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Review: Toyota’s redesigned Prius in the real world

How do you change a standard-bearer? Like or not, Toyota's Prius was the first poster car for environmentalists, anti-establishment types, and the Hollywood beautiful. But even Earth-saving cars must be seen, and the redesigned Prius—influenced by Toyota’s nearly-$60,000 Mirai hydrogen fuel cell car (California market only)—beats the ugly drum with vigor. Later in life, Galileo went blind, but even he would have recoiled at the new Prius. Beneath the skin, however, the redesigned Prius uses handsome, energy-stingy engineering.

The new design's slashes and gashes hide the car's Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform, which actually lowers the car, provides additional high-strength steel, and nets 60-percent increased torsional rigidity. Both the headlights and tail lights are now LEDs, and the hood descends lower at the leading edge than before. More importantly, the car's hybrid battery is relocated from under the trunk to below the rear seat. Combined with a new double-wishbone rear suspension, this allows marginally more trunk space, up from 22 to 25 cubic feet (623L to 707L). You simply cannot fool air, though, and the new Prius cuts through it with a slightly improved drag coefficient of 0.24, where the outgoing model posted a Cd of 0.25.

Helping it reach that low-drag figure are grille shutters that close when radiator airflow isn't needed. The shutters also stay closed on cold starts to help the internal combustion engine reach optimal operating temperature faster. Other aero trickery includes fins mounted on the under trays, spats aside the gas tank that keep airflow smooth, and tail lamps that channel air.

Inside, the familiar central instrument location remains. However, the display is even bigger than before, with ventilation controls far more lucidly marked and laid out than before. Also, the dashboard layout has an elegance about it clearly born from the Lexus mind. However, some of the interior trim's color choices seem to have been made purely in a studio and without much consideration for catching the real-world eye, an undesirable character-trait for interior trim in our book. In the Touring version we tested, contrasting stark white adorns both the steering wheel and the lower quadrant of the center stack. While this is not in the driver's direct line of sight when peering out the windshield, it still catches light when the sun is either behind or to the side of you, becoming annoying.

When the world first caught a glimpse of Toyota's Prius, it marked the very first production gas-electric hybrid automobile. Efficiency was its primary and damn-near exclusive goal. Now with the fourth generation, the Prius uses a refreshed Atkinson-cycle internal combustion engine. Redesigned intake ports facilitate faster combustion in each cylinder. Toyota claims a peak thermal efficiency of 40 percent, very high for a gasoline internal combustion engine. While raw horsepower drops from 98 to 95 (73kW to 70kW), peak torque of 105 lb.-ft. (143Nm) is maintained, but lower in the range at 3,600 rpm. Both intake and exhaust systems are also quieter.

Meanwhile, the electric motor’s power also drops from 80 hp (60kW) to 71 hp (54kW), while torque output also drops to 120 lb.-ft. from 153 (163Nm vs 207Nm). But the electric motor is also physically smaller and lighter. The motor’s output is actually limited by the battery’s output; there’s no power loss in the larger equation.

On the transmission front, the Prius’ continuously variable transmission (CVT) now uses helical gears in its planetary gearsets, increasing driveline efficiency by a purported 20 percent.

The 2016 Prius' grand total in the power stakes land at 121 horsepower (90kW), some 13 shy of the 2015’s 134 hp (100kW). However, what's not readily apparent is the different measuring system Toyota uses now versus when the 2015 models were certified. So while sheer power output is likely down a bit, it's not as shy as it looks on paper. And in fact, because the Prius' transmission operates more eagerly, you do not feel a power deficit compared to the prior model.

It's really all about the fuel economy, though, and the Prius certainly delivers there, netting 54 mpg city and 50 mpg on the highway, with 52 mpg in combined driving. Several variations on a Prius theme debut this year, though. The Prius Eco will offer 58 mpg city and 53 mpg highway, with 56 combined. To hit these numbers, the base Prius Two model gets roughly 65 pounds (30kg) cleaved out of it. Instead of the nickel-metal-hydride battery, a lighter lithium-ion battery removes 35lbs (16kg). Also, the jack and spare tire are replaced with a repair kit and air compressor. The perhaps redundantly named Prius Eco version also gets an infra-red blocking windshield to lighten the air conditioning system’s burden and ultra-low rolling resistance 15-inch tires.

The 2016 Prius also debuts some meaningful safety technology like automatic pre-collision warning and braking with pedestrian detection, lane-keeping assistance with the ability to generate corrective steering input and full-speed radar-based cruise control that can brake the car down to a full stop.

Though the Prius is not meant to be a funster like its FR-S cousin, the new 2016 car does well when the switchbacks come. Partly due to the new independent double-wishbone rear suspension, partly due to the well-plotted electronic power steering that provides better feel than some recent sports sedans, the Prius does not fall all over itself in the twisties.

Over an everything-including-kitchen-sinks route of slugging it out in midtown New York City chaos and bucolic wandering countryside over a total of 700+ miles, we managed an average economy of 45.8 mpg. Not stellar, but good.

The new Prius did surprise us with some minor issues, though. With both passenger-side windows or both driver-side windows down, the Prius interior throbbed and buffeted horribly (technical term: Helmholtz resonance). Normally, one lowered window causes buffeting which then disappears with its mate lowered. Not in the 2016 Prius. Oddly, with just one side window lowered, the car buffets less. Curious.

The car's steering also allows a lot of wander above 50 mph. While this could be due to a poor alignment—too much toe out, for example—that would also result in nervousness at all speeds above a walking pace, which our test Prius did not exhibit.

Until very recently, hybrids with regenerative braking systems inflicted a minor, but funky moment of brake modulation by the driver. (Regenerative brakes recover kinetic energy of the turning wheels and store it in the battery as electrical power.) When at very low speed, transitioning to full stop, that linear momentum you expect through the threshold of stopping falls away, making for a jerky stop. You find yourself having just applied too much pedal force, as if the car just somehow deceived you. Were that moment a test in the old Rolls-Royce Chauffeur School, you’d have failed and it would not have been your fault. The 2016 Prius minimizes that awkwardness far better than almost every other car with regenerative braking.

Other hybrid cars are catching up to the Prius' holistic virtues of efficiency, driving simplicity, and user friendliness. And new entries like Chevy’s redesigned Volt and Bolt promise a lot. But with the 2016 Prius, Toyota moves the bar again.

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