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First Drive: The Fifth Generation Toyota Prius

Toyota rolled out the next generation Toyota Prius at the Los Angeles Auto show this year and it was welcomed with open arms thanks to its sporty new design and powertrain delivering impressive performance without sacrificing efficiency. CleanTechnica was in attendance at the launch and we were able to hear from Toyota’s experts and drive the new vehicles around for a few hours.

The beautiful lines of the new Prius more than skin deep as its aerodynamics contribute to its staggering 57 mile per gallon rating on the front wheel drive LE trim. Efficiency drops slightly for the front wheel drive XLE and Limited trims, both sporting 52 mi per gallon ratings. Even with gas prices coming down slightly over the last month, the high price of just about everything else makes the increase in efficiency that much sweeter.

Image credit: Kyle Field, CleanTechnica

Disclaimer: Toyota paid for the author’s accommodations while attending the launch event in Del Mar, California.

With its sporty new look, the Prius is sure to attract customers into dealerships for its beautiful design as well as its high efficiency for perhaps the first time. The Prius carries forward the latest trend we’ve seen from Toyota. A focus on pushing its hybrid technology out across its full vehicle lineup in order to deliver increased efficiency paired with increased performance when you want it. Toyota has delivered a 60% improvement in horsepower in the new Prius over the previous generation, boosting power output up to a peak of 196 horsepower on the all-wheel drive build.

The ability to deliver both power and efficiency highlights Toyota’s true mastery of the hybrid system. It’s possible to deliver maximum efficiency for the majority of driving while still being able to summon the full power of the gas engine and the electric motor when needed, or when you just want a little boost of speed to brighten your afternoon up. Don’t get me wrong – the new Prius isn’t a sports car. But its looks might make you think otherwise.

Compared to the droves of standard gas- and diesel-powered vehicles running around highways across the world, Toyota’s hybrids bring significant improvements in efficiency and thus, cost savings to the bottom line for customers. But when they are compared to the wide range of electric vehicles storming the streets and dealership lots in Del Mar, California and beyond, the case for hybrids is much harder to make.

Image credit: Kyle Field, CleanTechnica

The sole saving grace of hybrids is their lower relative purchase price. The new Prius ranges in price from $27,450 up to $35,865 (+$1,095 DPH) which makes it one of the more affordable environmentally friendly vehicles out there. But with the new Chevrolet Bolt EV packing 259 miles of of range and a punch of torque for just $25,600 and more options showing up every week, the case for the Prius gets harder to make with each passing day.

The front wheel drive and all-wheel drive versions of the Prius will hit dealership lots in January of 2023 and utilize Toyota’s signature gas engine and electric motor hybrid system. The system recoups kinetic energy from the vehicle by engaging generators to slow the vehicle. This recovered energy is stored in a lithium-ion battery pack. The vehicle is then able to use this stored energy to power electric motors to augment the power of the gas engine. The result is an overall increase in efficiency over a pure gas engine and that is the magic that has made the Prius so successful over five generations.

The new looks will make their way into the plug-in Prius Prime which will make its debut in the spring of 2023. The Prius Prime adds the ability to charge up what is typically a larger onboard battery. The larger power pack enables additional electric-only range at higher speeds, translating to higher total efficiency numbers.

Electrified

Much like the previous generations of Prius, four driving modes are offered: Normal, Eco, and Sport modes are standard with an EV mode is also available that provides the ability to drive using just the battery and electric motors at low speeds for a mile or two. It is little more than a gimmick, but it is there. Beyond the party tricks, it hints at what Toyota could do if it were to build a fully electric Prius and use its former position as the ultimate planet friendly vehicle to launch Toyota into the new full electric future.

Toyota isn’t sharing the battery capacity of the pack used in the pure hybrid, so it will be interesting to see how each of the models manages the energy flow. The battery pack boasts a 14% increase in power output and a 13% increase in input, increasing the pack’s ability to drink up all of the power coming from the generators during braking.

Design

The design of the new Prius is striking with lower roof line the tapers down to a sleek aggressive nose. The roof line is 2 inches lower than the previous generation, with a panoramic glass roof up top that provides a bit more headroom than a traditional roof and headliner combination. Covering the top of the vehicle in glass also contributes to a more open feeling in the cabin, which is nice considering it slightly smaller interior volume.

 

Image credit: Kyle Field, CleanTechnica

The lower roof line and sleek lines around the exterior of the vehicle contribute to its impressive 0.27 coefficient of drag (lower is better). Toyota didn’t stop there. Adding additional body panels underneath the vehicle further reduced wind and drag, helping provide an additional sound barrier to mitigate road noise at the same time.

The seating position in the new Prius is much lower than the previous generation. With the lower roof line, the seating position has been lowered which together, translate to less visibility out the front of the vehicle.

From inside the vehicle, it’s stance feels aggressive and yet wider than expected compared to the previous generations. Small windows to the right and left of the primary windshield offset some of the lost visibility through the windshield, opening up the blind spot that would typically be hidden in the front left and right corners of the vehicle.

