Opinionated at any speed . . . Silvio Calabi

Toyota Prius Limited

Tue, 12/05/2023 - 11:30am

As before, the Prius is a hybrid front-wheel-drive hatchback with comfort for four and ample cargo space, especially with the rear seats folded down. But now Toyota has made the Prius pretty, too. Why did it take so long? Perhaps in the year of the Millennium, when the Prius debuted in North America as a “car for the 21st Century,” Toyota felt it had to be slightly weird in order to signal its differences and to appeal to the early-adopter fringe.

Now, a mere 23 years later, it has been thoroughly mainstreamed. Toyota’s not-quite-pioneering hybrid (the gas-electric Honda Insight beat it to market here by one year) is no longer a gawky thing that rolls on hard, skinny tires and feels like a hang-glider. No, it’s a sleek and substantial aerodynamic wedge of a hatchback, albeit one that averaged 56 MPG between Boston and Midcoast Maine with no comfort or performance penalties.  

Long gone is the origami gear lever poking out of the dashboard; ditto the horizontal thingy that blocked the driver’s rear vision. The backlight is still more slit than window, but the view is now unobstructed. The shift lever is still stubby, but it sticks up out of the console now, right at hand, and the electric e-brake switch is there with it. And when the driver goes to disembark, there’s a small kickplate at the bottom of the door—no more footprints on the liner as we shove the door open. Oh, I like that.

The 2023 model marks the 5th generation of the Prius. The continuously variable automatic transmission remains, but the gas-sipping part of the drivetrain has grown to a full two litres of displacement (up from 1.8) in a 4-cylinder engine generating 150 horsepower (up from 96). The two electric motors bring the total output to 194 horsepower (up from 121)—a 60% increase. Toyota doesn’t provide a total torque figure, but this too is substantially more than before; tip deep into the accelerator and this new Prius will in fact accelerate—something the old car seemed conflicted about.

This Prius stops equally well too and, although no track star, it will cruise easily on the freeway and it will hustle down a twisty country road without holding up traffic or frightening its passengers. The center of gravity has been lowered by something like two inches and the footprint is wider too, so the new Prius changes direction confidently. The only demerit might be occasional road noise—tire or CVT whine—at certain speeds.

Our Prius is the top-line Limited model with a long list of comforts: The front seats are heated and ventilated (three settings; rear-seat heat is an option); the driver’s adjusts electrically eight ways and can remember two settings. The front seats are first-rate, too—how is it that a $37K car has better seats than a $100M airliner?

The adjustable steering wheel is plastered with controls and also heated. There’s Bluetooth, WiFi, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (wireless, of course), Sirius XM, a 12.3-inch touchscreen with “Hey Toyota!” voice assist, an inductive phone charger and six USB-c charge ports. Also four cupholders and four bottle-holders.

All new Priuses, not just the Limited, get the third generation of Toyota’s Safety Sense package, which includes pedestrian detection, braking assist,  all-speed dynamic radar cruise control, lane following and lane departure alert with steering assist, road-sign scanning and automatic high beams. There are blind-spot monitors and rear-cross traffic alerts, a backup camera with a 360-degree overhead view, and front and rear proximity sensors with automatic braking. No doubt I’ve skipped over a few things, but you get the idea.

Yet despite all the good driving, fuel economy, safety and near-luxury, the Prius remains a value buy. For 2024, the base LE model starts at $27,650, the XLE at $31,095 and the Limited at $34,655. All-wheel drive is a $1,400 option on all three. Toyota also offers three versions of its even more gas-averse Prius Prime, a plug-in hybrid with 220 horsepower, a larger battery pack and 40-plus miles of in-town electric range, priced from $32,675 to $39,370.

It is beyond ironic that the anti-eco haters who spit up all over the Prius 20 years ago now see it as an acceptable alternative to the latest target of their ire, battery-electric cars. Good grief.

Next week: Bronco Sport Heritage Limited