This isn’t my first dance with the Toyota Prius. It’s my third test drive – second from the current generation – and the consensus on both the other reviews was the same: maybe worth buying, but not in the as-tested configuration.
When automobile manufacturers provide vehicles for press fleets, they more often than not load the fleets up with top-of-the-line vehicles packed with nearly every option available. This is so journalists like me are so impressed that we’ll like the car more. Yes, the extra amenities are nice, but when it comes to a car like the Prius, all those extras can hurt the final verdict. The previous two test cars rang in at $30K and $33K respectively, which knocks them down a few pegs in the value department.
This time, though, I managed to get a Prius Two Eco. This tester’s price is a much more reasonable $25,535 with destination. So this begs the question, is the Prius worth buying when it’s not the top-level model?
First, a few disclaimers. Since I already did a full review of this generation of Prius, I’ll be concentrating more on the differences between the Two Eco and the Four Touring. Also, the 2017s are coming soon, but since the only difference between the 2016 and the 2017 is the addition of some safety tech, it’s still a worthwhile exercise.
The Prius is all new this year, and the styling is a bit polarizing. It has creases and folds where previous generations had smooth lines, and it now sneers at you instead of smiling at you like it used to do. This Prius means business, apparently.
It’s grown on me though. It is a bit on the ugly side, but the more I’m around it the better it looks. The test car’s Blue Crush Metallic paint – the same paint I’ve had on other Toyota test cars – looks better than the previous car’s Hypersonic Red, at least to me (I like blue cars), but the biggest improvement is inside.
Instead of being all black with white accents on the steering wheel and center console like the last Prius I tested, this car has a black and tan interior with matching tan seats and headliner. The earthy color provides a warmth that was missing on the previous car. Plus, the center console is all black instead of toilet bowl white. There’s still some white around the gear shifter and on the steering wheel, which is odd, but the overall effect is a more inviting place to spend time.
The Two Eco still has the centrally mounted LCD gauges and piano black center console that houses the infotainment system and HVAC controls. It’s a thoroughly modern, quirky interior that fits the overall aesthetic of the Prius.
Under the hood is the same hybrid drive system as the Prius Four, so there’s no loss of performance for going cheap. The 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine makes 95 hp and 105 lb-ft of torque, while the electric motor makes 71 hp and 120 lb-ft of torque. Combined, the system is rated at 121 horsepower.
Power is transferred to the front wheels through a continuously variable transmission. This is probably the best application of a CVT I’ve seen, as a Prius by design has a layer of abstraction between the driver and the powertrain anyway.
The Prius is not a fast car by any means, but with the instant torque from the electric motor, it gets under way in a satisfying hurry. I love hearing the brief whine of the electric motor before the gas motor kicks in. In Power mode, there’s enough torque to push you back into your seat if you’re not prepared for it, but Normal mode is plenty good enough for every day driving. I only tried Eco mode once, but the performance tradeoffs weren’t worth the extra mileage.
Ride and Handling
The big news about the new Prius is that it rides on Toyota’s new modular architecture, TNGA (for Toyota New Global Architecture), which means the humble Prius now has an independent rear suspension. It doesn’t make the Prius a sports car – although one Prius was tricked out to handle at 1g – but it does make the chassis more balanced and controllable.
There’s still some body roll when going around corners with some gusto, but not as much as the previous generation did, and the rear end feels more planted. The eco-minded tires are as much to blame as anything for the Prius’ lackluster handling, as they give up the ghost quickly around corners. The Eco rides on smaller 15-inch alloy wheels compared to 17-inch wheels on the Four Touring, but the handling feels no worse in the cheaper Prius. Ride is a little better, too, thanks to the higher sidewalls, although it still “clumps” over road imperfections.
Steering is about typical for a modern mainstream car with electric power steering. Maybe my expectations have changed, but as long as a car’s steering has no center dead spots, reasonable effort and decent accuracy, that’s about as good as it’s going to get. Only a few mainstream cars have superior steering these days, and most of them come from a Mazda factory.
