It's the car that started it all. Back in 1997, Toyota introduced the original Prius, which was the first ever mass-produced gas-electric hybrid vehicle. Although there are now many worthy competitors, the Prius remains the top-selling hybrid model due to its attractive combination of comfort, practicality and, of course, excellent fuel economy.
While the current Prius will soon be replaced by a redesigned model, its aerodynamically-optimized lines still look futuristic and, more importantly, it remains the most efficient pure hybrid on the market.
With a thrifty 1.8-liter four-cylinder that teams up with a CVT and two electric motors, the Prius is rated at an impressive 51 mpg in the city, 48 mpg on the highway and 50 mpg combined. Three driving modes are available: EV mode provides roughly a mile of electric-only operation; Power mode heightens throttle sensitivity for a sportier feel; and Eco mode, which helps the driver maximize mpgs.
Predictably, the downside of the powertrain's focus on mileage is leisurely acceleration; taken together with numb steering and ample body roll, that means that Prius isn't likely to appeal to traditional enthusiasts.
However, the Prius does possess the less exciting but more practical virtues that will endear it to most hybrid buyers, including a comfortable ride, safe handling and a versatile hatchback bodystyle that provides 21.6 cubic feet of cargo space. Passengers are treated to ample room in both rows along with a space-age dashboard that sports a highly legible center-mounted instrument panel and a "floating" center console with a storage tray mounted underneath.
A 6.1-inch touchscreen for the audio system is fitted as standard, while upper-trim models get a navigation system, backup camera and Toyota's Entune infotainment system. Entune offers Bing, Facebook places and Pandora radio apps along with real-time fuel prices, sports scores, weather and traffic info. In addition to expected options like SofTex leatherette upholstery and heated seats, buyers can spec a radar-based cruise control system, a lane departure warning system, pre-collision braking and a park assist system that helps guide the Prius into a spot.
Also available are roof-mounted solar panels that power a fan to circulate air through the cabin when the Prius in parked in direct sunlight.
Trim Level Breakdown
The Prius is offered in Two, Three, Four and Five trim levels.
The Prius Two comes standard with power windows and locks, automatic climate control, a six-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo with a 6.1-inch touchscreen along with AUX and USB inputs, cruise control, heated power mirrors, Bluetooth connectivity with audio streaming, keyless ignition/entry and 15-inch alloy wheels.
To those features, the Prius Three adds a navigation system, Entune, HD radio, a rearview camera and a proximity key.
The Prius Four includes SofTex leatherette upholstery, heated front seats, an eight-way power driver's seat, a JBL sound system, automatic headlights and an auto-dimming rearview mirror.
The top-spec Prius Five brings LED headlights, foglights and 17-inch alloy wheels.
Available as an option on the Prius Three is the Solar Roof package, which adds a sunroof and a solar-powered ventilation system. The package is also available on the Four, where it adds an upgraded navigation system with a seven-inch display with split-screen capability, a head-up display and Safety Connect, which includes automatic collision notification, SOS emergency assistance, stolen vehicle location and more.
The Five can be equipped with an Advanced Technology package with a pre-collision alert system with braking capability, adaptive cruise control, a lane-departure warning system, Safety Connect, a head-up display and the upgraded nav system.
All Prius models can be fitted with the Plus Appearance package, which brings a bodykit and unique 17-inch alloy wheels. This package can be paired with the Plus Performance Package; it nets a sport-tuned suspension.
All Prius models are equipped with dual front, front side and side curtain airbags in addition to a driver knee airbag and traction and stability control systems.
Optional safety features include a lane-departure warning system, a pre-collision alert and braking system, and Safety Connect (detailed above).
Those considering a Prius should also check out the Ford C-MAX Hybrid, which is less fuel efficient but more spacious and fun to drive. Pricier midsize sedans like the Ford Fusion Hybrid and Honda Accord Hybrid are nearly as efficient while also being larger and more refined.
Those willing to consider diesel vehicles can test-drive the 42-mpg Volkswagen Golf TDI hatchback and the 46-mpg Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel.