Payne: Toyota Prius shows a fun side
I’ve been to some unusual places in automobiles, but none stranger than an autocross course in a Toyota Prius. The green Prius at a demonic place of carbon revelry? Where “hypermiling” is useless and “burning rubber” celebrated?
New Prius bumper-sticker: SAVING THE PLANET ONE CONE AT A TIME.
But this isn’t Larry David’s tree-hugging, rolling Prius speed bump. This is the all-new, Generation-4, 2016 Prius based on Toyota’s TNGA (Toyota New Global Architecture) global platform with 60 percent more torsional rigidity and — wait for it — independent rear suspension. Yes, IRS. Just like Mustang, Prius has evolved from the stagecoach wagon days.
You don’t think Toyota knows what people say about Prius? That its nickname is “Pious”? That it looks like a turtle with wheels? That Californians give them twice as much room because their drivers are more focused on “hypermiling” at 40 mph to maximize fuel efficiency than keeping their eyes on the road?
You don’t think Toyota has read Car & Driver’s scathing 2012 Prius review? I quote:
“We wonder why a Prius can’t be as interesting to drive as a Ford C-Max. The Prius stands still, this century’s version of a 1990s-era VW Type 1 Beetle.”
Toyota wants to change that image so they took a herd of journalists to Los Angeles’ El Toro Marine Air Station to drive the wheels off the Prius and prove it’s more than a hybrid drivetrain on a chassis of recycled hummus. Indeed, Toyota provided us with a Gen 3 model just to prove the point. I nailed the 2015 model out of the starting gates, and it immediately panicked as if allergic to pylons. Turn the wheel and the front tires plowed straight ahead, the mulish torsion-beam rear suspension as useless as wings on a penguin.
Jump in the new Gen 4 and all is well.
No, it doesn’t have Tesla’s Ludicrous mode. No battery upgrade. No improvement in its snail-like, 9.8-second 0-60 time. Stomp on the accelerator and you could read the morning paper before it gets up to highway speed. I never got the front tires to chirp off the line, much less torque steer. But the chassis has been transformed.
Steering input is direct, connected — not merely a suggestion. The car goes where you point it instead of plowing like a 19th-century farm implement. It still understeers through corners (no VW Golf torque-vectoring here!), but the multi-link rear suspension now eagerly rotates behind you so that you don’t leave a field of scattered pylons in your wake.
My Pious lapped with a look of determination on its face thanks to CEO Aki Toyoda’s demand that every Toyota look like it’s enraged that every model before it has the sex appeal of a grapefruit. Happily, Prius is not as polarizing as the Darth Vader-masked Lexus RX. Compacts should be cute, and Gen 4 looks like an angry Pokemon. Grrrr. Let’s attack some cones.
Your carbon-spewing scribe so enjoyed autocrossing the Toyota that I asked for seconds. It was fun. The f-word has been frowned upon in the Cult of Prius, but the faithful need not be concerned. As the lack of rubber marks at the start line suggest, the Prius doesn’t sacrifice green for its new fun factor. The Pious claims (EPA numbers aren’t out yet) to up its class-leading mpg number from 50-52 mpg combined — while maintaining its zero-60 acceleration with less horsepower than before (121 vs. 134). Despite my flogging the Pokemon mercilessly around El Toro then up Orange County’s breathtaking Ortega mountain highway and back, I managed an impressive 58.1 mpg over 78 miles.
Indeed, the Prius’ greenness actually complements performance by shoving its lithium ion batteries under the seat (from the trunk), thus helping reduce its center of gravity 1 inch for better handling.
But as the all-new (once-shunned) lithium ion batteries suggest this car is about more than looks and mpg. Toyota gambled on the hybrid Prius a decade ago. Its resulting hit, however, obscured the fact that the company invested in an expensive drivetrain on a cereal-box chassis and affordable nickel hydride batteries.
Five million Prii sales later, the car has earned its keep and now leads the parade into a global platform and battery pack that will be used on siblings like Corolla. It also means Prius may finally make money.
Prius is a model for other hybrid electric brands. Looking at you, Chevy Volt.
In a straight fight it is Volt that should be worshipped by greenies, not Prius. After all, Volt sports better technology from drivetrain to interior: A 53-mile range that will get you to work and back without ever visiting Big Oil, and a dashboard that is more user and tech-friendly (think Apple Car Play and Android Auto).
But what the Prius offers is a unique personality. At $25,025 the hybrid sports unique styling at a compact price point. I particularly like the sci-fi, tomahawk-shaped rear taillights that are an upscale touch. Volt, on the other hand, starts nearly $10K north of Prius in BMW 3-series territory — yet detunes its styling to look more like a Cruze compact. Moet champagne in a Budweiser bottle.
Prius has its own interior, too, which is not as successful. Take the center console made out of toilet bowl-white plastic. Please. The awkward material clashes with an otherwise tasteful, wrap-around interior of black plastic and vinyl trim — a dated attempt at being an iPod, perhaps?
At a time when instrument displays are more driver-centric (heck, even Mini moved its Speedo in front of the driver), Prius stubbornly insists on keeping its instrument panel in the center of the dash. Misses like these mean Prius still has room for improvement, but overall it’s not a niche car anymore but a credible competitor against any compact.
Do the math. Compared to Ford’s similarly-horsed, green-preening Focus 1.0-liter Ecoboost, Prius won’t earn its $2,500 premium back in $2-a-gallon gas savings for seven years — but Toyota’s dependability and higher retention value (54 percent vs. 48 percent) help close that gap.
And while the Prius can’t hold a candle to a $25K Golf GTI ’round the pylons, at least you’ll have fun trying to keep up while nearly doubling the V-dub’s mpg on the way home.
SAVING THE PLANET ONE CONE AT A TIME. Catchy. I think I’ll get a few printed up.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne. See all his work at HenryPayne.com
2016 Toyota Prius
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger hatchback
Price: $25,035 ($27,085 Prius Three and $30,000 Four Touring as tested)
Power plant: Hybrid drivetrain with 1.8-liter inline-4 cylinder and lithium-ion/or nickel-metal hydride battery-powered twin electric motors
Power: Combined 121 horsepower-95 horsepower, 105 pound-feet torque (gas engine); 1.2 kilowatt-hour nickel-metal-hydride/0.75 kWh lithium-ion battery pack
Transmission: Continuously variable transmission (CVT)
Performance: 0-60 mph, 9.8 seconds (manufacturer)
Weight: 3,915 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA estimated: 54 city/50 highway/52 combined; 58 city/53 highway/56 combines (Eco 2 model only)
Highs: More fun to drive; more fun to look at
Lows: White plastic console; distant instrument display
Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★
Fair ★★Poor ★