There are two schools of thought about the design of a hybrid. One is that hybrid technology can be adapted into an existing model, such as the Camry Hybrid, in order to go unnoticed by the general population. Or it can be as singular in styling as the 2016 Toyota Prius. And singular it is.
The Prius has actually swung back and forth over its almost twenty (yes, really) years of existence, from distinctive to bland to, well, some would call its fourth generation “controversial.” That means they think it’s ugly, but they’re trying to be nice. Others are less concerned about social protocols.
But others? Well, a couple pulled over to talk while we were photographing our test 2016 Toyota Prius Four Touring. They were ready to trade their couple year old Chevrolet Tahoe on the spot. Just on looks. And they thought it looked sharp.
And it does. It has more folds and edges than an origami convention, and it looks like you could cut yourself on it. Don’t like “jellybean” cars? Take the 2016 Toyota Prius. It’s one fold away from a paper swan.
The good news is that it cuts through the air with an amazing 0.24 coefficient of drag, a number that not long ago was thought possible only on exotic concept cars.
Ordinary cars can have excellent aerodynamics too, of course, but it’s Toyota’s hybrid system that has been Prius’ claim to fame. That continues for the fourth generation as well. The 1.8-liter 4-cylinder gasoline engine and two motor/generators drive through an electronically controlled planetary-type continuously variable transmission.
Toyota started at the beginning in upgrading the powertrain, retuning the 2ZR-FXE 1.8-liter gasoline engine to reach 40 percent-plus thermal efficiency—the work derived from the energy in fuel—well above the 25 to 30 percent of the typical modern gasoline engine. The improvements come from both reduced internal friction and improved combustion. For example, a new, smaller and lighter water pump for the hybrid system reduces mechanical drag (and as a side benefit, it’s quieter as well).
The hybrid system has been upgraded as well, starting with the battery pack. Toyota has finally replaced the nickel-metal hydride battery with a new lithium-ion battery (other than on the Prius Two non-Eco models). Smaller and flatter, the new battery can be positioned under the rear seat, rather than beneath the luggage compartment, making more cargo space possible.
For the technoids, Toyota has a paragraph: “The new hybrid transaxle and motor use a multi-shaft layout with higher motor speed range and a reduction gear mounted on a parallel shaft to reduce parasitic losses by 20 percent compared to the previous model. An enhanced DC-DC boost converter contributes to enhanced fuel economy by reducing output current in low-load situations.”
In other words, stuff was changed, resulting in better fuel economy, which is enough as most Prius owners will want to know.
More tech stuff lies under the skin. The 2016 Toyota Prius rides on Toyota’s New Global Architecture, a new platform that will see wide application across the Toyota product lineup. For the Prius it means a stronger, more rigid chassis, made more so by extensive use of hot-stamped and high tensile steel, along with laser screw welding and advanced body adhesives help create a rigid structure.
The new architecture also includes a new rear suspension that replaces the primitive torsion beam of earlier Prii with double wishbone rear suspension. The result is a smoother ride, better handling and a slight increase in cargo space.
So inside: Expect the unusual. You’re going to get it. Such as there’s no instrument panel in front of the driver. There wasn’t one last year either. Instead, the primary i.p. is centered high on the dash. It’s where they keep the digital speedometer and enough fuel mileage data for any obsessive compulsive.
It’s possible, for example, to track miles driven and fuel economy day-by-day. Our record for three days, in miles/mpg: 49.7/46.1, 111.8/48.3, 154.0/54.1. And if you’ve lost track, it’s possible to scroll back. The Prius doesn’t forget that easily.
The center stack—or more accurately, the center pod—is set slightly to the right. The multi-information screen can displays everything from audio to apps to the “eco” info including the usual and entertaining power flow diagram as well as more fuel economy data. Prius drivers like to track fuel economy scores like drag racers record quarter mile times.