indent the sides. The liftback retains its spoiler, splitting the rear glass. The back end looks little busy, and someone on the Toyota design team must be a fan of the '50s, as the rear fenders actually end in fins, noticeable with the liftback raised.

50-plus mpg

Toyota improved the fuel economy some, hitting an average of 52 mpg for the standard Prius, and 54 mpg with a new Eco trim. The Prius' hybrid drivetrain, where all the magic happens, continues on with a 1.8-liter four cylinder engine, no great changes there. Most Prius models will come with a lithium-ion battery pack, although Toyota will retain its nickel-metal hydride pack in a base model. Toyota slimmed down the Prius' power control module and revised the hybrid transmission, allowing for better packaging.

Like previous generations, this Prius effortlessly mixes gasoline and electric drive power, scavenging kinetic energy from braking to produce electricity and reusing that for propulsion. It works just as well as ever, and the new Prius' improved fuel economy comes largely due to aerodynamic and hybrid system efficiencies, without any radical changes.

2016 Toyota Prius

Toyota made changes to its hybrid drivetrain, eliminating the orange high-voltage cables from the engine bay.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The combined output of engine and electric motor to the front wheels only comes to 121 horsepower, down from the previous generation's 134. Toyota chalks that up to a revised testing methodology and, to be honest, I felt the power was more than adequate for daily traffic and suburban shopping.

Putting it all to the test, I took the Prius up a canyon highway, climbing upwards with many broad turns. The car pulled fine, keeping up with traffic and letting me hound slower cars in ahead. Improved handling helped keep it comfortable in the turns.

The quiet nature of the drivetrain, however, served to amplify the wind noise. Over a long trip I could see the constant rush of air around the side mirrors and over the body becoming annoying, but cranking up the stereo drowned it out sufficiently.

Entune apps

Toyota fits the Prius with its latest navigation and cabin electronics, a solid system gaining connectivity through it Entune app integration. I found familiar menus for destination input and music selection on the car's 7-inch touchscreen, and the USB port was conveniently situated on the console. No Apple CarPlay or Android Auto support here, but Toyota does integrate a Qi wireless charging pad on the console as a nice convenience if your phone supports it.

2016 Toyota Prius

Toyota upgraded the instrument panel in the upper dashboard with color screens.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The Prius' unique instrument panel, up in the top of the dashboard, benefits from dual color LCDs, replacing the monochrome screens from the previous generation. I like how Toyota uses the flexibility of this display to show route guidance, drivetrain information and an adaptive cruise control representation.

Adaptive cruise control and other driver assistance features fall under an umbrella program called Toyota Safety Sense. For a dramatic demonstration, Toyota set up two situations, potential collisions with a fake car and pedestrian. My Toyota co-driver told me to get the at a steady speed between 15 and 17 mph, then lift off the accelerator as the car approached each situation.

The Prius automatically applied the brakes, coming to a full stop before hitting a representation of the back of a car, and a mannequin representing a pedestrian that was pulled across my lane. In each of those situations, the car prevented a collision. At greater speeds the car would still hit the brakes if there is no driver intervention, but not soon enough to keep from hitting car or pedestrian.

2016 Toyota Prius

In this test of the collision prevention system, the pedestrian-mannequin was suddenly pulled in front of the car.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

This new collision prevention system relies on both forward-looking radar and a camera, both of which detect and discern objects in the car's path.

Performing a controlled test of the car's adaptive cruise control, I found it necessary to intervene more than I would with other cars, such as the Ford Fusion or Mercedes-Benz S-class . Similar to those cars, the Prius came to a full stop when traffic ahead stopped, but required me to hit a resume button. A Toyota engineer described these assistance systems as targeted more toward driver support than full autonomy.

Conservative change

With the 2016 Prius, Toyota remains conservative in its innovation. Where it might have researched and deployed even greater efficiencies in the drivetrain, it really didn't need to. At well over 50 mpg, nothing currently touches the Prius for fuel economy without a plug.

The new Prius serves as something of a showcase for Toyota's new suite of driver assistance technologies, and the pre-collision braking will likely prevent more than a few crashes. Toyota's philosophy with these technologies, however, doesn't approach the near-autonomy of other automakers. The Prius' navigation and app technology merely carry over from other models.

The big win here is handling. While no sports car, the Prius feels substantially better behind the wheel than its predecessor. Styling, the other big change, will remain polarizing.

As before, Toyota numbers its Prius trim levels as Two, Three and Four. The base Two model comes in at $24,200, while the top model will go for $30,000. In the UK, the new generation Prius will start at £23,295. Pricing for Australia has not yet been announced.

2016 Toyota Prius

Toyota's improvements to the Prius should help it maintain its popularity as a top car for fuel economy.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Editor's note: CNET accepts multi-day vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, travel costs were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. The judgements and opinions of CNET's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.

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