The Toyota Prius straddles a fine line. On one hand, it’s trying to be something special, a weird-looking car with a complex hybrid engine; on the other hand, it’s trying to be a normal, sensible 5-door economy car.
The Prius still looks like no other car on the road. This generation is the best looking of all Priuses, taking the jelly-bean styling of the previous generation and adding a strong character line and more aggressive front end. It still has the Honda CRX-like split rear window and fastback rear end, but it looks more mature than its predecessor, the latter’s smooth body panels and smiling grille giving it a cartoonish look.
2015 Toyota Prius Five
|Engine||Total System Power||Torque||Transmission||MSRP|
|1.8L Atkinson-cycle 4-cylinder w/electric motor||134 hp||153 lb-ft||Continuously Variable (CVT)||$30,005|
The 2015 Toyota Prius Five tested here also adds 17-inch wheels with low-profile all-season tires (215/45R17), which improve the look of the car at the expense of ride quality.
Inside, the weirdness continues. The steering wheel is oblong and vaguely football shaped. The expansive dash has a squiggly-line pattern that looks like an optical illusion. Typical gauges have been replaced with a set of digital instruments set high in the center of the dash.
The big dashboard flows down into a tall, split center console. The console houses the infotainment system – a 6.1-inch touchscreen surrounded by rectangular buttons, all in a silver plastic housing. Further down is an old-school liquid crystal display surrounded by another set of buttons that control the car’s HVAC system.
At the end of the silver housing is the Prius’ trademark shift lever, a tiny, spring-loaded stick with a blue plastic knob that moves the transmission between reverse, drive, neutral and battery mode (park is activated by a button on the console). Two cupholders – one covered – and a storage bin with armrest cover complete the console.
Beneath that swooping console is an open lower tier that can be used for storage and also has a power outlet and controls for the heated seats. This is the most convenient part of the interior, as it’s a perfect place to store a smartphone.
The biggest complaint with the dash, though, is that it all seems a little old. This makes sense, as this is the last year of this generation. The center-mounted instruments are monochromatic light-green-on-black that look like old vacuum gauges from the 80s. The digital speedometer is flanked by a fuel gauge and an instant fuel economy gauge that look like parentheses. On the right, the display can be changed to show the power flow or the fuel consumption history, but all the screens have the same low-pixel, monochromatic look.
The touchscreen is also dated. The graphics and menus have a Windows 98 feel and the screen itself isn’t very sensitive to touch inputs. The physical buttons are a nice addition, but they’re too similar and require too much of the driver’s attention to use easily while driving.
Despite feeling dated and a little odd, the interior itself is quite attractively styled and, as typical of all Toyotas, is very well made with tight panel gaps, quality materials and nary a squeak or rattle to be found. The seats, which in the test car are clad with SofTex imitation leather, are comfortable and well padded with a broad range of motion. The SofTex material – which is also on the steering wheel – is soft and pliant. The only hint that it’s not real hide is the lack of a leather smell. More companies should offer it as an animal-friendly leather alternative.
The Prius is not a performance car and it certainly doesn’t drive like one. The hybrid powertrain – a 1.8-liter Atkinson-cycle four cylinder and electric motor – makes a combined 134 horsepower and 153 lb-ft of torque and is mated to a continuously variable transmission.
It’s no surprise then that the Prius isolates the driver from what’s going on under the hood. The engine note never seems to match what’s actually happening. Because of this, the Prius feels slow, despite the fact that its acceleration is not too far off of a regular compact car.
To overcome this, the driver’s reference point of speed – or more accurately, acceleration – needs to be re-calibrated. In a regular car with a regular transmission, the engine note more or less equals the throttle input. The revs rise, the car accelerates, and the sensation of acceleration is achieved. Then the transmission shifts and the sensation starts all over again.
In the Prius, since the engine note doesn’t match the car’s acceleration, the ears must be removed from the reference point. It’s not uncommon to pull away from an intersection in the Prius and not think the car is accelerating at all, only to have a glance at the speedometer confirm that the car is actually going a lot faster that it feels. Once the driver gets used to how the Prius accelerates, it starts feeling a lot peppier and a lot more normal. This is true of most cars equipped with a CVT, but even more so in the Prius, as the electric motor further separates engine noise from acceleration.
