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The reborn Toyota Prius may be the world’s most popular hybrid, but it faces stiffening competition from Hyundai, Volkswagen and Audi

As the world’s first mass-produced petrol-electric hybrid, the Toyota Prius’s place in history has always been assured. But few would have predicted the cultural and political impact the Toyota has made on the world – particularly in the US.

Having owners as varied as Hollywood liberals and former CIA chiefs, the Prius has become much less a product and more a statement spun to endorse everything from environmental awareness to a reduction in foreign oil dependency. Any car pointedly driven by characters in both South Park and Family Guy has achieved notoriety well in excess of the usual gauge.

The Toyota Prius has been forging an environmentally-friendly path ever since 1997

Yet a car it remains – and one with more competitors than ever.

Since 1997, when the first generation Toyota Prius was launched in Japan, the hybrid and alternative-fuel market has snowballed – aided greatly by the momentum of innovation.

Some of this progress, not least the efficiency enhancements enacted on the humble internal combustion engine in the past decade, has helped date Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive.

So the fourth-generation Toyota Prius’s arrival seems well timed. Right out of the box, Toyota can be bullish about the headline figures: 70g/km of CO2 and 94.1mpg represent a significant improvement – sizable enough to launch the latest Prius beyond any of its family-sized rivals not blessed with an electrified powertrain. Include the addition of plugging in a Toyota Prius PHEV into a charger and the proposition looks even more enticing with a combined cycle of 283mpg and an CO2 output figured at 22g/km. Those gains are the result of extensive revision and refinement of the existing technology.

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In contrast, the car around the hybrid system is genuinely all new and based now on the Toyota New Global Architecture.

The manufacturer has also been bullish about the reconfiguration of the Prius’s hitherto anodyne dynamic performance. Certainly, Toyota knows the Prius must be more now than a virtuous principle on wheels – but has it done enough still to stand out from a larger crowd?

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Toyota Prius rear end

Toyota says the broader appeal of this new Prius is based on three main aspects: design and styling, the new global platform (TNGA) and the next generation of its familiar hybrid system. We’ll take each in turn.

The car’s appearance is said to benefit from an unusually young design team, and a concerted effort to “inject ego” into what remains a largely familiar silhouette. The effect may bring to mind the Toyota Mirai for those acquainted with Toyota’s much trumpeted fuel cell vehicle.

Can’t figure out if the Prius is meant to be high design, high art or both, but either way it is not exactly handsome

Either way, the slanted waistline and jagged front end make it more striking than its predecessor – but no easier on the eye.

It is the platform that delivers arguably the most telling change: not only has the Prius’s overall height descended by around 20mm, but the driver’s hip point has also sunk by a full 59mm, making the car seem lower-slung in every sense.

It is longer and slightly wider, too, although it’s the resulting drop in the centre of gravity that Toyota identifies as a boon to the model’s handling – that and a 60 percent gain in torsional rigidity provided by a more extensive use of high-strength steel and additional body reinforcement.

The chassis has been altered, too. At the front, the MacPherson struts have been revised, while at the rear, the Prius gets a new configuration of double wishbones with trailing arms.

However, the bulk of Toyota’s ingenuity remains focused on the hybrid powertrain, where the engineers have sought a more intuitive driving experience alongside the obligatory gains in efficiency.

The changes are evolutionary but extensive nonetheless. The 120bhp 1.8-litre VVTi petrol engine, still operating on the Atkinson cycle, has been overhauled, delivering, Toyota claims, the best thermal efficiency of any mass-produced engine anywhere in the world thanks to a new exhaust gas recirculation system and incremental improvements made on combustion, heat management and friction reduction.

The Prius’s transaxle, which houses the electric motors and transmission, has again been remodelled. A smaller, lighter generation of motor/generators has helped the engineers reduce its length by 59mm, meaning that the auxiliary battery can now be housed in the engine compartment.

The car’s higher-density nickel metal hydride battery is more compact, too, and is now located entirely under the back seats.

Along with a redesigned power control unit and updated software, the Prius is now able to draw more on the electric motor’s 71bhp and 120lb ft of torque when its petrol engine is at low revs, and the range of speed where it may be used exclusively has increased by 60 percent. 

INTERIOR

Toyota Prius interior

Spacious, solidly built and well equipped, the Prius’s cabin does the car plenty of credit. For the first-time driver getting acquainted, it was always one of the first clues that you were about to drive something much more relaxing and advanced than an ordinary economy car.

And in the new-generation version, that sense of cocooning simplicity, calmness and technological sophistication has increased by quite a large increment.

Typical of Toyota to rate the strength of its curry hooks in the boot, should we all be applying the same rigour to our takeaway buying?

Those upgrading from the previous Toyota Prius will immediately notice how much lower they’re sitting in the wide and comfortable driver’s seat, and how much smaller is the wheel rim in front of them.

They’ll be familiar with the car’s unconventional instrumentation: nothing directly ahead but a small head-up display, with a digital speedo and a much improved multi-function trip computer housed in a wide binnacle spanning the centre of the dashboard.

