It’s a weird time to be the Toyota Prius.
On the one hand, no car is more synonymous with eco-conscious virtue signaling than this ubiquitous lozenge-shaped hybrid. But on the other hand, the Prius’ gasoline-fed powertrain is a stark reminder of Toyota’s reluctance to follow its competitors’ leads and go all in on EVs. So where does that leave the swanky new 2023 model that’s just now hitting dealers?
Toyota’s fifth-generation Prius certainly has a lot to like. For starters, it’s 6,000 percent better looking than its predecessor, meaning it’s genuinely attractive, and not just for a Prius. A glow-up like this is a really big deal for a car where image is everything, and it should go a long way toward wooing buyers who might not have otherwise considered Toyota’s previously dumpy-looking hybrid.
The Prius also boasts more cabin and safety technology, nicer on-road manners, and don’t forget, an EPA fuel economy rating of as much as 57 miles per gallon combined — as in, that’s a number you could (and should) expect to see in everyday driving. It’s also significantly less expensive than most of the new compact electric cars on sale today and doesn’t require you to rely on America’s decidedly lousy and unreliable public charging network.
Like before, Toyota offers the Prius with either front- or all-wheel drive. The former will allow you to eke out the hybrid’s maximum fuel economy, while the latter includes an on-demand electric rear-drive unit for four-wheel traction — something that’s helpful if you live in a rainy or snowy climate.
No matter the model, the Prius is powered by a two-liter four-cylinder engine with a lithium-ion battery pack and electric motor. Total system output for front-wheel drive variants is 194 horsepower, while adding AWD ups the output ever so slightly to 196hp.
Toyota’s fifth-generation Prius certainly has a lot to like
More importantly, the new Prius is no longer a complete slug during acceleration. Through a combination of mechanical improvements and sleeker aerodynamics, the Prius can hit 60mph in 7.2 seconds, a full 2.6 seconds quicker than the old model’s lethargic 9.8-second time. This gives you more confidence and authority when merging onto highways or passing slow-moving semi trucks. Just don’t go too wild; remember, the Prius is all about efficiency.
With front-wheel drive, a base Prius LE is estimated to return 57mpg city, 56mpg highway, and 57mpg combined. Spring for an XLE like my test car or a high-zoot Limited, and those numbers will fall slightly to 52mpg across the board, mostly due to the larger 19-inch wheels. (Adding the additional rear-drive unit for AWD will reduce your expected fuel economy even more.) Without changing my driving style during a week of testing in Los Angeles, I routinely saw fuel economy in the 50–52mpg range. In the Prius, efficiency is a cinch.
The Prius’ Eco drive mode mutes the throttle response slightly and relies on the battery’s power as much as possible, making this the best way to drive around town. You can coax the Prius into humming along on just battery power if you go super easy on the gas pedal in a neighborhood or congested city center — but not for long periods of time. That said, it’s also worth mentioning Toyota will soon launch a new version of the Prius Prime with a more robust plug-in hybrid powertrain that should allow for 35 to 40 miles of all-electric range.
Toyota has decades of experience making hybrid drive systems, so it’s no surprise that the 2023 Prius has a seamless transition between battery only and engine-assisted driving. You’ll hear (and feel) the coarse-sounding two-liter engine fire up when you start the Prius on a cold morning, but on the road, those on / off transitions are almost imperceptible.
The aptly named Normal driving mode lets the Prius do its thing without any extra eco assist, and if you’re feeling frisky, there’s a Sport setting, which, I mean, come on. No one’s buying a Prius for the rewarding driving dynamics.
The new Prius is no longer a complete slug during acceleration
That said, the new Prius isn’t a complete dud to drive. The ride is comfortable, and the car corners nicely, though the steering is predictably light and numb. Regenerative stopping power complements the mechanical brakes nicely, and the standard Proactive Driving Assist uses the Prius’ radars and cameras to automatically slow the car when it senses you’re approaching another vehicle or curve. It’s sort of like a half-step to adaptive cruise control, something that’s also standard equipment, along with niceties like lane-keep assist and forward collision warning with pedestrian detection.
The inside scoop
Inside, Toyota’s multimedia system is housed on an eight-inch touchscreen on the base Prius LE, but step up to the XLE, and you can opt for a 12.3-inch screen, complete with wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility. (The big screen is standard on the Prius Limited.) The overall interface is pretty simple to use and easy to master, though it’s a little weird that the volume knob is way over on the right side away from the driver. Buttons and toggles for the climate control are neatly arranged below, lending to a dashboard design that’s pretty handsome. Well, mostly.
The major thing that irks me about the Prius’ interior is the placement of the digital gauge cluster. The seven-inch display is housed far ahead of the driver, close to the windshield, and the top of the wheel sits below the base of the screen. That’s an unusual design choice; in most cars, you view the gauges through the steering wheel.
Depending on how tall you are — or how much of your height is in your torso — the wheel can cut off some of the information shown in the gauges, not that it matters too much since this seven-inch display is cluttered with lots of tiny icons and no discernible separation between different panels. The steering wheel itself is also chunky and unattractive, though I have to commend Toyota on at least making it delightfully small in diameter. Driving the Prius sort of feels like sitting in a Cruis’n USA arcade console.
No one’s buying a Prius for the rewarding driving dynamics
Front seat headroom and legroom is generous, and the optional glass roof gives the Prius’ cabin an airy aura. However, that handsomely raked roofline really cuts into rear headroom and makes getting in and out of the Prius’ back seats a tad difficult, even for a short-ish five-foot, eight-inch adult like me.
When droves of Prii are inevitably pressed into service as rideshare vehicles, I imagine a lot of obliviously texting passengers will bump their heads — and that’s before the 2AM bar runs.
A reasonable deal
Including a mandatory $1,095 destination fee, you can get into a 2023 Toyota Prius for as little as $28,545. An XLE starts at $31,990, while the Limited is priced starting at $35,560, and all-wheel drive is a $1,400 add-on. With options like the aforementioned 12.3-inch screen ($735), fixed glass roof ($1,000), and some fancy Supersonic Red paint ($495), my Prius XLE FWD hits the road with a completely reasonable price tag of $34,095.
The only fully electric cars cheaper than a base 2023 Prius are the Chevrolet Bolt EV and Bolt EUV siblings, though the available federal and local tax rebates can certainly offset the price of more expensive EVs.
Toyota keeps flip-flopping on its future EV plans, with some reports claiming the company will stick to its guns while others say the automaker will fast-track new electric products.
Regardless of whether you agree with Toyota’s decisions up to now, there’s no arguing with the fact that, until it’s easier and more accessible for the general public to charge EVs quickly and reliably, the Prius is a great hybrid that offers easy-peasy efficiency without any extra hassle.
Photography by Steven Ewing for The Verge