The iconic hybrid still stands out from the pack

LISTEN 19:14

Every morning when I get to work, I wind my way up to the roof of a six-story parking garage. And every evening, I wind my way back down. It’s a good half-mile round trip at plodding speeds. In a normal car, I watch the trip computer’s fuel economy readout tick down as I circle round and round through the garage. But in the 2019 Toyota Prius, I can go all of the way down and even most of the way up using purely electric power — burning no gas at all.

That’s the beauty of a well-executed hybrid: It often uses the least gas in circumstances where normal cars would use the most: Bumper-to-bumper traffic, neighborhoods with a four-way stop at every corner, or crowded parking lots. As long as you keep a gentle touch on the throttle — and in these conditions, there’s no reason not to — you can watch your mileage rise rather than fall. And this isn’t a plug-in hybrid that costs more and requires charging infrastructure; the Prius’s battery recharges as you drive normally, capturing energy from the gasoline engine and braking friction.

To be sure, the Prius hatchback is hardly the only hybrid on the market on which such technology achieves similar results. The Hyundai Ioniq hatchback, Kia Niro wagon/crossover, and the Honda Insight sedan are all newer designs than the current Prius, which dates back to 2016. There’s even an all-new 2020 Toyota Corolla Hybrid, which puts the Prius mechanicals in the body of a brand-new sedan. All these models rival or even beat the Prius’s EPA fuel economy ratings, and they all cost a little less; the 2019 Prius starts at $24,725. But the Prius still has the best blend of real-world utility and efficiency. It’s impressively spacious, and it’s more willing to putter around with its gasoline engine shut off than the Honda, Hyundai or Kia are.

Toyota has added another unique strength for 2019: a class-exclusive all-wheel-drive system, which is optional equipment on certain Prius trim levels. The car’s controversial exterior design also got a makeover this year, though its equally contentious interior design (and aging infotainment system) did not. Nor did it get a horsepower boost to address complaints about leisurely acceleration. Let’s go through the full rundown on how the iconic hybrid fares in today’s marketplace.


2019 Toyota Prius - Driven
- image 863878

With the Prius, Toyota has striven to be unique and futuristic without reaching the point of just being ugly. The current model’s exterior has certainly managed to be the former, but the latter was more of a question mark. The 2016-2018 Prius was crafted to look more aggressive than its gentle predecessors, but critics contend the result was over the top. The front end was dominated by wedges and triangles, while the taillights dipped down most of the way from the windshield glass to the bottom of the bumper.

The 2019 model cleans up those details, simplifying the headlights and spreading the taillights horizontally across the liftgate rather than vertically down the bumper.

The expanse of sheet metal between the rear wheel and the window glass — or rather, at that part of the car, the black plastic simulating a window — still looks ungainly from the wrong angle, though. And the current Prius could never be considered lovely, even if it’s simpler than before. The Prius Prime, the plug-in hybrid variant of the Prius, continues to be arguably the more attractive take on this approximate design.

2019 Toyota Prius - Driven
- image 863868

Inside, the 2019 Prius sees fewer changes than its exterior.

Glossy white plastic interior trim, which recalled a circa-2002 Apple computer, has been banished in favor of more conventional (though not much fancier) glossy black.

The upper dashboard remains nicely textured, and our test car’s leatherette upholstery is a credible substitute for cowhide. And the center-mounted digital speedometer display, while still unusual, is a familiar cue for anyone who’s previously owned a Prius. So is the gear selector, a stubby piece of blue plastic that sticks out of the instrument panel and pops back to a central position after you pick your gear; Toyota has been using this approach since 2004, long before all the European luxury brands similarly abandoned traditional “PRNDL” selectors. But the Prius’s overall cabin design is still an old-looking idea of modern, whose shiny surfaces and shallow knobs have not aged well. And its foot-operated parking brake is old-school in this age of electronic switches.