Instead of a rev counter, one of the trip computer screens provides a power usage meter, which may seem like a gimmick but is actually useful enough to help you gauge how much electric oomph is available at urban speeds – and thereby boost your economy return.

So the layout and interface logic are broadly unchanged. Fascia volumes have decreased, though, and, together with a lower scuttle, contribute to a pleasantly airy and spacious ambience in the front of the car.

Toyota doesn’t skimp on its equipment in this department, with buyers given the choice of four trims to choose from - Active, Business Edition, Business Edition Plus and Excel. Entry-level models get 15in alloy wheels, LED headlights, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, road sign recognition and heated and folding door mirrors as standard on the outside, while inside there is Toyota's Touch 2 infotainment system with a reversing camera and a 7.0in touchscreen display. 

Upgrade to the fleet-friendly Business Edition trim and the Prius gains heated front seats, a wireless phone charging cradle, a head-up display and blind spot monitoring to an already generous package, while opting for the Edition Plus adds 17in alloy wheels, parking sensors and a self-parking assistance.

Topping the standard Prius trim levels is Excel which adorns the hybrid with luxuries such as automatic wipers, a JBL premium sound system, sat nav, wi-fi connectivity, and front foglights.

Plug-in hybrid variants are only available in Business Edition Plus, which includes sat nav, climate control, keyless entry and ignition among Toyota's Safety Sense technology, and Excel, which get a leather upholstery, a JBL sound system, intelligent park assist and parking sensors included with the ability to plug your Prius in to charge.

Toyota's Touch2 system can be upgraded to include navigation and some online connectivity features, as on our test car’s trim level, and upgraded again at an additional cost of £950 to Toyota’s ‘Touch 2 with Go Plus’ system, which will read out your text messages and includes a wireless hotspot.

Oddly, though, the top-of-the-range system uses the same screen size and display resolution as the entry-level one — and it’s not a great advert for either. Navigation mapping can be crowded and low on detail, and the system doesn’t respond to pinch or swipe finger movements when you want to zoom or change modes.

A wireless phone charger is standard on all but entry-level cars, working via the Qi system. If your handset isn’t compatible, you can probably get an expansion battery case for it that’ll solve the problem.

Some pudgy tactile mouldings and glossy decorative elements add a quietly classy note in places.

In the rear, leg room is generous, although head room is still limited for larger adults as a consequence of the aerodynamic descending roofline above you and the battery and fuel tank packaged below. But assuming that your head isn’t bothered by the roofline, you’ll feel well provided for in the back, with a 12V power outlet available between the front seats, good-sized bottle holders in the doors and equally sizable cupholders in the armrest.

The boot is a good size. Having swollen to 343 litres below the window line, it offers space nearly on a par with its conventional hatchback rivals – in theory. In practice, it’s both wide and long and swallows bulky items particularly easily, although it’s shallower than you might expect.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Toyota Prius hybrid engine

Toyota’s tacit sales message seems to be that the Prius has now developed to the point where you can consider it a normal, mainstream family hatchback in most respects – albeit one capable of 94mpg, which is a claim we’ll verify shortly. On outright pace at least, you can believe it.

Our test car proved only 0.2sec slower to 60mph than a Ford Focus 1.5 TDCi – one of the biggest-selling five-door hatchbacks in Europe – and a bit quicker than the Ford in almost every other way that we measure: from standing to 70mph and onwards to 100mph, over a standing quarter-mile, over a standing kilometre, and when accelerating from 30mph to 70mph.

No similarly sized hatch would match the Prius for stop start efficiency

It still isn’t remotely exciting or involving to spirit along in a hurry, though. Instead, it seems a disinterested and relatively unwilling conspirator.

You need to plunge the accelerator pedal almost all the way to the floor to get any really urgent reply from the powertrain, although when it comes, it comes more quickly than it used to. By and large, and keenly or otherwise, the Prius gives you what you imagine it will at full power. And broadly, it gives enough: for overtaking, slip-road accelerating and getting smartly away from junctions and into gaps.

The real advancement that Toyota has made is to the usability and assured feel of the Prius’s hybrid powertrain, which now responds with greater proportionality to smaller requests.

So when you dip into the accelerator by just an inch or so to pick up speed, the car comes back with detectable forward impetus.

It needn’t now necessarily rev its petrol engine up to a bothersome speed and doesn’t suffer so much of what Toyota itself recognises and quite accurately describes as the ‘elastic band effect’ of the previous car. The electric motor alone will now do enough to take care of most give-and-take requirements in town and it’s even powerful enough to allow the petrol engine to shut down frequently, and for reasonable stretches, on 50mph country roads.

The relaxed efficiency with which the car deals with heavy traffic, meanwhile, is its true trump card. Radar-based adaptive cruise control, a standard fitment, takes care of slowing and speeding up automatically in motorway jams, and scavenging energy that would otherwise be wasted. So there you sit, in a bubble of quiet calm, watching your economy return actually improve – while all others around you seethe and stress. 

RIDE & HANDLING

Toyota Prius cornering

It would have been a mistake for Toyota to depart too far from the gentle-if-slightly-clunky-riding, soft-handling dynamic template loved by airport taxi drivers, Nobel laureate physicists, religious leaders and Hollywood film stars everywhere; likewise, stiffening the  chassis too much.

