Has the sun set on the Toyota Prius?
In many ways, yes. It is no longer the alternative energy vehicle of choice for certain demographics. Heck, it isn’t even the best selling hybrid in Toyota’s lineup anymore.
But is it still worth buying in 2020? That depends on you.
Toyota introduced the Prius 20 years ago. The pioneering hybrid experienced increasing popularity and cultural relevance once it morphed into a hatchback for its second generation. Toyota transitioned the Prius to the TNGA platform back in 2015 for the 2016 model year. Since then, it’s received minor updates, most notably all-wheel drive, which arrived for the 2019 model year. Sales last year totaled just under 70k, a decrease of more than 50 percent from 2015.
It isn’t too hard to fathom why many former Toyota Prius owners pivoted away from hybrid vehicles. Electric vehicles are the next step in lower or zero CO2 footprint (depending on the source). And as a consequence, the Tesla Model 3 usurped the Prius as the trendy vehicle of choice for environmentally conscious car buyers of a certain stature several years ago.
There’s other competent EVs on the market now too, like the Hyundai Kona and the Nissan Leaf. But ultimately it’s the Tesla brand that captivated the demographics that would have flocked to Toyota ten years ago. It’s trendy. And from an owner’s standpoint, it allows them to reduce their impact on the environment to a degree that the Prius cannot match.
Without any consideration for how the styling impacts visibility, the Prius looks quite sharp. Literally. There’s a lot of hard edges and creases out back. But from the front all the way back to the rear doors, the Toyota looks like a fairly straightforward hatchback. Overall, it tends to stand out in a parking lot. I mean that as a compliment.
As a consequence of its steeply raked rear hindquarters, visibility from the driver’s seat is…quite limited. The dual glass setup – which isn’t as expansive as it looks from the outside – and the non-glass portions of the hatch combine to form major blind spots. A rear view camera and blind spot monitoring help negate the compromised visibility. But backing out of a parking spot can still be a little nerve wracking.
Additionally, the rear wiper’s area of operation clears away far too little of the glass to be considered useful. I first drove the Prius at night in the pouring rain, and found myself surprised at how little I was able to see out back. It was not a good first impression.
While grappling with the visibility of the rear hatch, my body struggled to find a comfortable seating position. These are the first automotive seats that haven’t agreed with me. Which is really something, considering I’m 5′ 6″ and about 145 pounds. I blame the bolstering, which felt inadequate, and the seat bottom, which seemed too short. I also felt the seats sat too low in the Prius, even when they were adjusted to the highest possible setting.
Like other Toyota models I tested, the Prius came equipped with SofTex seating. The synthetic leather is perfectly acceptable replacement for the “real” thing and buyers probably won’t notice the difference.
Toyota moved the driver’s cockpit above the center stack for the Prius. Before the advent of modern infotainment, this was a somewhat prudent course of action. Unfortunately, because Toyota wanted the information in that area, it forced them to position the 7 inch touchscreen so far below the line of sight that drivers are absolutely taking their eyes off the road to look at the screen. I’m really not sure why Toyota opted to place the HVAC vents above the screen, but that doesn’t help the situation either.
As for the infotainment itself, it’s pretty much the same setup as the Rav4 and other modern Toyotas that have been reviewed here recently. Responsiveness is a little slow and the graphics look a bit outdated. That would be forgivable if the system interfaced decently with my 4th generation iPod Touch, but the system periodically failed to quickly switch to the next track when it was in shuffle mode.
Basically, the Prius told me it was acquiring data from the iPod in order to comply with my request. What gives? None of the other Toyotas I’ve tested did anything of the sort. Fortunately, the non-premium audio system sounded good. Coming from the JBL sound system in the 2020 Rav4 hybrid, I thought it would come up short. But it delivered solid bass and decent clarity.
Aside from the lack of Android Auto compatibility (fixed for the 2021 model) and satellite radio or navigation, another frustrating issue was the lack of decent storage options for phones or media devices. If Apple users want to use CarPlay on the infotainment screen or plug in their iPod or media player in other circumstances, their only option is to put their device in the rear cup holder. There’s no pass through to the center console either. And if you have a dedicated audio device, you basically have to unplug and relocate it somewhere away from prying eyes every time the car is outside.
The Prius has one USB-A data port, as seen in the above picture, and two USB-A charging ports, in the back of the center console, for rear passengers.
Hybrid Information System
Two 4.2 inch LCD screens serve as the primary information conduits for the driver. The left screen is not configurable except for some minor trip computer settings where the odometer and gas mileage numbers are displayed.
