2023 Toyota Prius First Drive Review: Fuel Economy Without The Ugly

First Drive / Comments

Toyota's new Prius is the best one by a mile.

Writing a Prius review in the past was pretty simple: it's slow and ugly, but the fuel economy is second to none... the end. But with the 2023 Toyota Prius, that narrative has changed. Now in its fifth generation, the 2023 Prius ditches the frumpy styling in favor of a sleek new shape. Inside, there's a more luxurious cabin than ever, and the under the hood, the performance has been given an adrenaline shot. This isn't the Prius you're used to.

A plug-in hybrid Prius Prime model is coming next year, but for now, the Prius is only offered with one powertrain: a four-cylinder engine mated with a hybrid system to produce 194 horsepower (196 hp with all-wheel-drive). That's a massive 60% power gain over the outgoing model without a major sacrifice in fuel economy. Under the hood, you will see a badge that reads, "hybrid reborn," a new motto that rings true in every facet.

Toyota invited CarBuzz to drive the Prius in San Diego, where we learned that the styling is far from the only area where this new model is a major leap over the outgoing one.

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2023 Toyota Prius Front-End View
2023 Toyota Prius Front View
2023 Toyota Prius Rear Angle View

Exterior: Wait, That's A Prius?

The Prius's styling always felt like it was making an excuse. It was awkwardly proportioned and lacked any sense of curb appeal, but that's the price you had to pay for maximum fuel economy. In a new age filled with stunning electric vehicles that all maximize efficiency, Toyota knew it could no longer get away with building an ugly Prius. Toyota's designers worked overtime to transform the Prius with this new "one-motion silhouette." The sleek body shape does more than look good; it also yields a slippery 0.27 drag coefficient.

Overall, this new model is two inches lower and an inch wider than the previous Prius, creating a more visually athletic character. That sporty flavor is particularly pronounced with the available 19-inch wheels on the XLE and Limited grades. Toyota will offer six colors, including Supersonic Red and Reservoir Blue (pictured), which give the Prius more curb appeal than ever. Without the badges, most people may not even recognize this car as a Prius; that's a win.

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2023 Toyota Prius Front Angle View
2023 Toyota Prius Rear View
2023 Toyota Prius Wheel

Performance: Left Lane Ready

The bane of every driver's existence is a Toyota Prius hogging the left lane going below the speed limit. But no more! This latest Prius jumps from 121 to 194 hp. Part of that gain comes from a larger 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine (up from a 1.8-liter), while the rest is derived from more powerful electric motors. Thanks to the increased output, the 0-60 mph time no longer requires a calendar to measure. It drops from a yawn-inducing 9.8 seconds down to only 7.2 seconds.

All Prius trims are available with AWD for $1,400, adding an electric motor to the rear axle. Unlike the outgoing system, which only worked at speeds up to 40 mph, this new one functions at all speeds. The rear motor delivers 40 hp and 62 lb-ft, increasing the total system output to 196 hp and dropping the 0-60 time by another two-tenths of a second.

This massive jump in performance comes with an ever-so-slight drop in fuel economy. Toyota estimates the base LE FWD model will achieve 57/56/57 mpg city/highway/combined. Those numbers drop to 53/54/54 with AWD. The XLE and Limited get 52 mpg across the board with FWD or 49/50/49 with AWD.

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2023 Toyota Prius Engine
2023 Toyota Prius Insignia
2023 Toyota Prius Badge
2023 Toyota Prius Logo

Driving Impressions: No More Punishment

Much like the exterior styling, driving a Prius always felt like a sacrifice that needed to be paid in exchange for saving the planet. Toyota's recent drop of hybrids has proved that electrified vehicles can also be fun to drive, and the Japanese automaker has brought those learnings to the new Prius. From the moment you turn the steering wheel, it's obvious that Toyota put some effort towards improving the driving dynamics. There's no longer a complete disconnect between the steering and what's going on with the front wheels, even more so with the car in Sport mode (yes, the Prius has a Sport mode).

That added feel comes in handy through corners, where the Prius ditches its floppy handling for a more grippy experience. The car is still held back by skinny eco-tires, but this is the most entertaining Prius to drive by some margin. It also remains pretty comfortable with compliant suspension, little wind noise even on the highway, and enough power for swift overtaking maneuvers. Our first drive has us giddy for what's in store with the Prius Prime, which brings the output to 220 hp and adds nearly 40 miles of electric-only driving.

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Interior: Eco To Premium

As a car pitched to eco-conscious buyers, the Prius never possessed a super luxurious interior. This new model is more premium than ever, especially in the Limited grade, where we spent most of our driving time. An eight-inch touchscreen comes standard, but a 12.3-inch unit is available on the XLE and standard on the Limited. This system can be paired with an optional eight-speaker JBL sound system, which is the best we've ever heard in a Prius. Other notable options include heated and ventilated front seats (a Prius first), heated rear seats, a heated steering wheel, a surround-view camera system, a fixed glass roof, and advanced parking assist.

This cabin is noticeably nicer than the outgoing Prius, but the improved styling has impacted interior space. Rear headroom is reduced by an entire inch, making the back seat a tight squeeze for anyone over 5'10". Likewise, trunk space drops by more than seven cubic feet to 20.3 cubes. Are these trade-offs worth it for the prettiest Prius ever? We think so.

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2023 Toyota Prius Dashboard
2023 Toyota Prius Steering Wheel Design
2023 Toyota Prius Front Seats
2023 Toyota Prius Back Seats
2023 Toyota Prius Trunk Space
2023 Toyota Prius Maximum Trunk Space

Pricing: More For More

All of these styling, comfort, and performance upgrades don't come for free as the 2023 Prius does see a price increase over the 2022 model. Pricing starts at $27,450 for the LE version plus $1,400 for the available AWD system (the same for other trims). Upgrading to the XLE brings the price to $30,895 with the glass roof adding another $1,000 and the larger 12.3-inch touchscreen available for $735.

The Limited grade tops the lineup at $34,465, but a few options are still available, including the inexpensive digital rearview mirror ($200) and heated rear seats ($350). The Limited Premium Package ($1,085) is the priciest option, adding Advanced Park and the surround-view cameras. Overall, the 2023 Prius is more expensive, but it's worth the price for such substantial improvements.

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2023 Toyota Prius Taillight
2023 Toyota Prius Sunroof
2023 Toyota Prius Infotainment System

Verdict: A Recommendable Prius

We always found it tough to recommend the Toyota Prius. The fuel economy was excellent, but that wasn't enough to excuse the unpleasant styling, cheap interior, and sloppy handling. With this latest model, all of those caveats have been erased and we can finally recommend the Prius to a broader audience. We'd even consider buying one for ourselves!

Buyers who aren't quite ready to switch to an EV can now enjoy nearly 60 mpg, sexy styling, and a premium interior without holding up traffic. The styling improvements are accompanied by a major performance increase that makes the Prius outright fun to drive. The 2023 Toyota Prius may be the most drastic improvement we've ever seen, and it proves that there's still a place for hybrids in the market.

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