What It Is
The best-selling hybrid in the world.
Can fuel economy be described as epic? Good, because it's epic.
It's mediocre or downright awful at nearly everything else.
Toyota had a very specific mission, which it accomplished. From a purely functional standpoint this could be one of the best cars in the world.
Reading the notes that were left for me on the 2013 Toyota Prius, I got the impression that it ran over a child's dog, insulted someone's mother, and unintentionally accelerated into a wildlife reserve. It's incredible that one car could stir up nearly as much ire as this one, like the IRS would at a Tea Party rally.
And yet, only a small part of it is deserved. A few years back, South Park spoofed the Prius with its "smug" alerts, partially based in on the truth: the Prius is the best-selling car in California and expensive gas makes it a knee-jerk reaction to get whenever prices spike. Some call it the Toyota Pious because of those holier-than-thou drivers who can't help but let you know that they're saving the world with their 50-mpg eco-mobiles. You know what helps save the world even more? A bike.
You can typically spot said people with Prii covered in bumper stickers such as your to-be-expected "Obama-Biden '08" (just '12 stickers either means that their cars are newer or they're bandwagoners), anti-GMO rhetoric, or some slogan about preferring to face temporary embarrassment over eating a hamburger. They're the people who give this poor car a bad name. And they're aplenty in California. But I've met some gun-totin' conservatives who love their Priuses, too. They're called realtors.
Thing is, outside of myself, no one on staff liked the 2013 Toyota Prius IV we had. Not even kinda, sorta. I, on the other hand, think that at least from a narrow point of view, it's one of the best cars on sale today. Refrain from getting out your pitchforks and torches 'til after I explain, please.
What We DroveBeyond celebrities trading in their Bentleys for these egg-shaped things to save the world, part of the appeal of the Prius has always been that it's attainable for common folk to look chic, too. If your idea of chic is driving around Dr. Robotnik car. Although not quite as cheap as it used to be--that's what the smaller $20,000 Prius c is now for--$24,995, including $795 for destination, isn't exactly expensive these days. The base price will get you a Prius II, which comes with a smartkey, Bluetooth, a touchscreen radio, and that's about it. Don't ask us why there isn't a Prius I; we simply don't know. Marketing, perhaps?
Moving up the ladder, you'll find the Prius III, slightly more stylish limited-edition Prius Persona, the Prius IV we had, and the $30,800 Prius V, not to be confused with the wagon-like Prius v, which can be had in Prius v V configuration, which if you know your Roman numerals should just be a Prius X.
But back to the car.
Our better-than-midgrade model featured an Entune infotainment system, backup camera, Toyota's SofTex faux leather and a JBL GreenEdge stereo system. It was also optioned with the $3,820 Deluxe Solar Roof package that helps the car stay cool with an automatic fan and comes with a sunroof, remote control air conditioning system, head-up display, and "premium" navigation system, bringing the total up to a considerable $33,050. For a Prius.
Being that this is ostensibly a family car, the Prius has LATCH points for two child seats, which are easy to find in the thin foam seatbacks. It's also a safe, garnering a 2013 Top Safety Pick rating from the IIHS and a five-star crash rating from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
The CommuteWhen you drive 300-, 400-, and sometimes even 500-horsepower cars semi-regularly, it's easy to forget about the wheezy little 134-horsepower hybrids at the bottom of the food chain. Definitely among the more leisurely new cars out there, the Prius still got up to speed without much issue, especially when we were driving it in Normal or Power mode. In Eco, it's sluggish, acting against you in the name of fuel economy preservation, riding on battery power as much as it can. No matter how we drove it, we never saw less than 36 mpg on short, stop-and-go stints. On the highway, we sometimes broke into 50-mpg territory, and News Director Keith Buglewicz saw an eye-popping 54.2 mpg on his commute one morning. Ultimately, we settled at 41.6 mpg--far shy of the Prius' 50-mpg mixed rating, but ahead of what we recorded from our time with the Ford C-Max (39.7 mpg) and Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid (36.9 mpg). As they say, your results may vary, and they often do when you have a commute as rough as ours can be in Los Angeles.
In bumper-to-bumper traffic, there's not much sound that comes from the Prius; a whirring of an electric motor here, the low-frequency thrum of the gas engine kicking in there. What really gets you is when you're traveling at anything over about 25 mph, as the car's suspension bucks over bumps to compensate for its narrow tires and just about every noise is distinguishable, from road noise, wind rushing past its pillars, or the heightened thrash of the engine as it revs its little heart out to keep this not-insubstantial car moving. It's unbearable in the same way that Hanson wasn't in the 1990s. After listening to it long enough, you somehow get used to it after a few days, and you have to keep in mind that this pod-car is roughly the size of a Camry, packs some heavy batteries and an electric motor, and still weighs less than its more mainstream brethren. A Rolls-Royce this isn't, and it's far noisier than most of its modern competition or anything over $30,000 this side of a Subaru WRX STI.
Having remained mostly unchanged since it went on sale in 2009, the Prius is definitely starting to fall way behind competitors like the Ford C-Max and Chevrolet Volt in the refinement department.