As for the right screen, it can be configured to display a bunch of things. Audio information is apparently able to be displayed on certain models, but my XLE trimmed Prius did not have that capability.
Unlike the Rav4 hybrid, the Prius is better at informing drivers about the conditions that will prompt the gasoline engine to activate. That all-important bracket is what I’m referring to. It should be a standard feature in every Toyota hybrid.
Like the Rav4 hybrid, the Prius pretty much transitions between hybrid power and EV operation in seamless fashion. But it’s not as refined as its compact crossover stablemate. There are some very brief shudders when the gasoline engine powers on while accelerating after a period of coasting. For example, if you’re coasting to a red light that turns green and step on the pedal, you’ll definitely feel the engine power up. In other situations you’ll simply hear it.
Presumably, in order to maximize weight savings, Toyota opted to strategically apply sound deadening to the areas where they felt the Prius needed it most. While wind noise is well controlled, tire and road noise is transmitted into the cabin. It’s not a deal breaker, but when driving on wet roads you’ll definitely hear the water impacting the car more than you would in the Rav4. Engine noise is also easily heard when the Prius is accelerating to highway speeds and up hills.
The AWD-e version adds an electric motor to the rear axle that’s capable of 7 hp and 40 lb.ft of torque. It does kick in on every take-off, but only up to 6 mph. And it provides additional rear wheel thrust up to 43 mph as needed in low traction situations. Obviously no one is going to use it for serious off-roading.
Ride and Handling
The Prius feels adequately powered in Normal mode and surprisingly quick in Power mode. As for the ride, it’s pretty soft and designed to isolate the driver from road imperfections. Bumps and potholes will stymie the Prius if they are consistent but the Toyota will absorb that type of stuff adequately if it only affects one tire or one side. In terms of handling, the Prius feels light on its feet.
It does not protest sharp turns and you can power through them at slightly faster than advised speeds. But it reaches its limits quickly. Wider or stickier tires would help here. But the Prius is designed to deliver maximum fuel efficiency, and that comes at the cost of engaging driving dynamics.
And that’s the rub, because the steering is numb and uncommunicative. The Rav4’s steering at least adequately responded to inputs, but in the Prius things are quite vague. Braking is one area where the Prius feels superior to its sibling. Pedal feel is far more predictable and confidence inspiring and drivers will definitely be able more reliably deliver smooth stops in the Prius.
The two biggest arguments against the Prius can be found right alongside it at your local Toyota dealer. The Corolla LE Hybrid paired with blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert carries a retail price of $24,895. That model lacks the leather, heated seats, head up display, or all-wheel drive of a $31,000 Prius XLE like my loaner.
But those aren’t essential features and the cost savings can easily pay for the best winter tires money can buy. Additionally, the Corolla has a bigger touch screen, two USB data ports (with one crucially situated in the center console) and satellite radio. It will almost certainly boast better visibility as well.
A Rav4 XLE Hybrid equipped with the XLE Weather Package retails for $31,895. It will offer drivers sight advantages due to its height and it also has a larger cargo area out back. According to the EPA’s fuel economy calculator, it’s only $200 more expensive to fuel up in a year than the Corolla or Prius. I think that’s a price worth paying.
I averaged an even 60 mpg after driving the Prius for 100 miles (the EPA combined rating for the Prius AWD is 50 mpg). That’s not a lot of distance to draw a conclusion about how well the Prius can achieve its EPA ratings. That being said, it seems like it should be easy to do. After all, that’s really what the Prius was designed to deliver.
Toyota deserves credit for creating a hybrid that can get such good mileage. But ultimately, the Corolla is too appealing to ignore. It gets the same combined fuel economy rating (as a non-AWD Prius) and boasts more compelling accommodations for media devices and those who enjoy satellite radio.
Faced with compelling internal rivals, it’s difficult to make a case for the Prius in 2020, at least in certain respects. But if you don’t need a ride with bleeding edge tech and just want a versatile all-wheel drive hatchback that boasts unique styling, the Prius might be the hybrid to get. With proper incentives, this could still be a solid option for buyers, provided they know what they’re getting into.
(ED: A plug-in Prius Prime, which starts at $28,200, qualifies for a $4,502 federal tax credit and a state tax credit in many states, making it often cheaper to buy than the regular Prius. And cheaper to fuel, with an electric-only range of some 25 miles)
Toyota provided me with the Prius for one week, along with a full tank of gas.