It may lack excitement, but the hybrid system works very well. The power shifts from battery to engine smoothly to the point where it’s not even noticeable, unlike the Lexus ES300h tested earlier, where the delayed engine start felt a little like turbo lag. Step on the gas and the Prius just goes. The engine fires up, but it’s heard and not felt.
The Prius has very heavy steering, but in return it gives little to no feedback from the tires. Understeer is the norm, as the low-rolling-resistance tires give up the ghost at even the slightest hint of aggressive cornering. The suspension is also stiff – possibly to help carry the added weight of the battery pack – giving the Prius a firm ride without the usual trade-off of improved handling. Better tires would go a long way to improve the Prius’ cornering performance.
In the real world, though, the Prius is surprisingly normal to drive. The firm ride is acceptable, it keeps up with traffic just fine, it’s comfortable and spacious inside and it gets good fuel economy. The EPA rates the Prius at 51 mpg city, 48 mpg highway and 50 combined. The test car returned 45.4 mpg over the weeklong test period. Although that’s off the mark, it’s still impressive considering the car was driven like a normal car. It wasn’t treated special because it’s a hybrid.
The Prius is actually very good at being a normal car. Four regular-sized adults can fit inside comfortably. The big hatchback can swallow a lot of cargo, although the fastback styling limits tall items from fitting, and the seats fold down nearly flat for even more utility. Despite being dated, the right electronics are all there – Bluetooth hands-free and audio streaming, satellite radio and navigation are all present. It’s a car that can be easily lived with every day.
The Prius Five starts at $30,005 with an as-tested price of $35,150. This is a lot for what is essentially an economy car. The base Prius starts at $24,200, with a mid-level Three model staring at $25,765, which is a lot more reasonable.
The Prius is nearly alone in its class. Honda killed of the Insight, which leaves the Ford C-Max Hybrid as its last true competitor. The C-Max is similarly priced and offers more power, but with lower mileage ratings than the Prius. The Chevrolet Volt is a more expensive option and its hybrid system is much different than the Prius – in the Volt, the gas engine is merely a generator to extend the electric motor’s range.
On the TFLcar scale of:
- Buy It
- Lease It
- Rent It
- or Forget It
The 2015 Toyota Prius Five gets a Lease It!
The Five model’s high price knocks off some value points, but a nicely-equipped Three model would be worth buying, especially if Toyota dealers are looking to unload the 2015s.
Those who want to buy a Prius want to because it is a special car. That’s why all that weirdness is necessary. Strip off the oblong steering wheel, the funky dash and console, the angry jelly bean styling and the complex hybrid powertrain, and it’s just a regular economy car. And there’s nothing special about that.
Author’s Note: I drove a Prius and I liked it
I really thought I would hate this car.
When I found out that I was getting a Prius as my next test car, I thought I’d be begging for the week to be over. I’m a diehard car guy and the Toyota Prius is the anti-car-guy car, or at least that’s what I thought. So it’s somewhat of a revelation that after spending a week in the test car, I could easily see myself living with one every day.
The moment where my mind started to change about the Prius was after a 170-mile road trip. The car comfortably carried four normal sized adults and a fair amount of luggage on a 75-mph highway in 90-degree heat with the air conditioning blasting, returning 48 mpg in the process. That is just flat-out impressive.
Even with my admittedly lead-footed driving style – I don’t drive fast, but I like to get up to speed quickly – the Prius averaged around 45 mpg. The more I drove it, the more I liked it. The weirdness became normal. At one point, I said to myself, “I could own one of these.” It was an eye-opening moment.
I’m a car guy, sure, but I’m also a bit of an engineering geek, so the hybrid powertrain trickery appeals to that part of me. It amazes me that something so complex just works. The engineers at Toyota should be congratulated for pulling that off.
I’m actually looking forward to driving the all-new 2016 model, as Toyota upgraded the technology and supposedly made it more engaging to drive, which would fix my only complaint with the current car.
I now “get” the Prius. I will no longer scorn them or the people who buy them. I understand now that they do have a place in the automotive world. Who knows, one of them may even have a place in my driveway someday.
Check out this TFLcar video of the 2016 Toyota Prius launch in Las Vegas: