The Toyota Prius, since its debut more than two decades ago, has always been a reasonable, responsible car. It’s the vehicle that always picked the kids up from school on time and took the trash out as soon as the can got full. It’s the car that volunteered for beach clean-up day, and got its pets not just spayed, neutered, and vaccinated, but also microchipped — and all of this, while using little gas. But in spite of being functionally an adult straight from birth, the Prius was always a bit quirky; It may have been your responsible friend, but it was your friend who kept wearing graphic tees and getting tattoos right into their forties. It was your friend who kept her goth hairstyle and septum piercing even after having two kids. But the Prius is not that friend anymore. With the 2023 model, the Prius has donated its last Wilco tee to the thrift store and put on a crisp button-down shirt instead. And a lot of people will love it for that.
[Editor’s Note: Since we believe in very full disclosure, I’ll let you in on a secret: Toyota forgot to invite us to the new Prius launch until it was almost too late, so we had to find someone local the day before. Luckily, Emily, a science writer for Cal Tech and avid builder of contraptions, was close by! You may remember Emily from her story about 3-D printing a side marker lamp for her rare Toyota truck, and this is her first go at a car review. I’m delighted to hear her perspective of a gearhead not yet jaded by press cars and inexhaustible supplies of shrimp. – JT]
[Full disclosure: Toyota put me up in a hotel by the sea and fed me food and cocktails and lots of coffee in exchange for writing about the new Prius. Another full disclosure: This is my first car review and this was my first time attending an automotive press event. I was just minding my own business one afternoon when Jason messaged me an odd request. Several hours later I found myself checking into a fancy hotel by the sea that Toyota had paid for. Toyota’s largesse extended to food (steak and lobster??) drinks (cocktails and fine wines) and even room service. This assignment included a lot of firsts for me: It was my first time having my keys taken by a valet at a hotel entrance. It was my first time staying in lodging fancier than a Motel 6 or a Best Western. And it was definitely my first time being called “madam” by someone bringing a fancy-ass plate of bagel and lox to my room for breakfast. As a person of generally modest means who won’t even buy ground beef if it’s more than $3.99 a pound, it was all pretty disorienting, even if it was exciting.]
Not As Quirky Outside, But It Does Look Good
The most obvious difference between the incoming Prius, shown above, and its predecessors is its outward appearance, so we might as well start there. Since the second-generation models rolled off factory lines in 2003, Priuses have always looked distinctively Prius-y, which is to say, like a dorky turtle. Don’t believe me? Here’s the whole line of previous Priuses:
The 2023 model still has plenty of styling cues that let you know what it is, but it’s got an aggressive look now that, at least in the gray paint I ended up with, made me think of a manta ray, or a shark, or some other sleek underwater predator.
Its wheels are big, and its tires are low-profile; worth noting: Lead engineer Satoki Oya made a point of saying they kept the wheels narrow for lower rolling resistance and better efficiency.
At the back of the car is another big styling difference. The rear hatch has lost the two-piece glass treatment that the previous models had. That’s probably not something that most people who buy this car will care about, but it made me a little sad to see it gone. It was one of those Prius details you didn’t really see anywhere else, save for the second-generation Honda CRX.
[Editor’s Note: I think it’s worth pointing out that the new Prius design, which I feel is vastly, vastly better than previous generations, retains this awkward and puzzling solution to front license plate mounting as I saw at the LA Auto Show, and discussed in this video. I’m talking about this block:
Is this really the best design Toyota could think of for front license plate mounting? Front plates are required in 31 states, leaving 19 states that just have to live with this big-ass block that breaks the sleek lines of the front end? I don’t get why they were okay with this. – JT]
Not As Weird Inside
The interior of the Prius feels, well, aggressively normal, with basically all of the amenities being exactly where you expect them to be. This is another departure from previous Prii. Whereas driving the fourth-gen Prius felt a little like a space pod inside, its replacement feels just like a more typical car. The shifter, which has been part of the dashboard for three generations now, has been moved down to the center console in the same place you would find it in just about any other modern vehicle.
The center console has two modestly sized cupholders that hold a small cup of coffee just fine, but were unable to handle the water bottle I brought along for the ride. Fortunately, there’s a large tray just forward of the cupholders and my bottle sat there more or less happily.
The Toyota folks seemed quite proud to show off a slot in the center console where you can keep your phone while you drive. But it’s not just a cubby—it also wirelessly charges your phone. It’s neat, but if I had one of these Priuses as my daily driver, that slot would end up filled with old receipts, hair ties, loose change, and a few melted chapsticks in about a month.
Despite the general ordinariness of the car’s interior, one thing that stood out to me was how comfortable it was to sit in. I am 6-foot-4-inches and my primary car is a Honda Fit, so 95 percent of my driving experience involves me feeling cramped.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the leg room was more than ample once I scooted the seat back, and I could sit all the way straight up without bumping my head into the roof. And to really test the car’s leg room, I left the front seat in that position and climbed in the back sea behind it. It was a little snug, but I didn’t have to turn my legs sideways to fit. If I had three clones of my large self, we could all four ride in this car in comfort.
Less Rear Cargo Space
Maybe I’m biased because I drive a Fit, or maybe because I’m hoarder and serial hobbyist, but I expect a hatchback to have a lot of room for my junk in its trunk. This is one place where the new Prius seems to miss the mark. Its trunk is small. Apparently the cargo volume of this new Prius is a whole 3.5 cubic feet less than what the previous model had. Lead engineer Oya told those of us who came to the press event that smaller trunk was due to style considerations rather than any kind of engineering decision.
The small cargo area means someone could fit a few suitcases back there for a weekend trip, but I’m not sure I could carry around a 3D printer, a bicycle, a milk crate of camping supplies, and some cool flower pots I found on the side of the road, even with the rear seats folded down. That’s kind of a bummer.
Side note: One thing I thought odd about the trunk was that when I lifted the floor mat, I found myself faced with an expanse of Styrofoam. The material was more like the polystyrene foam used in bicycle helmets than something you would find in a shipping box, but with all the cubbies and recesses molded into it, it reminded me of a convenience-store ice chest. (Maybe it will come in handy for someone who forgets to bring a cooler with them on their fly-fishing trip.)
I asked the Toyota folks what the Styrofoam is for, and their answer was simple: For making the trunk floor flat. Apparently this is common in newer cars, though, they admitted they didn’t know why the foam is white instead of the black color that’s more typical. The fellow I spoke with said he asked the Toyota engineers, and they gave him an answer he didn’t understand about “static dissipation.” This is an interesting little detail that I would like to investigate further.
Not As Weird To Drive
As I mentioned above, my daily driver is a Honda Fit. It’s from 2010 and it was the most base model I could find (I wanted a stickshift, ok? It’s not just that I’m cheap). That Fit is just the latest in a long series of dumpy little cars I’ve purchased more for utility and fuel efficiency than anything else.
Driving the 2023 Prius is nothing like driving any of those cars I’ve owned. Whereas my cars have all been slow and loud, the Prius is quick and quiet. Road noise is minimal, unlike in my Honda where the sounds of the freeway regularly drown out the radio. The Prius makes sure you don’t feel potholes as much more than a little jiggle in your seat. In my Rabbit, they threatened to yank the steering wheel from my hands.
The Toyota team was very excited to tell us about the lane assist and active braking features they included in this car, and despite being kind of a luddite about those things, I have to admit I didn’t hate them. The active braking surprised me a little a few times as I approached cars stopped for a red light ahead, but I never felt like it was taking control away from me. The same goes for the lane assist. In the Prius, I barely noticed it, and when I did, it was more like a polite suggestion than an order. The car also comes with a feature that can be best described as a “Stop looking at your phone. The light turned green,” idiot light.
If the car in front of you starts driving, and you don’t, it gently flashes a thin strip that runs across the bottom of the dashboard at you. I tested it. It works. That’s kind of neat.
So far, I’ve mostly compared how the new Prius drives to how my econoboxes drive, and while those are useful(ish) data points, they’re probably not entirely fair comparisons. So, how does it drive compared to another Prius? Short answer: very differently.
In the fourth-generation Prius, you feel like you are driving a hybrid car. You can hear the soft whir of the electric motor when you press the accelerator or when you slow down. When you come to a stop, there’s a mysterious little buzz that says there’s something going on under the hood besides just a gas engine.
In contrast, the new Prius just drives like a car. If you press the gas pedal, it goes. If you press the brakes, it slows down. If you really press the gas pedal, the gas engine gets noisy. If I were to have sat down in it without knowing it was a Prius, and without seeing the telltale kilowatt-hours number on its heads-up display, I think it would have taken me a while to realize I was driving a hybrid. The older Prius reminded me of driving a robot, who was also your friend. The new Prius might as well have been my grandparents’ Camry.
More Power, Upgraded Batteries
The new Prius is built on Toyota’s TNGA-C (Toyota New Global Architecture) platform, which also underpins the Corolla, the CH-HR, and the Lexus UX. The overarching theme of technical changes to the car is More. Its 2.0L gas engine has more horsepower (150 vs. 96 before). It has more magnets in the electric motor, which apparently makes the car more efficient. Together, the gas and electric motors give the Prius 196 hp, allowing the AWD version to get up to 60mph in seven seconds. The front-drive car, which has 194 hp, version does it in 7.2.
Toyota has squeezed 14 percent more battery capacity into the car by finally ditching nickel metal hydride (NIMH) technology in favor of lithium ion (li-ion) batteries. Priuses always came with NIMH batteries right up to 2021, when they were outfitted with both NIMH and li-ion batteries. Now the last vestiges of that older technology are gone. Since li-ion batteries are more energy dense than NIMH batteries, the company can pack more electrons into the same amount of space (that space being under the back seat).
It’s Actually Less Aerodynamic
The new Prius goes more miles on a gallon of gas—up to 57 miles per gallon in the FWD LE trim level.. If you get an AWD model in either the XLE and Limited trim levels, the fuel economy drops quite a bit to 49 mpg.
The car is one inch wider and one inch longer. The wheelbase is about 2 inches longer (50 mm). It has more drag, which is to say, it’s a little bit less aerodynamic. According to Oya, this increase in drag is primarily because the company moved the peak of the roof further back for style purposes.
The AWD option, which is new for the Prius, seems like a big deal and will probably be a welcome addition for people who live in places with weather more inclement than anything I would ever see in the San Diego neighborhoods where I test drove the car. I mentioned this detail to a friend who lives near Denver and he said “TBH I’d consider an AWD Prius. I feel like most manufacturers have decided if you want AWD, you get a largish SUV.” (He alternates between driving a Subaru Outback and a Triumph Spitfire to work right now.)
The Prius Is Going To Make Lots Of People Happy
The new Prius is a capable, comfortable car with excellent fuel economy and modern, aggressive styling. For people who want to save money on gas while getting to places without a lot of fuss, this car is going to be a great option. Compared to the outgoing car, the new Prius is a very normal car now, offering a very normal driving experience and normal styling, and that’s going to make a lot of people very happy, even if it makes me a little bit sad.