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First drive: 2016 Toyota Prius [Review]

Toyota\'s hybrid superstar is all-new for 2016.

It's hard to believe sometimes that the Prius made its worldwide debut 15 years ago. It seems like only yesterday that Toyota brought its niche green car across the oceans and took the petroleum-dependent world by storm.

Since, it has been redesigned twice (2003 and 2009), gone from cult hero to mainstream bread-and-butter, and expanded from a single model to a range of branded models, not to mention inspiring Toyota itself along with several other manufacturers to hybridize everything from compact commuter cars to full-size trucks.

Electrifying performanceDespite its leadership in the hybrid arena, Toyota has largely stood by and let others explore the performance end of the market. It's really in the higher end where this formula has been particularly successful, so it makes sense that the Prius lineup, carrying the less-than-ostentatious Toyota emblem, has not been a playground where the company has explored the potential of hybrid hypercars.

However, a driver's car doesn't necessarily have to be worthy of a poster to be worthy of an enthusiast's driveway. Honda's CR-Z, for example, demonstrates that there is room in the cheap-but-cheerful end of the spectrum for a hybrid that isn't hateful to toss around. Its practicality, on the other hand, pales in comparison to that of the bulk of Toyota's lineup.

Mild mediumWhile the typical Prius buyer may not care about the lineup's dynamic shortfalls, there are those who would likely be more inclined to buy one if it were a slightly more worthwhile drive. With the 2016 redesign, Toyota decided it was time to address this shortfall.

The overhaul began with the chassis and suspension. The new Prius rides on the company's TNGA (Toyota New Global Architecture) platform, which is Toyota's take on a modular platform. Eventually, it will underpin several Toyota and Lexus models, but for now, the Prius is the only beneficiary.

TNGA allowed Prius engineers to deliver quite a few firsts for the 2016 model. For starters, the battery pack now resides beneath the rear seats, freeing up cargo room and flexibility in the rear. Dynamically, this also contributes to a lower center of gravity. It's also longer, lower and roomier inside, and the roof peak has been moved forward to improve headroom.

With the new packaging also comes a new rear suspension—a double-wishbone unit—which is another first. Previous models featured a twist-beam rear end.

Modified motivationThe 2016 model's powertrain is also heavily revised. While the power output remains modest (121 horsepower and 106lb-ft of torque from the combined gasoline/electric system), the individual components have been modified for improved packaging and efficiency.

Most notably, all models except the Prius Two now feature a Lithium-Ion (Li-ion) battery, which is lighter (by roughly 30lbs) and more environmentally friendly than the Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMH) battery previously employed. Prius Two is still equipped with the NiMH unit.

Toyota claims the two-battery approach allowed them to take advantage of their advanced research with the older chemistry to deliver a similar experience to the new Li-ion unit at a lower cost, making it a budget-friendly component in the cheaper models.

The results? As we mentioned before, this wasn't done for power. This is a hybrid, after all, and efficiency is the name of the game. The 2016 Prius has been rated at 54 mpg in the city, 50 on the highway and 52 combined. The Two Eco bumps that to 58/53/56. For comparison, the 2015 model was good for 51/48/50, so there are across-the-board improvements.

The revised planetary CVT in the new Prius is also more compact, which opened up enough room in the engine bay that the 12V battery was moved there, further freeing up precious interior room.

Voodoo economicsThe Two Eco model is the lightest and most bare bones in the lineup, lacking weight-adding features like a spare tire. The other notable contribution to its improved economy is its wheel/tire setup, which is the most economy-oriented offering in the lineup. While it shares a wheel diameter with the regular Prius Two, its tires boast even lower rolling resistance.

Hustle and flowSo, the new Prius is not a powerhouse, nor is it any lighter or compact than the car it replaces. Can the new chassis and suspension really make up for these shortfalls in the fun-to-drive department?

Yes. Absolutely.

In fact, Toyota was so confident that we'd be impressed by the new Prius' dynamic performance that they had us drive out to Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, where they had set up an autocross course. Even more impressive was the fact that they brought along a 2015 Prius for us to use as a point of reference, allowing us to drive both back-to-back to our heart's content so that we could feel out the differences.

Usually, when a car has been redesigned and improvements have been made to handling, they're so minuscule that it takes a particularly keen awareness of suspension response to detect any real-world differences. Not so here. Toyota's confidence was in no way misplaced.

Just sitting in the 2015 and 2016 back-to-back is enough to highlight a few big changes. First, you sit lower in the new car, which helps dampen the sensations imparted by body roll. The seats themselves also hold better, granting a boost in driver confidence.

Fire it up (Oops, it was already on. Press the button again.) and hit the course, and another big difference is immediately apparent. The steering on the new car is much quicker than it was on the 2015. We could maintain a 9-and-3 hand positions even in the 90-degree turns in the autocross course—not true of the 2015, where shuffle-steering was mandatory. And yes, these changes were apparent from the lowly Prius Two all the way up to the Prius Four Touring model.

Unless you're pushing it on the street, these differences won't be as stark, but in a way that is what makes them important. The average buyer may not notice or even care that the new Prius is dynamically superior to the old, but for the rest of us? Well, it's those subtle things that matter.

Leftlane's bottom lineMake no mistake, the 2016 Prius is not a performance car. It could not even reasonably be considered a "fun” car in the strictest sense. Rather, it's a Prius that the average enthusiast won't hate driving. That's a huge victory for Toyota, and a refreshing progression for a model that was once anathema to anyone with any affection for the driving experience.

2016 Toyota Prius, from $24,200

As-tested

2016 Toyota Prius Two Eco, $24,700 2016 Toyota Prius Four, $28,650

Exterior photos by Byron Hurd. Interior photos courtesy of Toyota.

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