PowerSteering: 2017 Toyota Prius Review
Toyota redesigned the Prius hybrid for the 2016 model year, moving the car to a new global platform that will underpin numerous future models for the company.
Featuring a more rigid architecture, a lower center of gravity, a new gas-electric hybrid drivetrain for more expensive variants, upgraded interior materials, improved technologies, and an infusion of love-it-or-hate-it style, the new Prius was claimed to be simultaneously more fuel efficient and more fun to drive.
What Owners Say
Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the 2017 Prius, it is helpful to understand who buys this hybrid car and what they like most and least about them.
Toyota redesigned the Prius for the 2016 model year, and the car’s overall index score in the J.D. Power U.S. Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) StudySM rocketed up from 750 in 2015 to 817 in 2016. That is a substantial increase in owner satisfaction with the new design, and it put the Prius into the second-ranked position in the Compact Car segment.
Compared to the demographics of the segment, Prius owners are much older and wealthier. Most are male (62% vs. 59% for the segment) with a median age of 65 years (vs. 48 years) and enjoying a median household income of $108,283 annually (vs. $72,685). Just 21% of Prius owners are members of Generation X or Y, compared to 54% of compact car owners overall.
As might be expected, there are big differences between Prius owners and the general compact car owner. Practicality is important to Prius owners, while Performance barely registers as a reason they bought their vehicle. Nearly 40 percent of compact car owners identify as price conscious, while just over 10 percent of Prius owners do.
Prius owners are less likely to agree that they prefer to buy a vehicle from a domestic company (31% vs. 45%), and are less likely to agree that they like a vehicle that offers responsive handling and powerful acceleration (72% vs. 87%).
No surprise, but 95% of Prius owners say that their first consideration in choosing a vehicle is fuel economy (vs. 79%), while 87% of Prius owners agree that they are willing to pay more for a vehicle that is environmentally friendly (vs. 57%). Prius owners are also willing to pay more for a vehicle with the latest safety features (85% vs. 71%).
Interestingly, Prius owners are less likely to agree that they like a vehicle that stands out from the crowd (62% vs. 67%), yet they are also less likely to agree that a vehicle is just a way of getting from place to place (45% vs. 51%).
Owners report that their favorite things about the Prius are (in descending order) the fuel economy, engine/transmission, exterior styling, interior design, and driving dynamics. Owners indicate that their least favorite things about the Prius are (in descending order) the seats, climate system, visibility and safety, infotainment system, and storage and space.
What Our Expert Says
In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own perceptions about how the 2017 Prius measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the 2016 APEAL Study.
Style is not synonymous with allure. While owners appear to be happy with the looks of the latest Prius, I find the car’s excessive front overhang, wild lighting configurations, and standard gray wheel covers to be polarizing. Greater sculpturing of the body, a redefined boomerang-shaped profile, and the “floating” roof effect certainly do give the car more personality than it had, though, and I strongly recommend the aluminum wheels that come with the Touring Package.
Sticking with the traditional theme of centrally located controls, the Prius now contains them within a dramatically shaped dashboard that sweeps across the front of the cabin and into the front door panels. Choose the off-white Moonstone interior color, and the effect is magnified to a positive effect.
Below the strip of primary instrumentation displays, the center control pod contains the latest version of Toyota’s Entune infotainment system, which looks modern and features intuitive operation. The joystick transmission controller takes some getting used to, and in order to put the car into Park you still need to push a separate button.
Materials are upgraded over the previous Prius, with glossy black and white plastic, tastefully textured soft surfaces, and metallic accents defining the interior space. Especially with the Moonstone interior, the Prius Four Touring looks upscale and almost luxurious inside.
Many people think of the Prius as a small car, but it is actually a midsize car with room for up to five people.
The test car’s front and rear seating was comfortable in terms of padding and positioning, but the SofTex simulated leather does not breathe well and tends to feel a little sticky. Unfortunately, a seat ventilation system is unavailable, and Toyota does not provide rear passengers with air conditioning vents.
Climate Control System
Given the SofTex, the lack of rear air vents, and the unavailability of front seat ventilation, chances are good that it doesn’t take much in the way of sunshine or heat and humidity to transform a Prius into a sauna. Unfortunately, cool weather during testing did not prove this theory.
As far as climate system operation is concerned, Toyota wisely keeps the buttons and piano-key controls divorced from the infotainment system. This makes them easy to use.
While the latest high-end version of Entune is better than ever, it remains a work in progress.
System positives include a flush tablet-style screen, knobs for volume and tuning, main menu buttons flanking the display for easy access to features, Siri Eyes Free capability, and generally intuitive operation.
System negatives include stacked virtual buttons for radio station pre-sets, and Toyota still doesn’t offer Apple CarPlay or Android Auto for any of its vehicles. Furthermore, this vehicle doesn’t supply any safe teen driver technologies, and the available Safety Connect subscription service is offered only for the Prius Four model.