The Prius has long been a champion of utility, and the Two Eco is no different. There’s plenty of room for four regular sized adults, with five in a (literal) pinch. The center console is deep, the door pockets can hold plenty of junk, the two cupholders in the console are wide and deep, and the bin in front of the cupholders is the best, simplest smartphone storage solution I’ve seen in any vehicle. There’s no Qi charging available on the lower-end Two Eco, but my iPhone doesn’t have wireless charging anyway so I didn’t miss it.
The hatch is long and wide, and the 60/40 split seats fold flat for more storage. Outside of a crossover or SUV, there’s no better vehicle to pack people and stuff in than a Prius.
Comfort and Convenience
For being a base model, the Prius Two Eco comes with a surprising amount of features. Power windows are automatic down and up on all four windows, which was the biggest surprise. The seats, bereft of the power adjustment of the top-of-the-line Four Touring, are still very comfortable and it’s easy to find a driving position that fits using the manual controls. I found the driving position to be near perfect.
Climate control is full auto as well, another surprise for a base model, but it’s only single zone. It comes with an Eco mode and another mode that prioritizes front-seat passengers.
The infotainment unit is Toyota’s base unit, fitting for the base Prius. It still offers Bluetooth streaming – all I care about, really – but it has no satellite radio, no navigation, and it has a smaller 6.1-inch screen. It looks a little cheap, but it works perfectly well and it’s very easy to learn and use. For me, I’ve pretty much given up on in-car navigation systems and use my phone anyway, so I don’t lament the lack of a navigation system, but Apple CarPlay would be a welcome addition (or Android Auto for all you Android users).
The Prius has always been about fuel economy, but none more so than the Two Eco. So what makes it “Eco” over a standard Prius Two? Well for one thing, it gets the lithium-ion battery upgrade that is found in the Three model and up (regular Prius Twos get nickel metal hydride batteries). The upgrade doesn’t add efficiency, but it takes away weight. The Eco also makes due without a compact spare tire, just a tire inflation kit for roadside emergencies. A reflective windshield that eases the AC’s burden also adds to the economy.
The result is that the Eco is rated at 58 mpg city, 53 mpg highway and 56 mpg combined, compared to 54 mpg city, 50 mpg highway and 52 mpg combined for a regular Two.
During my test week, the Prius Two Eco returned a staggering 55.3 mpg, better than I’ve ever seen in a vehicle and better than the 48.6 mpg I got with the Four Touring. I didn’t drive the Eco any differently, either. I had to be more careful with the Lexus GS 200t I tested recently and I barely got 20 mpg with that one. Around town, I had a lot more fun in the Prius than I did in the GS because I could go like a scalded cat and not have to worry about gas mileage.
Here is where the Prius usually gets dinged because of past test cars’ $30k-plus price tags. This $25K Prius Two Eco is well worth the money and is well equipped for a car in this price range. There is still a compromise to make for those extra miles per gallon, though, as $25K can get a nicely equipped Honda Civic or Mazda3. They may not get the same mileage, but they will return more driving engagement.
The “hybrid tax” is still there, though, and the math doesn’t quite work out when using fuel savings as the only justification of buying the Prius Two Eco over, say, a similarly equipped Corolla LE Eco. But people who want to buy a Prius will want to buy one anyway, and in the grand scheme of things, the Prius Two Eco is the one to buy. For about $1,000 less, the non-eco Prius Two is a better deal, and for about $1,000 more, the Prius Prime with its extended EV mode is also a good deal for those who want to take the next step and plug their car in at night.
On the TFLcar scale of:
- Buy It,
- Lease It,
- Rent It,
- or Forget It,
The 2016 Prius Two Eco gets a Buy It!
To answer the question posed in the third paragraph, yes, a lower-end Prius is worth buying. The week I spent in the Prius Two Eco was one of the best I’ve had since I started testing cars for TFL. I never felt like I compromised anything by having a base model, and it had everything I wanted except maybe a sunroof, but I could handle not having one of those.
Toyota is positioning the new plug-in Prius Prime as a value proposition, but for those not quite ready to make the leap to a plug-in vehicle but want a glimpse of the future while getting stellar gas mileage, the Prius Two Eco is hard to beat.
Check out this TFLnow video of the SEMA concept Prius G, the one with the 1g handling: