Mountain Wheels: All-new Toyota Prius brings increased power and major style changes

The 2023 Toyota Prius is essentially a completely different vehicle than its predecessors, with 60% more power and radical new looks.
Courtesy photo

Toyota says the objective for its entirely new, fifth-generation Prius is to make you entirely forget about the previous models and equate hybrid motoring with fun and exciting driving.

Given how offputtingly ugly and awkward those previous automobiles have been — and how they’ve somewhat negatively branded hybrid motoring for everyone as a result — a jump to the future with the 2023 model is certainly a welcome step. New Prius prices start at $27,450. The Limited model I drove was $37,494, with delivery and options.

As I seem to now mention in every non-SUV review I write, design here is absolutely straight out of a 1950s or ’60s World Fair “Car of the Future” display. That means a new, ultra-sleek, low-roofed sweep that’s dumped the old Prius’ dork factor and turned it into quite an attractive vehicle. The nose features a sleek bar of lights and hammerhead shark-styled aero fins. Rear doors have electrically-operated door handles up in the window frames.

Chopping the roof by 2 inches, however, means almost 2 inches less headroom inside, and Toyota has opted to compensate by moving the steering column much lower to the ground. At least one or two drivers in America will find this a great arrangement, but for me, it required tilting the wheel almost into my lap to be able to see even the equally low speedometer. Rumor has it this Prius of the future was supposed to come with a Tesla/Darth Vader Tie Fighter-styled tiller control, but without it, the wheel blocks much of the display, unless you have a very, very tall torso.

That’s really the only major shortcoming of the new design, minus the fact that the increasingly swept A-pillars can restrict your vision. In the rear, the bothersome two-level glass is gone, and the car still has 23.8 cubic feet of storage with the rear seats up (plus a Lego-styled array of Styrofoam bricks underneath the deck, which you can store small objects in, I gather).

To the delight (or horror) of Prius owners of the past, the 2023’s most significant change is an improved hybrid gas-electric system, which now puts out 194 horsepower (or 196 on the optional, on-demand, all-electric all-wheel-drive equipped cars, which cost $1,400 more). Output from the two electric motors has jumped from 71 horsepower to 111 horsepower, and a 14% more powerful lithium-ion battery pack also adds to the jolt.

Combined together, that is indeed 60% more power than in the past, yet the base model car can still get up to 57 combined city/highway mpg. I would not necessarily start betting your pink slips on the drag strip, but the AWD Prius can indeed do 0-60 in seven seconds, which brings it into at least the 1990s of automotive performance.

Fun? Well, again, hard to say, but probably more fun than the older Prius in your driveway, even standing still. Toyota claims vehicle handling has been improved by lowering the center of gravity, increasing structural stiffness and redesigning the suspension and coil springs.

I drove almost four hours Tuesday, including a transit of the entire Peak to Peak Highway between Black Hawk and Estes Park, and I cannot say the car is necessarily sporty, but that’s based on unfairly comparing it to actual sports cars. Compared to older Prius models, yes, it’s a vast improvement, though you won’t be carving or drifting corners, even on the higher-end Limited model’s 19-inch wheels and tires.

Power is there, but it’s still a curious affair. To access a bigger chunk of output while driving up Interstate 70 from Golden, I needed to bury the throttle and did indeed get the speed I needed, but also a hell of a lot of buzzing transmission and engine noise. It’s still a noisy experience when acceleration is needed.

Equally curiously, the system also has a built-in braking assist when you’re going back downhill, almost like the one-pedal driving system on an actual electric car. Let off the gas and the Prius will partially slow itself, often whether you want it to or not. This helps with power regeneration for the battery, but feels a little odd, considering there’s still an even stronger engine-braking mode available by pulling down on the new Lexus NX-styled shifter. My combined mileage over a day of driving was still 53.6 mpg, which exceeded the Limited’s EPA ratings.

Higher-end Prius models feature the large 12.3-inch multimedia screen which requires cloud-based, Wi-Fi-provided services to operate fully — and did not, up between Nederland and Ward. You’ll also be able to use your smartphone to open doors and fire up the car, if that is an appealing feature.

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