Image credit: Kyle Field, CleanTechnica

Overhead, the default metal roof makes the interior feel a bit smaller than it otherwise would, accentuating the fact that the roofline took a two inch haircut. At 6’2″ / 188cm, sitting in the rear seats was less comfortable. With the driver’s seat set for my same frame, my knees bumped up against the driver’s seat and my head brushed the bottom of the headliner. This is a function of both the lower roofline and the way the more aggressive angles of the windshield push the driver into a more reclined seating position.

An optional $1,000 glass roof can be swapped in on some of the higher trims and instantly opens up the cabin. Its slim lines add more functional roof space for both the front and rear passengers and open up the area with more light and visibility. Visibility out the back of the vehicle through the rear view mirror is significantly improved compared to the earlier iterations of the Prius. The new Prius does away with the split rear window that provided more rear storage at the cost of lower visibility. Overall, it feels surprisingly open and spacious considering the slightly lower headroom.

Drive

Performance in handling are definitely the stars of the show when it comes to driving. When you pound on the pedal, the car kicks back and launches with a renewed vigor. The suspension is tight and snappy with the body roll significantly diminished from previous generations. It’s not quite what you would expect from an actual sports car, but a significant improvement from anything else bearing the Prius badge. Steering is nothing to write home about but it is more accurate thanks to the tighter suspension.

The center console infotainment system utilizes Apple play and Android Auto and while these are nice, the core system functionally doesn’t do much more than the last few generations of Prius. With the optional 12.3″ center screen tapped into Android Auto, the car feels so high tech. It’s honestly quite shocking and a massive disappointment that it doesn’t come with plug-in capability as the default. The heavy reliance on the embarrassingly loud gasoline engine significantly deteriorates the driving experience.

The sound of the combustion engine feels very much like previous iterations of the Prius. It is audible when it engages and always pleasant when it disengages, allowing the vehicle to transition back to the electric motors.

The new Prius is capable of updating its software via over the air (OTA) updates. Pushing for clarity on what can be updated, we learned that any of the multimedia systems and anything on the ECU can be updated over the air but firmware updates must still be installed manually from a jump drive. OTA updates are pushed down to the vehicle through the integrated AT&T cellular connection as the vehicle does not have the ability to connect to local Wi-Fi networks.

For large updates, Toyota may still opt or customers may still opt to have the vehicle brought in to a service center where the larger update can be downloaded and applied more effectively. OTA updates are pushed down to the vehicle in the background. To ensure updates are added as soon as they are available, downloads will continue in the background, even when the vehicle is not in operation.

Future

Toyota held the first drive of the new Prius as a homecoming of sorts as California. It was one of the key markets for the Prius, with both early adopters and environmentally conscious consumers finding the Prius to be a car that would both save them money and reduce their overall emissions. But that was years ago. Today, driving the Prius around the hills behind Del Mar, California, the new Prius is surrounded by electric vehicles of all shapes and sizes.

Image credit: Kyle Field, CleanTechnica

Hyundai Ioniq 5. Chevy Bolt EUV. Mercedes EQS 450+. Nissan LEAF. Kia Niro EV and of course swarms of Teslas of all shapes and sizes. The Model 3, Model Y’s, Model X and S are all plentiful here and make the new Prius feel like the last of a dying breed. A car left wandering the hills in search of a mate. The bold new styling of the 2023 Toyota Prius paired with its affordable pricing relative to many fully electric options are sure to slow the bleeding, but it’s hard to imagine it as the car of the future.

The future here in Southern California feels electric, though that sentiment varies widely as the survey stretches out into the rest of the country and admittedly, what part of the world you find yourself in. Nevertheless, the contrast echoes the discussions and negotiations invariably taking place in Toyota’s boardrooms as they attempt to map out their future of low and no emission vehicles in the years ahead.

Compared to every other Prius built to date, the new Prius is in a league of its own in style, power and efficiency. But in 2022, this 5th generation Prius is not competing against all the other Priuses on the road or even the internal combustion vehicles on the road. It’s competing against an entirely new generation of vehicles, electric vehicles.

Toyota long pinned its hopes of a zero emission future on the Mirai, which literally translates to future, but hydrogen is increasingly looking like it might not happen for passenger vehicles. Ironically, the Japanese word Prius literally translates to prior or before. In 2022, we can clearly see what came before in the Prius and what might come in the future with the Mirai, but it’s not hard to imagine customers are wondering what they should buy from Toyota today.

All images credit: Kyle Field, CleanTechnica

 
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Written By

I'm a tech geek passionately in search of actionable ways to reduce the negative impact my life has on the planet, save money and reduce stress. Live intentionally, make conscious decisions, love more, act responsibly, play. The more you know, the less you need. As an activist investor, Kyle owns long term holdings in Tesla, Lightning eMotors, Arcimoto, and SolarEdge.

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