And so, doubtless not by chance, refinement of the Prius’s established handling character, rather than a total reinvention, is what Toyota has landed on.

You can charge quite hard into tighter bends, although poor brake pedal feel makes it tricky to be tidy

Despite the fundamental redesign that has gone on under the skin, the car feels familiar on the road: better-handling, and a lot more wieldy and easy to drive than it used to be.

It’s firmer-riding over bad surfaces, too, but still ultimately laid-back and unimposing. The car’s driving experience, while much more precise and responsive than its old standard, remains significantly more isolating and detached than the European hatchback norm.

And although that means it’s never likely to appeal much to keener drivers, it should allow Toyota to claim some success in moving the car’s motive character out of left field without greatly changing it.

The biggest change is to the way the car steers. Gone is the vague, slow-witted steering of the previous Prius, replaced here by a system of predictable and pleasing directness, and coherent weight that builds with lateral load. Although largely bereft of feel, it communicates about as well as can be expected of a modern electromechanical set-up working through economy-minded 195-section 65-profile tyres.

The suspension springing is both firmer and shorter of travel than it used to be and that provides the bedrock on which the car’s new-found sense of understated agility is built.

The Prius has a predictable and obedient front end, good body control and good cornering balance at road speeds. At low speed, that quickened steering rack combines with a tight turning circle to make the Prius at home in tight car parks and during three-point turns.

Although there is still plenty of long-wave compliance in it, the ride is now medium-firm, a bit hollow and under-damped over little lumps and bumps and more reactive over bigger ones than the old car’s was. But ‘firmer than before’ still leaves the Prius in a pretty civilised and well-mannered place relative to the hatchback class in general.

An encouraging dynamic showing extends as far as giving the new Toyota Prius a firm grip on the road and decent body control when you extend it to extremes. On track, there is more body roll to report through corners than you get on the road, although not too much of it and not enough to corrupt your line.

The car turns in crisply and goes where it’s pointed, with decent balance and surprisingly little in the way of understeer, even when driven hard.

Challenging lumps and bumps confirm the suspicion that the car could be better damped, because the body tends to fidget and pitch several times in response to one good-sized vertical disturbance.

The powertrain and braking systems let the side down a little. The powertrain runs short of torque as the battery becomes hot and depleted, and the brakes have little progressive feel to help you stop the car smoothly. But at least the chassis now deserves better.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Fourth-generation Toyota Prius

Here’s the number that many will consider central to the Prius’s success or failure: 62.5mpg. That’s the result our True MPG testers obtained from the car, on 15in wheels and so best configured for low rolling resistance.

It’s a long way short of the 94.1mpg official claim but compares favourably to results for the current Volkswagen Golf Bluemotion diesel (56.8mpg) and Skoda Octavia Greenline III (61.9mpg).

The Toyota Prius has some fine-looking residuals which will soften the blow of the high ticket price

A handful of similarly sized hatchbacks have done better, among them Honda’s Honda Civic 1.6 i-DTEC, but none would match the Prius for stop-start efficiency in traffic. Over a busy mixed route on a few occasions, the car indicated better than 70mpg during our tests.

Toyota expects to charge you a premium, of course, putting the Prius on a level with German premium-brand five-doors on showroom price. But it also bundles a lot of equipment in as standard – LED headlights, active cruise control, colour touchscreen infotainment with DAB radio and plenty of active safety equipment even on entry-level cars.

Our advice with speccing up a new Prius, is to opt for the Business Edition trim, which adorns the hybrid with heated seats, parking sensors, head-up display, keyless entry and a wireless phone charger. We would also go for the 15in alloys and a spacesaver spare, while avoiding the expensive satellite navigation option.

It can also fall back on outstanding residual value forecasts for the car. Our friends at CAP predict that the car will outperform even a similarly priced Audi A3 Sportback 1.6 TDI by almost 10 percent over three years. 

 

VERDICT

4 star fourth-generation Toyota Prius

The new Prius handles and performs as well as a great many European hatchbacks generally considered to be more mainstream, and that’s a major achievement for Toyota.

For as well as returning a real 62mpg so matter of factly, this car now does an uncanny impression of ‘normal’. To drive, it’s complete and competitive; to own, it’s little short of exceptional.

Outstanding efficiency and fewer compromises. A laudable effort

It’s still a very singular car, though: something of an anti-hero for interested drivers, for its total disdain for our engagement.

Entering its third decade, the Toyota Prius still refuses to acknowledge our childish daydreams of idyllic roads and perfect cars in which to tackle them, addressing instead jammed, pollution-choked reality – and doing so very effectively.

However rounded, refined and clever it has become, the Prius still makes you feel unworthy of it for wanting a car that appeals to heart as well as mind – and we regret that. Although compelling, it still could never be for us.

As a result, the Prius creeps into our top five ahead of the Nissan Leaf, but trailing its German competition in the shape of the Audi A3 e-tron, the Volkswagen Golf Bluemotion TDI and our favourite and class leader the range extended BMW i3.

 

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Toyota Prius (2015-2022) First drives