Storage and Space
Style takes precedence over storage in the cabin. A tray containing an available wireless charging pad and a couple of cup holders amount to the most easily accessible storage spaces. The center console bin is large, and there are bins in the door panels, but considering that Prius owners complain most often about storage and space, it seems that most people are going to want more convenient places to stash things.
Because the Prius is a 5-door hatchback, it provides plenty of utility. With the rear seats in use, the car swallows up to 27.4 cubic feet of cargo, depending on the trim level. Fold the rear seats down, and a Prius can reportedly tackle as much as 65.5 cu.-ft. of cargo. That’s on par with many compact crossover SUVs.
Visibility and Safety
Forward visibility is excellent, thanks to thin windshield pillars and a nearly unobstructed 180-degree forward view. To the rear, the car’s traditional bisected rear hatch still blocks a portion of the rearward view, but Toyota has minimized the design’s impact to the greatest extent possible.
Toyota needs to improve crash-test scores for the Prius. In testing conducted by the federal government, the car gets 4-star ratings for frontal-impact protection instead of 5-star ratings. Worse, the rating for a side-impact collision with a pole, such as when the car might slide laterally off a road and into a telephone pole, rates just 2 stars.
Meanwhile, over at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the Prius earns perfect ratings across the board except for its headlights, which notch an “Acceptable” nod rather than “Good.”
As far as driver assistance and collision avoidance systems are concerned, every Prius comes standard with Toyota Safety Sense. This includes full-speed adaptive cruise control, a forward collision warning system with pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning with lane keeping assist, and automatic high-beam headlights.
To get a blind spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert – both highly useful safety systems – you must upgrade to the Prius Four or Four Touring trim level. Likewise, Toyota’s Safety Connect service is only available for the Prius Four and Four Touring, adding automatic collision notification, emergency SOS assistance, and quick access to roadside assistance.
Safety is critical. Toyota asks Prius buyers to pay for the most expensive model to get important safety features. I can’t help but think there is something wrong with that.
Every 2017 Prius is equipped with a 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine, a 53 kW electric motor, a battery pack, a continuously variable transmission, and a regenerative braking system. If you get the Prius One or Two, the battery uses older nickel-metal hydride composition, while other variants receive a modern lithium-ion battery. Drivers can select between EV, Eco, Normal, and Sport driving modes.
Combined, system output measures 121 horsepower complemented by a juicy chunk of torque right when you step on the accelerator pedal. The torque from the electric motor helps the Prius feel sprightly around town, especially in the Sport driving mode, but as the car gains momentum the sensation of acceleration fades. You can merge onto freeways without much stress, but passing power at higher velocities is definitely in short supply.
At low speeds, you can use the Prius as an electric vehicle by pushing the EV button. For example, if you’re stuck in heavy traffic, you can use the EV mode to creep along on battery power until the battery reaches its minimum state of charge, thereby saving fuel. Depending on conditions, once you exceed the typical residential speed limit of 25 mph, the gasoline engine reignites and the Prius returns to its normal state of propulsion.
I drive every test car on a mountainous loop with a total change in elevation of approximately 1,800 feet. I also cycle through all driving modes to sample each for short periods of time, but usually leave everything in whatever the standard mode is for the majority of each drive.
With that in mind, my test car returned 44.4 miles per gallon, falling far short of the EPA’s 52-mpg estimate in combined driving. Obviously, your results are likely to vary, and I consider this figure to reflect a worst-case scenario.
When Toyota launched the redesigned Prius for the 2016 model year, the company touted how much more fun the car is to drive. That’s actually true, though the accompanying advertising certainly exaggerated the assertion.
Toyota builds the Prius on its latest global vehicle architecture, which is engineered to produce more entertaining vehicles. As applied to the Prius, the result is a less ponderous feel and reduced resistance to following anything but a straight line.
Granted, the Prius Three Touring and Four Touring benefit from a major wheel-and-tire upgrade, going from 15-inch wheels and 195/65 tires to 17-inch wheels and 215/45 tires. No doubt, that makes a huge difference in terms of handling and grip. Should you choose this superior set of rubber, you’ll actually enjoy rounding corners and tackling curves while driving a Prius.
Toyota has also improved steering feel, weight, and response, though the larger tires likely impact my opinion on this front, too. And the regenerative braking system is more sophisticated than ever, feeling as natural as one might expect from such componentry.
With the Touring package’s larger wheels, and with the Prius placed in Sport mode, this hybrid is enjoyable to drive. Do not, however, read that as entertaining to drive.
Given the owner profile of the typical Prius buyer, the latest iteration of the car is a success. They even like the styling.
Toyota needs to improve in terms of the climate control system, especially with regard to how well the car tackles hot and humid weather conditions. It also appears that owners are dissatisfied with the car’s safety, whether that is related to NHTSA crash-test performance or the fact that key safety features require an upgrade to an expensive trim level. Finally, owners also complain about the infotainment system, which lacks key features and services available from competitors.
Changes to address these issues would definitely improve Toyota’s iconic hybrid car, which faces tough new competition in the form of the Hyundai Ioniq.