Meanwhile, there will soon be a new Prius. Not just another calendar year newer – but a new model, a total overhaul. It’s coming next calendar year (2015) as a 2016 model.
The question is, thus: To buy the “new” 2015… or wait for the new 2016?
There are good reasons to consider either option.
The ’16 will almost certainly deliver even better fuel efficiency than the ’15. It may – based on credible intel – feature lithium ion rather than nickel metal hydride (NiMh) batteries – which would let it travel farther (and faster) on battery power alone.
On the other hand, it is certain to cost more – being “all new.” And not just MSRP-wise. It’s known that it’s hard to haggle down the price of a current Prius, due to the car’s popularity. Which is perfectly understandable. Why sell for less what you know someone else will buy for more? Now imagine the effect a steady stream of eager buyers will have on your ability to haggle down the price of the “all new” 2016 Prius.
Even if it – the 2016 – delivers say 5 MPG better and can travel 20 MPH faster and for twice as long as the 2015, the former may still be the better deal than the latter.
There’s also the familiarity factor to consider. We know what the current car is like – and if you like it as is, you may want to snatch one up before the “all new” model arrives.
The Prius, of course, is the archetype hybrid – synonymous with the term. It was the first mass-market hybrid car – and has been the most successful hybrid car. While there are now many other hybrid vehicles on the market, the Prius is still the one most people think about when they think about hybrids – and (by the numbers) by far the one most people thinking about hybrids end up actually buying.
It’s available in mid-sized hatchback sedan and wagon versions – and also a smaller (and lower-cost) “C” version.
This review will cover the hatchback sedan – which begins at $24,200 for the base 2 trim and runs to $30,005 for the luxury-trimmed Prius 5.
For the final year of the current generation Prius, Toyota has added a Persona Series package to the lineup. It includes special leatherette trim, footwell lighting, a unique 17 inch wheel tire package and some exterior styling enhancements. All trims come standard with back-up cameras, in anticipation of the federal mandate that will make them a required standard feature in all cars by 2016.
The safe bet.
Unbeatable mileage (50-plus MPG) when used for mostly city-type driving.
Not slow. Don’t believe the haters. Try one yourself and see.
Lots of room inside – for people and cargo.
Ultra-smooth CVT transmission.
Current Prius will soon be yesterday’s news.
Mileage at highway speeds around 70-ish MPH not so spectacular (high 30s/low 40s). Many current non-hybrid cars do almost as well.
Disconnected-feeling toggle shifter.
Obnoxious back-up buzzer.
Brakes sometimes feel a bit grabby.
Also: Gas is getting cheap again. If it stays cheap, paying more for a hybrid – any hybrid – is going to be a harder sell.
In the Prius, primary propulsion is provided by a 1.8 liter Atkinson Cycle gas engine – a type of gas engine optimized to be extremely fuel efficient. Supplemental propulsion is provided by two electric motors that are fed electricity from a lithium-ion battery pack, which boosts the total power of the system to 134 hp.
The gas engine, in addition to propelling the Prius, also serves as an on-board generator – feeding back electricity to the battery, which powers accessories such as the air conditioner, power steering and even the engine’s water pump. This reduces parasitic drag on the engine (which increases its efficiency) and also reduces maintenance – since there are no drive belts to change, ever.
If the battery pack is fully charged, the Prius can travel for about 1 mile or so at speeds up to about 25 MPH – in “EV” or electric vehicle mode – during which time, the car burns no gas at all. When the battery pack’s charge gets low – or the driver asks the Prius to go faster – the gas engine will automatically kick back on and provide the necessary thrust, as well as the necessary charge. Another means of boosting the batteries is via regenerative braking, which transmutes the energy of momentum into electricity. It works through the brakes, when slowing down – or descending a grade. Instead of the gas engine powering a dynamo, the rotational energy of the wheels does.
Well, mostly. The regenerative braking system’s pedal feel is a little different than in a conventional car. The brakes sometimes feel as though they are dragging (which they kind of are) and engagement can be a little abrupt/grabby sometimes.
Toyota also offers a “plug-in” version of the Prius that can be recharged externally – by plugging it in to a 115V household outlet. This makes it possible to burn even less gas – and this version of the Prius (reviewed separately; see here) has a different (larger and more powerful) battery pack that allows it to be driven faster – and much longer – in “EV” or electric vehicle mode. However, it is much more expensive ($29,990 to start) and has not sold nearly as well as the regular Prius.
Nothing – other than another Prius – comes close.
Well, in city (lower speed, stop-and-go) driving. Because it’s possible to schlepp around without using the gas engine nearly as much. And when the gas engine is off, you’re not burning any gas at all. I’ve exceeded the EPA’s city number in several Priuii (plural?) I’ve tested over the years.
But on the highway, in contrast, the gas engine is almost always on. The batteries simply don’t have the power to maintain 70-something MPH. So the gas engine is working to keep the car moving – and to keep the batteries charged up. Doing double duty uses energy. Also, a 1.8 liter engine is a fairly small engine relative to the size of the car, so it’s got to work harder to maintain 70-ish MPH than a 2.5 liter engine would.
So, expect real-world mileage on the highway to be lower than the EPA’s figures – unless you drive your Prius 55 in a 70.
Though the primary appeal of the Prius is its stomach-stapled appetite, its performance is actually pretty good, too.
In Power mode (the other two modes are Eco and EV) it’ll get to 60 in about 10 seconds flat – in the same range as non-hybrid economy cars and perfectly adequate for dealing with the ebb and flow of modern traffic.
The Prius is one of the very few new cars with a distinct driving personality.
You know you’re not behind the wheel of a conventional car as soon as you climb in. For one thing, there’s silence. You push the “on” button – and the Prius comes alive more like a laptop than a car. A light background whirring, that’s all – accompanied by the glow-to-life of the various digital/LCD readouts.
Using a toggle shifter mounted high up on a floating center console (underneath of which lies a storage shelf) one engages “D” and this puts the car in motion. If you are light on the pedal, the car will accelerate whisper quiet on the batteries and electric motors, the gas engine subtly engaging as your speed increases. If you watch the LCD display that shows the transfer of power from engine to battery pack to electric motors, you’ll be able to keep track of what’s doing what at any given time. You will notice, for instance, that the gas engine will cut off when you’re coasting or back off the accelerator. This on-off cycling is part of the Prius’ gas-sipping strategy. The less pressure you put on the accelerator, the less gas you’ll use. Experienced hybrid drivers call this practice hypermiling. The car’s readouts will help coach you. In short order, you’ll learn the art. How to anticipate traffic signals changing and drive in such a way as to maintain momentum – a key to maximum MPGs.
Straight-line acceleration is quicker than you might expect. A Prius also tops out close to 120 MPH, if you’ve got the wind at your back. It has no trouble keeping up with traffic – and that’s probably the biggest consideration. The drivetrain can get a little noisy when you floor it – and keep it floored. But this is just as true in other small-engined/economy-minded cars. At three-quarters or less throttle, the Prius is perfectly civilized.
The one time it’s not civilized is when you put the CVT automatic into Reverse. When you do, an absurd (and extremely irritating) DING! DING! DING! commences – and continues – as long as you remain in Reverse. Toyota is perhaps the most peremptorily “safety” minded major automaker – and the idea here is that because the Prius’ drivetrain is so quiet, it needs to make make noise some other way when backing up – in order to alert pedestrians to the fact that car is backing up. But it’s very annoying to those inside the car – and, arguably, very distracting to the driver. Instead of annoying him – or assuming he’s an idiot – why not assume he’s looked to make sure there’s no one behind the car before he backs out of a parking space and so on?
I’m sick unto death of over-the-top “safety” nannies that are premised on the least-common-denominator. Some of us actually pay attention to our driving – and to what’s going on around us.
How about treating us accordingly?
Another way the Prius stands apart is how it looks. Which is like nothing else. Everyone knows the Prius. Which is both good – and bad.
Good, because it’s cool to drive a car that’s so distinctive – so very different from the pack. Not so good, because there are people out there who really hate the Prius. Perhaps because of the politically correct baggage it carries; possibly because some Prius drivers are Clovers who “hypermile” at 54 MPH in the left lane when the speed limit is 70 and refuse to move over to the right. You may be a blameless driver – and a Ron Paul (and not Al Gore) supporter. Nonetheless, the Prius makes some see red rather than green. The haters will cut you off, or ride your bumper so close you’d swear docking maneuvers had commenced.
It gets old.
But, the fact is Toyota made hay with the Prius in part because it is so obviously a hybrid. When Honda hybridized the Civic, it flopped – arguably, to some extent, because it looked like any other Civic. Prius owners tout their car’s hybridness everywhere they go. It’s a statement, a conversation-starter – and a big part of the car’s appeal.
The tall-roofed (and hatch-backed) Toyota has nearly 22 cubic feet of trunk space with its second row up vs. 11.8 cubic feet for the Ford. With the second row down, Prius opens up to almost 40 cubic feet of cargo capacity – more than three times as much usable cargo-carrying space as the Ford. This gives the Prius everyday versatility – in addition to excellent efficiency – that’s just not available in standard-layout hybrids like the Fusion(or the hybrid version of Toyota’s Camry sedan, for that matter).
Another competitor – the Hyundai Sonata hybrid – has even less cargo-carrying capacity (10.7 cubic feet, max – about four times less than Prius). The Hyundai has impressive front seat legroom – which at 45.5 inches is three full inches more than the Prius at 42.5 inches. But, there’s a catch. The Hyundai provides that front-seat legroom at the expense of backseat legroom. There’s just 34.6 inches vs. 36 inches in the Prius’ second row. The Hyundai hybrid’s gas mileage is also not even in the same ballpark as the Prius, at 35 city, 40 highway.
As a dedicated hybrid – as opposed to one based on a conventional car – the Prius has a unique dash layout and instrumentation – including multiple (and programmable) efficiency readouts you can toggle through using a steering wheel mounted button to track fuel consumption/energy use as well as help you adjust your driving to maximize efficiency. These displays (and controls) are futuristic – and though they can be a bit on the busy side, they’re not hard to understand or use. The chief flaw is they can be distracting – and tempt you to take your eyes off the road.
You may notice a little vent built into the area near the passenger side seatback. This is for the hybrid battery – and you may hear a slight whirring sound every once in awhile. This is the fan circulating air – and nothing to worry about.
Speaking of circulating air:
I wish Toyota would make the fixed front quarter glass openable, like old-style wing vents. This would let you ventilate the car without having to turn on the AC. You could probably live without AC altogether, which would reduce the car’s weight – as well as its sticker price – while also increasing its mileage.
As I type this review in mid-November, the cost of gasoline has fallen back to almost-reasonable levels. It’s about $2.60 per gallon now in my area. They – the “experts” – say it might hold. Might even drop down more. If it does, look out. Because it will be a lot harder to justify a hybrid car’s typically several-thousand-bucks-higher-than-an-otherwise-equivalent-not-hybrid-car’s price tag.
People – rightly – worry less about MPGs when the PPG (price per gallon) is low.
I love the double glovebox – upper and lower boxes. I hope the 2016 has ’em, too.
Another neat – though extra-cost – feature is the solar roof package, which uses a solar-powered fan to ventilate the interior on hot days, so it’s not so hot when you get back inside – and take less energy to cool down, too.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Buy now – or buy later?
And: Buy a hybrid – any hybrid – on the assumption that current lowball gas prices are a temporary reprieve? Or stick with a conventional car – and bet that gas will stay cheap for the next several years… ?
It’ll be interesting to see how it all pans out.
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