It's the car every enthusiast loves to hate, so is it bad to admit we like it?
It took about ten thousand miles of having my rear end planted in the faux leather seats of a 2008 Toyota Prius until I finally understood what makes it such an epic car. It wasn’t by choice though. In high school, my parents had purchased the car against the best advice of yours truly, the family’s resident car enthusiast, but as a 16 year-old that needed to get around, I had no choice but to drive it. As a likely enthusiast, you’d be excused for considering anyone who thinks the Prius is a car that could be any good as crazy.
However, bear in mind that not everyone is born lucky enough to be a gearhead. For the rest of the world, the Prius began its life as the most practical car in the world in 2004 when the second generation went on sale and drastically upped the level of play left off by the first Prius. It was characterized by funky styling that made it instantly recognizable, the body roll of a drunken sailor onboard a sinking ship, and iron-clad practicality. On the back of the Prius two, the model rose to high ranks, selling 6 million models worldwide at the beginning of 2014. A year later, Toyota gave the Prius its biggest upgrade since generation two and then sent the Hypersonic Red model seen here to the CarBuzz offices for testing.
The second generation Prius looked outlandish enough for many, but that car’s styling is a mild flavor compared to the 4th gen Prius. Many automakers now like to employ the angry look to somehow convince buyers that they are the superior competitor, but this Prius is one outburst away from an anger management class. When I first saw its face, it appeared to me that it was glaring angrily while simultaneously squinting into the sun. The rear end looks more like a clenched fist than a gate that holds back up to 66 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats folded. While its looks may be polarizing, there’s no question that they help the hybrid achieve unreal fuel economy ratings.
This Prius attains a slippery drag coefficient of 0.24, and while this helps reduce wind noise at highway speeds, the noisy low rolling resistance tires cancel out the silence. That’s okay though, because with radar cruise control and automatic high beam headlights, there’s nothing for a driver to do at speed, so the noise is a welcome means of preventing drowsiness. Where the Prius does come alive is in the city. Few cars have mastered the art of making the commute an entertaining game the way the Prius does. High horsepower options get old quickly in bumper-to-bumper traffic, but in the Prius, the driver is constantly aware of how efficient the drive is both in real time and with a post-drive report card that pops up before exiting the vehicle.
Even the most horsepower obsessed will want to take part in the game by feathering the pedal, coasting to stops, and utilizing the eco air conditioning function that only doles out a breeze to seats holding occupants. It’s a bit of a phenomenon really, but getting sucked into this sort of driving joy is a pleasant surprise, sort of like when a twenty-something ditches the club music and begins to enjoy early mornings, wine tasting, and jazz. That’s because, just like those who’ve ditched the shutter shades and neon tees for a tie and an office job, the Prius does everything to near perfection – except for being cool. Even though Toyota spent a nice chunk of time refining the TGNA modular platform, this Prius is still quintessentially a Prius.
Pitch it into a corner and the outside half of the car will plunge below the horizon line reminding drivers to take it easy. Same goes for the nose when the brakes are applied, but given Toyota’s inability to transition smoothly between regenerative braking and pad to rotor contact, drivers will begin speed descents with a smooth glide followed by a sudden lurch forward that can make unknowing passengers think the driver to be incompetent. Whatever system is in place to mediate the two is also a noisy one, especially at parking speeds, but then again, it’s tough to hear anything else when parking except for the annoying beeps of the parking sensors and the car reminding the driver that it’s in reverse.
At least the automatic parallel parking feature works well and helps to eliminate some of the annoyance. Despite the tradeoffs, there is a reason that the Prius is one of the more popular cars on the market. For just under $25,000, the full kit complete with Bluetooth, USB connectivity, a backup camera, and the 95 horsepower 1.8-liter inline-four paired with a 71 horsepower supplement from the electric motor. Being the Prius Four, which comes with larger 17-inch wheels compared to the 15-inch units, navigation, and wireless phone charging, our tester started at $28,650 but was inflated to $33,884 with the premium convenience package, advanced technology package, and the special paint job.
The two packages add a handful of technological assistants including a pre collision system that can detect pedestrians (if the red paint and angry face didn't alert them to your presence), a sunroof, a heads up display, and lane departure alert. The 7-inch touchscreen display is added here too and unlike Toyota infotainment systems of the past, this one doesn't make drivers want to punch it. While the EPA tags the Prius with a 52 miles per gallon rating (54 city, 50 highway), we managed 49.4 during our tests in the dense city. Spending a lazy day with the car full of friends making trips to Costco and out to eat felt easy, partially because the Prius’ nature makes the task of driving a lower priority in the brain.
Within the car, everything is so easy and thoughtless. It’s dimensions are roomy while the exterior is reasonably sized for navigating cramped streets and although the complex web of electronics is there to ensure fuel efficiency, it’s backed by the reliable Toyota badge that means it’ll stay an enduring companion for any active family. For the vast majority of the city-bound population, the Prius is more than capable enough to endure a lifetime of chauffeuring. The only caveat is the lack of driving pleasure and the questionable design, but for those who see driving as a chore and don't give a lick about what's staring back when passing reflective store windows, then the Prius is the car that will save your wallet and keep you entertained both in and out of the carpool lane.