2019 Toyota Prius - Driven
- image 863866

The Prius’s infotainment system deserves special mention. Most Prius models still have the same system that was already dated when the model debuted in 2016. The screen is smaller than most competitors’ at just 6.1 inches — versus a norm of 7 to 8 inches — its graphics are less crisp, and it lacks Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration. Toyota has been phasing in a new system that solves all these complaints but the Android Auto, but the 2019 Prius doesn’t have it — despite being a technological leader for its powertrain engineering. Meanwhile, the top-of-the-line Limited trim has a giant 11.6-inch screen that looks impressive but isn’t any more advanced, and which replaces many physical buttons and knobs with a less convenient touchscreen interface. The 2020 Prius arriving this fall will at last swap in a newer infotainment system, about four years later than it should have.


2019 Toyota Prius - Driven
- image 863869

Right along with fuel economy, utility has long been a Prius hallmark. This spacious hatchback has always delivered above-average passenger and cargo space for a compact car, helping justify the relatively high price and making the car’s fuel savings accessible to families and rideshare drivers who need to regularly carry people in the back.

The front seats are low but comfortable and supportive, though even some relatively pricey models like the tested $30,945 XLE e-AWD have manual adjustments rather than power.

The rear is also a little low, but there’s enough legroom for two adults to be comfortable and three to squeeze in. It won’t challenge Toyota’s midsize Camry, but the Prius’s rear seat is quite a bit more spacious than the compact Corolla’s.

2019 Toyota Prius - Driven
- image 863870

Note that while it’s sometimes said “numbers don’t lie,” that’s not always the case with measuring cars’ interior volumes. Notably, the Hyundai Ioniq trumps the Prius on paper for both passenger and cargo space, but the Toyota feels airier in the front and back, and its cargo hold is better-shaped to provide useful capacity.


2019 Toyota Prius - Driven
- image 863867

The Prius has never been about sporty driving performance, with its economy-focused powertrain and tires. But since 2016, it has shown some additional composure — enough to make it more tolerable for, if still not quite desired by, driving enthusiasts. The steering lost old Prius generations’ extra-light, disconnected feel, and the suspension provides a compliant ride without becoming loose and floppy. The current Prius still doesn’t have the tire grip or steering responsiveness and precision that would encourage you to go out of your way for a winding road, but nor will you have to curse your fuel-saving needs every time you go around a curve.

The Prius’s straight-line performance remains familiar to longtime critics.

While it beats the competition for its ability to accelerate using only its electric battery — either via a light touch of the throttle or the selectable EV driving mode — that’s just about the only thing that’s fast about it. Expect it to go from zero to 60 in about 10 seconds, with the gasoline engine roaring in complaint all the way. That’s by no means dangerously slow, but the Prius really doesn’t like lead-footed drivers. The engine is loud almost as soon as the car switches over from all-electric operation, and while the engine is reasonably quiet at cruise (and sometimes turns back off), acceleration isn’t a subtle experience. Road noise is also prominent on the highway.

2019 Toyota Prius - Driven
- image 863881

All that being said, if you enjoy getting great gas mileage, you can have a lot of fun driving the Prius. More than the Honda Insight or Hyundai Ioniq, you can cruise along without the engine running — the times you’re burning zero gasoline at all. You just have to be extra attentive to the throttle, because the slightest extra press could be the difference between zero gasoline usage and low-mileage gas-burning acceleration. That effort doesn’t show up on the EPA fuel economy test cycle, which means that careful drivers can beat the EPA estimates.

The EPA rates the Prius at 56 miles per gallon in mixed driving (58 mpg city/53 mpg highway) in its base L Eco trim, 54 mpg city/50 mpg highway/52 mpg overall in most versions, and 52 mpg city/48 mpg highway/50 mpg overall with all-wheel-drive.

In a weeklong test, the tested all-wheel-drive Prius managed a whopping 64 mpg.

Drivers who don’t focus on electric-only driving will still enjoy excellent fuel savings, as the EPA figures indicate; the electric motor will always reduce gasoline needs by shouldering some of the driving burden from the gas engine, and it will take over entirely sometimes even if you’re not actively seeking that outcome. Where the Prius stands out is that it lets you demolish EPA estimates in a way that’s harder to manage in competing brands’ hybrids; I’ve consistently hit EPA estimates in the Hyundai Ioniq, Kia Niro, and current-generation Honda Insight — and consistently beaten them in a series of Prius test vehicles.