The Grocery RunAs someone who recently had to take apart a dining room table set and shove it into a small sedan and an infinitely more usable hatch, I can't help but like hatchbacks. On the surface, it doesn't look like our Prius was much more functional than any other sedan. We managed to fit just 13 of our standard-sized grocery bags in the back and eight with the Britax stroller in there, among the worst performers we've had in a while.
That only tells half the story because the Prius swallows 21.6 cubic feet of stuff behind the rear bench--more than most full-size sedans. Much of that room is obviously vertical, which is great for when you're yard sale shopping and not egg shopping.
When navigating parking lots, we found the Prius to be a smooth operator with numb steering, devoid of any sort of feel but easy to maneuver. Having a backup camera and fairly expansive windows also helped with visibility. A few staffers complained about the bifurcated rear window impeding their lines of sight, however.
The Weekend FunRemember when I said this car seems to incite deeply emotional reactions? For one reason or another, my comment, "There is no joy in driving a Prius" seemed to get a lot of "Likes" on Facebook. The Prius is a wholly mind-numbing transportation device. It goes. It stops. It has a radio and decently comfortable seats that are flat and generally well-padded, but not meant for holding you in place during racetrack driving or aggressive maneuvering, neither of which the Prius inspires. If you want an exciting Toyota, get a Scion FR-S.
But when you're not being cut off in traffic, given "accusatory stares of disgust," as one editor put it, or the one-finger salute even, it's not a horrible place to be. The interior plastics are a flimsy and molded with a scratchy grain. They're overly cheap-feeling and perhaps a result of Toyota's obsessive focus on this car's weight, but in fairness nothing feels like it's going to break or start creaking tomorrow. The controls are all straightforward and intuitive, even if a few people disagreed about its different-for-the-sake-of-being-different shifter mounted on the dashboard, and the center-mount gauges. And if you're worried about them, Toyota throws in a little paper pamphlet to tell you how to turn the car on and off. We assume most Prius shoppers haven't ever owned another car with a push-button starter. The stereo's decent. It has a ton of features, including an intuitive touchscreen navigation system, an information display that proved useful, but looked comically outdated in its circa-1989 Gameboy green dot-matrix graphics. It's the sort of car that is well-suited for meandering through a cityscape at leisure, rather than dive-bombing through traffic. Well, unless you're Al Gore III
SummaryFor all the derision I've mentioned about the Toyota Prius' leisurely performance, my coworkers' less-than-stellar appraisal, and the stigma this car has attached to it, I'm going to stick to my argument that the Prius is one of the best cars on sale today. Why? Because of its massive and easily attainable fuel economy numbers. Plus, it can comfortably accommodate five passengers, has ample cargo space, tons of technology--although some of that is getting dated--and has shown since the car's 1998 introduction that it's just as reliable as any other Toyota out there. The nickel-metal battery in the Prius has demonstrated that it doesn't wear out, defying prognostications from 15 years ago that they'd be useless by now.
Are there quieter, more refined, faster, and more comfortable hybrids on the market now? Of course there are. But each has its problems--the Volt doesn't get that great of fuel economy when it's out of battery power, and it only seats four. The Ford C-Max still has typical Ford ergonomics issues, and doesn't get the Toyota's fuel economy. The Prius, completely objectively speaking, does just about anything you could ask for in a family transportation device, and it does it well. Better still, it won't break the bank for what a lot of people outside the automotive industry still deem new-fangled technology.
It just happens to lack any truly endearing trait other than fuel economy. If you can get past that, you'll have yourself a trend-setting, miserly appliance, a fantastic contraption for its one and only intended function. However, all this comes with one important caveat: If you actually enjoy driving in any capacity, plenty of other fuel-efficient cars--diesels, hybrids, or otherwise--will satiate your desires far better than the colorless, odorless Prius.
Spec BoxPrice-as-tested: $33,050
EPA City: 51 mpg
EPA Highway: 48 mpg
EPA Combined: 50 mpg
Cargo Space: 13 grocery bags/8 with Britax stroller Child Seat Fitment, Second Row: Good
Estimated Combined Range: 595 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Excellent
Notebook Quotes"The Prius is a one-trick pony, with a very good trick. Everything about the car is designed to cheat fuel economy ever higher. The problem is that the resulting car, while efficient, is almost entirely unpleasant to drive. The Ford C-Max may not get the same fuel economy, but it's just as functional day-to-day, and I actually enjoyed driving it." -Keith Buglewicz, News Director
"Man, I hate this car. Fuel economy is unquestionably the best we've seen so far, but I'll trade 10 mpg if people would stop looking at me and cutting me off on the 405." -Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor
"There was no power to it. I understand it's a hybrid and that power gets sacrificed a bit, but still. Driving up a hill shouldn't take that much effort." -Megan Stewart, Associate Editor
"Oh god, please make it stop. There is literally only one reward for driving this automated transporter, and to reap that benefit, you have to be the kind of person who hates the finer things in life." -Jason Davis, Associate Editor