The benchmark fuel economy champion

Toyota has done such an impressive job of marketing its fuel-efficient “Prius” that the inexpensive, economy-focused sedan’s brand name is poised to become an exclusive eponym – or generic brand – in the meaning of Band-Aid (sterile bandage), Coke (soft drink) or Kleenex (handkerchief). So it’s no surprise that I contacted the automaker for a late-model Prius when my schedule called for a 1,000-mile round trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

The Prius name has not changed since the vehicle was first introduced to the US market over 22 years ago. And, for the casual observer, the vehicle’s shape has changed very little since its second-generation redesign (for the 2004 model year) when Toyota transformed it into the now familiar compact five-door hatchback with a corner noise. and a high trunk, known as the Kammback body style. The makeover was a huge success and sales skyrocketed – Toyota tripled its sales in the first year, and by 2010 it was selling 500,000 units worldwide.

Today’s Prius retains the same unmistakable shape as its predecessors, including the unmistakable slab sides, clean-cut rear fenders and clear rear glass panel to improve rearward visibility. But there are modern angles, sharp LED headlights and a more aggressive front end that add a bit of character and personality. The Prius has evolved with the times – the exterior still looks fresh.

The Prius’ cabin is purely factual and simple, which means it doesn’t pretend to be a luxury vehicle. Most surfaces are hard plastic – matte or glossy finish – and all instruments are (now distinctly) relocated to the center of the dash. Aside from the missing cluster on the other side of the steering wheel and the odd console-mounted shifter (both of which only take a few hours to acclimatise), all other controls are logically laid out and ergonomic.

Front-seat passengers have plenty of space, but the seating position is low and there’s not much storage (aside from the expected door panels, center console, and center armrest. Adults seated at the rear will find them comfortable, but they lack amenities (other than a pair of USB ports). Overall, the synthetic SofTex seat padding feels more durable (and washable) than soft and supple. five doors open to reveal a spacious trunk, and the seats split/fold 60:40 to enhance utility.

The front-drive Prius is equipped with a naturally aspirated 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine mated to an electric motor. Total system output is 121 hp and 120 lb-ft of torque. Power is transmitted to the front wheels via a continuously variable transmission or CVT. (Note that Toyota also offers an all-wheel-drive variant of the Prius, which uses an electric motor on the rear axle to improve traction at speeds up to 43 mph.)

Toyota allows the operator to choose between four different drive modes (Normal, PWR, ECO and EV), which alter throttle response, climate control and combustion engine activity. The default mode is Normal, which is great for balanced daily driving. The vehicle will automatically choose between combustion and electric propulsion, and the air conditioning operates at full capacity. PWR, or Power, mode increases throttle pedal sensitivity and adds extra torque by using the electric motor heavily – it’s the least efficient driving mode.

Eco, or Economy, mode buffers accelerator pedal inputs to smooth operation of the combustion engine and additional electric motor. It also reduces the use of the air conditioning compressor and heater, to save more energy – it’s the most fuel-efficient driving mode. Finally, EV mode forces the vehicle to rely solely on electric propulsion. Because the engine is small, it can only drive the Prius at low or park speeds for short periods of time (press the accelerator pedal too hard and the combustion engine fires up to aid acceleration) .

It’s high praise to say that the Prius doesn’t make too many promises in the driving dynamics category – it accelerates, brakes and handles just as you’d expect from a fuel-efficient economy car.

Acceleration from the 121bhp powertrain is best described as leisurely – a stopwatch would reveal a 0-60mph time of around 10 seconds. It takes some planning and good timing to engage in fast moving traffic (more often than not a wave of friendly apologies is needed as faster cars slow your rear bumper). While the Prius will hold its own on long hills or inclines, with the combustion engine sounding like a wet vacuum cleaner, passing on short straights is probably out of the question. The Toyota Prius was not designed for those in a hurry.

Toyota equips the Prius with hydraulic disc brakes – a very conventional system. However, these are supplemented by a regenerative braking system which uses the motor to convert the vehicle’s forward motion (kinetic energy) back into electricity during deceleration. Mixing the two makes the brake pedal a bit awkward (someone spongy) at first, but your leg quickly acclimates to the new feel. Braking power is good – confidence in the system is not lacking.

The Prius’ suspension is set up for a comfortable ride and it does its job well. Around town, the sedan effortlessly soaks up bumps and potholes. And on the highway, it floats effortlessly over curbs. Overall, the tuning is on the “soft side” of things — load five adults into the cabin, and its rear sags a bit. Still, on a surprisingly positive note, the Prius handles corners better than expected if the driver manages body roll and doesn’t overdrive the low-rolling-resistance tires. Driven correctly, it will shove around a bend fairly quickly (which will surprise most other vehicles caught in its path).

As expected, the Prius offers exemplary fuel efficiency. Plus, it does so with a light curb weight of just 3,100 pounds (a Chevrolet Corvette sports car weighs about 500 pounds more), incredibly low aerodynamic drag (it has an ultra-low drag coefficient of 0, 24) and a hyper-efficient hybrid powertrain.

The EPA rates the 2022 Toyota Prius at 54 mpg city / 50 mpg highway, but my 1,000 mile mileage dropped a few percent as I drove fast at 75-80 mph on the highway, and I used hard throttle while driving around town (in other words, I wasn’t trying to “hypermile”). On that note, my highway fuel mileage averaged around 46 mpg on the open road, and my city fuel mileage averaged around 51 mpg. According to the vehicle’s on-board computer, my overall daily efficiency (mixed driving) averaged around 48 mpg – that’s impressive!

More extraordinary is the actual cost of ownership. The well-equipped 2022 Toyota Prius Nightshade FWD model I tested had an MSRP of just $31,056 (including a $1,025 delivery charge). Considering the vehicle’s low fuel costs, low insurance rates, impressive reliability and high resale value, Toyota’s gasoline-electric hybrid is one of the cheapest vehicles to run – not surprising that it is the first choice of fleet and mobility operators!

An all-new fifth-generation Prius will likely make its debut shortly, but Toyota is unlikely to deviate from its winning formula. Consider that a good thing, because the popular sedan – the industry’s respected champion in fuel economy – won’t be leaving the podium anytime soon.

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