Prius adds new platform, styling, powertrain

John Gilbert

I cruised down Superior Street in the heart of downtown Duluth, and pulled into a curbside parking spot. As I climbed out, a woman on the sidewalk stopped, did a double-take, and then  said: “Sir, pardon me, but what kind of car is this?”

“It’s the new Toyota Prius,” I answered. She was surprised. She didn’t ’t expect that this long, low, sporty-looking compact sedan could possibly be a Toyota, let alone a Prius.

“I thought Priuses were hybrids,” she said.

“This is a hybrid,” I answered.

When you mention the name Toyota Prius to most folks, you elicit a response that most closely resembles blank. Ho-hum. Economy cars are, for the most part, boring compared to high-performance vehicles and the dozens of hill-climbing SUVs available these days.

Most people probably don’t remember back a couple of decades when Toyota and Honda battled to be first out with a hybrid car — that is, one that has a gas engine augmented with a battery-operated electric motor for more power and considerably more fuel economy. As usual, Toyota was the more cautious of the two, taking its time before bringing its hybrid Prius to the U.S. market, while Honda hustled and, while second in development, actually hit U.S. showrooms first.

The cars were pretty unexciting to drive, but they did deliver on the fuel economy. Toyota stuck with its basic design, and hasn’t really changed much, until now. The changeover happened a year ago, when Toyota changed to an all-new platform, which was longer, lower and wider and led to a flashy redesign that stops folks in their tracks.

It happened several times during the two weeks when I road-tested the new Prius Prime and the Prius Limited, hoping to make a valid comparison between the two, which offer different things for different people. The Prime came first, and I was quite embarrassed that when I was about to put in some gasoline at the end of my week, I flipped open the gas-filler door on the left flank and found that it was filled with odd-looking plug-in receptacles. This was the plug-in Prius, and I hadn’t realized it until too late to experiment.

The Prius Prime was quick, and delivered good mileage — ranging normally to upper 40s and upper 50s in miles per gallon, even without ever plugging it in. When the press-car fleet operators came to pick up the Prius Prime, they brought me a Prius Limited from their Chicago fleet, and fortunately it was the same color, called “Cutting Edge,” and pretty much the color of a stainless steel knife.

My wife, Joan, loved the look of the new Prius.  “We could live with one of these,” she exulted. We drove a lot, on the steep avenues of Duluth, and on a four and a half hour trip from Duluth to the Canadian border town of Warroad, Minnesota. The Prius worked flawlessly, and I put a few gallons of gasoline in it a couple times just to make sure it didn’t run low.

The biggest change to the new Prius is that it has an all-new powertrain to go along with the all-new platform and the all-new sporty design of the body. For many years, Toyota had stuck with Nickel-metal-hydride batteries that were large and bulky and fit under the rear hatch, supplying consistent and dependable power to the equation with the gas engine, while competitors had switched almost totally to lighter, stronger and, basically better Lithium-ion batteries that charged quicker and held their charge longer.

Toyota did proliferate the use of its “Hybrid Synergy Drive” to other vehicles, including several in the upscale Lexus brand line, but not until this redesign did Toyota switch over to Lithium-Ion battery packs for the Prius. Both cars also move up from the trusty but stodgy 1.8-liter 4-cylinder gas engine to a new 2.0-liter 4-cylinder with variable valve timing and significantly more power.

In the Prius Prime plug-in, you get 220 horsepower with the combined gas and electric system, and with the Prius Limited with no plug in recharging, you get 194 horsepower. I defy, however, anyone to discern that slim difference, because both are plenty quick and make the Prius go and handle in sporty fashion.

Here is another significant change: In the new Prius, whatever model you choose from the basic on up through the Limited or Prime models, you can pay an option fee of about $1,400 and add all-wheel drive to your car. In Minnesota, AWD is a huge benefit, even if this year the harshest part of winter has gone underground in favor of repeated record warm temperatures.

In my driving, I kept watching the dashboard instruments telling me that my fuel-economy figure had risen to 30s, then 35, then into the 40s and on up to 48 mpg. Impressive, when a comparable gas-powered compact might get 30 mpg. In our family, I generally get the best fuel economy, because it’s an ongoing game that I enjoy trying to win. Joan tends to have a heavier right foot on the gas, and she concedes the mpg crown to me. But not this time. This time, on one day-long venture downtown Duluth, she recorded an astounding high of 76.6 miles per gallon.

In any case, the previous week when we didn’t know we had the plug-in model, we blew the chance to get even higher fuel economy, and the fact that we had one of this winter’s rare snowstorms caught us by surprise. The Prius, with front-wheel drive, handled the foul weather easily.

There wasn’t so much as a flake of snow the next week, when we had the Prius Limited, with its many options.

You can seat two adults comfortably in the rear seat, which had optional heated surfaces, and you had surprisingly large storage space under the hatch, because Toyota has wisely moved the Lithium-Ion battery pack down under the floor of the platform, instead of filling up the trunk space with those heavy and awkward batteries.

If you added the all-wheel drive, you get a second electric motor, one for the front and the other for the rear, and you would have no problem at all with snow or ice.

Toyota also has kept the price down in the reasonable range, with the base Prius at under $30,000, Prius Limited starting at $34,465 and rising as tested to $36,924, while the Prius Prime had an as-tested sticker of $38,019.

The influence of the Prius brigade for 2024 is that those who are fearful of the “range anxiety” they’ve heard about with electric cars is nonexistent with hybrids. Joan and I have been looking over the newest electric vehicles and we realize we easily could live with one, but until the infrastructure spreads more thoroughly through the state and the country, our next car will most likely be a hybrid. We have driven and closely scrutinized several hybrids, but I must admit, we never included the Prius in those comparisons.

We did agree on one key complaint about the Prius. Sitting in the driver’s seat, you appreciate the seat heaters, and the firm support and adjustability of the backrest and lumbar. But sitting in the passenger bucket alongside, Joan complained about the lack of a lumbar support. Sure enough, when we got to Warroad, she said she had acquired a major backache. I was fine, but I drove all the way. On the way back, we split it up and she drove the second half of the return trip. When we stopped, I hopped out and — oof! — found a new and abnormal pain in my right leg, causing several days of heavy-duty limping.

I am not sure if there is anything on the expansive option list that offers a better passenger seat, but if you’re taking the new Prius for a test drive, do yourself a favor and sit in the driver’s seat.