Mountain Wheels: New-generation Toyota Prius kicks weirdness to the curb
2016 Toyota Prius Two Eco
Powertrain: 121-HP combination 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine/electric motor/battery system; electronic CTV transmission
EPA figures: 56 MPG combined; 58 city, 53 highway
I guessed that posting pictures of a 163-MPG outing in the new Toyota Prius Two Eco — mouthful that is, with six different models now available — would instantly get me hate mail from my friends and relatives in the oil industry. It did.
But somewhere, sometime, and not just in Boulder, people may eventually care about fuel economy again, though we seem to be preoccupied with other issues this summer. And when that fateful day comes, those drivers looking for (and yes, this is me saying this) a fun, good-handling machine with attractively forward-looking design, might consider the Prius a totally non-denominational choice, at long last.
It really has been improved in this fourth generation, having sold some 3.5 million models up to this point, and the oddity and peculiarity has been minimized as much as possible. Strangely, despite having just 121 combined horsepower from a 1.8-liter four-cylinder and two electric motors, the 2016 Prius can fly along, and can tackle long slopes with a sense of determination, rather than fear and loathing.
What’s more, with a new longer, wider and lower-to-the-ground body, plus new double-wishbone rear suspension, Prius can be a remarkably capable curve-eating machine on a twisting mountain road. Or, reality check, a little more forgiving and regular-car-like when stuck in traffic on I-70.
Those six grades of Prius, including lighter and more efficient Eco models, begin at $24,200, a price point even the eventually-to-be-outed-as-a-Bond-villain Elon Musk can only dream about. My test vehicle was the basic Prius Two Eco, which meant a rudimentary entertainment system, cloth interior and a few missing bits like a rear wiper for that oddball two-stage glass — but otherwise entirely complete.
And rated at 56 MPG on the highway, a figure about 40 MPG higher than some of the ridiculous supercars and SUVs you’ve seen on these pages. The standard non-Eco models are rated at 52 MPG.
In reality, driving in an absolutely normal fashion, even being speedy where safely possible, you will get that 56 MPG. Doing a huge coasting downhill run and riding heavily on the regenerative brakes may occasionally create the unholy number I experienced on one trip.
And you will be encouraged to drive in a more pious Prius fashion, thanks to a litany of trip computer functions — perched in a display high above one very ambidextrous dash (you get the feeling you could just unplug the steering wheel and turn it into a right-hand-drive car when desired). You’ll get total gas cost (zero, over my journey), energy displays, history and some kind notes from the car at journey’s end telling you what you need to do to get even better scores.
At the heart of that is a new Hybrid Synergy Drive system, combining a 1.8-liter four-cylinder Atkinson cycle engine and two electric motors, plus an improved and much-lightened battery pack — small enough to migrate to a spot under the rear seat, freeing up trunk room. As mentioned, the power isn’t gigantic by regular car standards, but I found it easy to blaze away from traffic at stoplights (the car is only about 3,000 pounds) and could comfortably cruise at 75-plus on the freeway.
The looks are also a far cry from generation one and two of the car, with some almost Lexus-inspired angles and a less awkward overall appeal. The double-level rear glass is still a bit of a curiosity but helps reduce drag and give you a little more room for cramming your belongings in the back.
Driving controls are still not-exactly normal, but learnable: A small knob at the bottom of the center stack that engages drive, reverse or adds engine braking for big downhill shots, plus an electronic park button that feels more secure when you also kick in the foot-operated parking brake.
It’s much quieter than the past and almost entirely free of strange electronic generator noises or burps as the power shifts from electric to gas; driving is as smooth and serene as any regular automobile, especially when you look at the never-emptying gas gauge.
Even in fabric, the interior is much improved and seating is comfortable, with big storage in a center console armrest. The Eco model features a tire repair kit and an air compressor to help cut down on additional weight.
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