“How can you drive that?” the tall high-school student asked.

I was about to launch into the highlights of operating the 2016 Prius — then it hit me. The 18-year-old wasn’t asking for an in-service on hybrids.

Nope, the kid’s tone was the same one my elegant wife uses whenever I pull out one my well-aged T-shirts. She doesn’t get that sometimes I feel the need to wear my nostalgia and salute things long past, like the last race at Lions drag strip or the year my former paper, the Los Angeles Times, hit a million in circulation.

It’s a pretty safe bet that the Prius, now in its fourth-generation, has better staying power. But markedly better performance, refinement and fuel stinginess don’t mean much to 18-year-olds whose idea of a high-tech alternative fuel vehicle may be a lifted pickup with a big diesel and a performance chip.

The Prius’s biggest (only?) drawback is its looks, which the jury appears to think is quirky, to put it gently. It may cheat the wind with an outstanding 0.24 coefficient of drag, but that’s not slick enough to win over style-conscious teens ¬- or any buyer in the you-are-what-you-drive camp.

Evolutionary rather than revolutionary, this newest Prius still packs cutting-edge technology. Its bones are Toyota’s modular New Global Architecture, which will be used to spit out anything from a small sports car to an SUV using five basic layouts.

Though it retains the 106.3-inch wheelbase of the previous generation, the 2016 Prius is 2.4 inches longer, 0.6 inches wider and 0.8 inches lower. The seats, gas engine and electric motor also sit lower. That, combined with its new double-wishbone independent rear suspension, make the 2016 Prius tossable in a way the previous generation never was. (If not for the sharp gauges, you might not even realize you’re piloting a hybrid.)

Of course, fuel economy is a hybrid’s mission so the cars run on a low-rolling-resistance tire. The usual wheel is a 15×6.5 alloy with a 195/65R15 tire like the Dunlop Enasave 01 A/S. The Touring grades get their own suspension calibrations and run five-spoke 17-inch alloys and 215/45R17 rubber.
There’s a lot going on under the hood. An automatic grille shutter aids aerodynamics by closing when airflow to the radiator is not needed. On cold starts, it stays closed to help the 1.8-liter gasoline engine reach operating temperature sooner. Tweaks like these improve the engine’s thermal efficiency by at least 40 percent and that translates to reduced friction and better combustion efficiency, Toyota asserts.

The water pump is smaller, lighter and, like the exhaust and intake systems, quieter. The signature whine of Toyota’s hybrid synergy system is much quieter and less likely to startle first-time passengers who may be fooled into thinking it’s an approaching siren.

LED low and high beam headlights with LED accents, daytime running lights, taillights and stoplights boost the Prius’s cool factor. On the more practical side, one-touch up/down power windows, heated power mirrors that fold, color-keyed shark-fin antenna and outside door handles are also standard.

Six grades to choose from

There are six Prius grades, all with a continuously variable transmission and virtually identical hybrid power trains.

The Prius Two starts at $24,200. It is the only 2016 Prius to use a nickel-metal hydride traction battery. The rest of the lineup uses a more energy-dense lithium-ion hybrid battery pack. Toyota’s standard Entune audio system for the Two and Two Eco consists of a 6.1-inch touchscreen that integrates the backup camera, AM/FM CD player and six speakers. There’s also an auxiliary audio jack, USB 2.0 port, voice recognition, hands-free phone and music streaming via Bluetooth.

Hankering for a smart key and pushbutton start with remote illuminated entry? The Prius Two Eco ($24,700) is your ticket. It’s also the mileage champ at 58 city and 53 highway. That fuel efficiency comes at a sacrifice, though. The compact spare tire is ditched in favor of a tire inflation kit to help reach its 3,010-lb. curb weight. The other grades run 10 to 70 pounds heavier.

The Prius Three ($26,250) adds softer material on the steering wheel, upper door trim and armrests, while the steering wheel, shifter and center console get white accenting and Qi-compatible wireless charging. Grades Three and higher get you the Entune Premium audio with 7-inch screen, HD Radio, HD traffic and weather reports, cache for AM/FM, a three-month trial of SiriusXM and Toyota’s Entune app suite.

The Three Touring goes for $28,100 and includes fog lights, LED clearance lights, front seats with blue-contrast stitching, six-way power driver’s seat and a four-way front passenger seat.

The Prius Four, which adds eight-way power adjustable driver’s seat and automatic dimming rearview mirror with HomeLink, starts at $28,650. The range-topping Prius Four Touring stickers at $30,000 and includes the Toyota Safety Sense, which bundles pre-collision and pedestrian detection, lane departure alert and assist, automatic high beams and adaptive cruise control. The Prius is one of the first Toyotas in the U.S. to offer the suite, which is standard on Touring models. Meanwhile, the 2016 Prius has earned the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Top Safety Pick Plus distinction in crash tests.

Although Toyota’s MSRPs don’t include delivery or handling, the Prius’s factory-scheduled maintenance is performed free for two years or 25,000 miles. Also complimentary are the hybrid’s three years of 24-hour roadside assistance.

If you don’t mind hand-adjusted seats, paying attention to the traffic ahead and taking responsibility for staying within your lane, the Prius Two Eco with no extras represents solid value considering its sub-$25,000 buy-in, standard equipment and historical resale value. It’s also useful, with 27.4 cu.-ft. for cargo.

We’d happily drive the Two Eco like we stole it, enjoying the new performance and handling the Prius had been lacking. We wouldn’t care that we’re “only” knocking down 45 real world mpg. And as long as every mile per gallon isn’t precious, replacing the low-rolling resistance tires with a high-quality touring tire would probably take the handling up another notch and reduce tire noise – which is more noticeable now that the Prius’s attractive cabin is a whole lot more serene.

Snapshot: http://www.toyota.com/prius/

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