2019 Toyota Prius - Driven
- image 863878

Testing the all-wheel-drive Prius in the summer meant there wasn’t an opportunity to evaluate its snowy-weather performance. As in the Toyota RAV4 and Lexus UX hybrids, the Prius’s all-wheel-drive is created via a second electric motor that’s exclusively responsible for the rear wheels. This 7-horsepower unit complements the gas engine and the first electric motor’s combined efforts with the front wheels. The system is active only below 43 mph, and it comes paired with a slight 0.2 inches of extra ground clearance. On dry pavement, there was no evident difference between this Prius and previously tested front-wheel-drive models.


2019 Toyota Prius - Driven
- image 863865

The 2019 Toyota Prius abandoned the model’s longrunning numerical trim names (One through Five) to align with other Toyota vehicles. Available models now start with the L Eco and move up through the LE, XLE, and Limited. Prices start at $24,725 including the destination charge, and standard equipment includes automatic climate control, 15-inch alloy wheels, a proximity key with push-button start, and a suite of advanced safety and driver assistance features: adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking with a forward collision warning, a lane-departure warning with lane-keeping steering assistance, and automatic high beams.

The L Eco is the most efficient Prius because it weighs the least and sacrifices a rear windshield wiper to improve aerodynamics. But the extra features on the similarly priced LE ($25,935) make it the more logical starting point — it adds blind-spot monitoring with a rear cross-traffic alert, front and rear parking sensors, and that useful rear windshield wiper. And unlike the base L Eco, the LE is available with the new all-wheel-drive system for $1,400 extra. The tested XLE model is a decent deal, too, adding convincing false-leather upholstery, heated and power-adjustable front seats, rain-sensing windshield wipers, a wireless smartphone charger, and 17-inch wheels at $28,755. All-wheel-drive is an extra $1,000, but its front seats revert to manual adjustability. The top-of-the-line Limited ($33,155) gets pretty pricey for a Prius. It brings the jumbo infotainment screen, a navigation system, a head-up display, a 10-speaker JBL sound system, and adaptive headlights that turn around corners with the steering wheel. All-wheel-drive isn’t available on the Limited.

2019 Toyota Prius - Driven
- image 863878

The Prius starts a couple of thousand dollars higher than the competing Hyundai Ioniq and Honda Insight hybrids, though it has additional standard features that they lack. The Ioniq’s base model is missing the Toyota’s advanced safety features, while the Insight’s is missing a touchscreen infotainment system. Prices even out depending on the features, though you might find slightly bigger discounts available on Ioniqs and Insights than on Priuses. Toyota also offers two years or 24,000 miles of free scheduled maintenance, adding to its value.


2019 Hyundai Ioniq

2019 Toyota Prius - Driven
- image 863872

The Hyundai Ioniq debuted as a 2017 model, sharing the Prius’s aerodynamically optimized shape: a five-door hatchback with a rear windshield that slopes down gently toward a high rear end. The difference is that the Ioniq tries to look and feel as conventional as the Prius tries to be different. It blends into the Hyundai lineup, rather than making a dramatic styling statement. Its interior is about user-friendly design, with no futuristic styling flair. Some will find it dull. Others will find it refreshingly clean next to the aggressively styled Prius. Also notable is that the Ioniq has a more solid feel on the road than the Prius; the Hyundai feels more planted to the pavement, and it’s quieter. But the Ioniq is harder to coax past its EPA estimates than the Prius, especially in low-speed driving, even though it’s EPA-rated for slightly higher efficiency than the Toyota. And although it’s roomier on paper, the Prius’s cabin and cargo hold feel airier and more useful.

Read our full review on the 2019 Hyundai Ioniq

2019 Honda Insight

2019 Toyota Prius - Driven
- image 863873

The 2019 Honda Insight is another hybrid that can easily disappear into the background. It’s essentially a Honda Civic sedan that’s modified with less adventurous styling, slightly more upscale interior materials, and less zest to its acceleration and handling. And like the Ioniq, it’s harder to accelerate the Insight without the gasoline engine turning on, compared to the Prius. Aside from its anonymous styling, the Insight doesn’t have the Prius’s (or Ioniq’s) hatchback utility. It’s spacious for a small sedan, with an airy cabin and a relatively spacious trunk, but it’s nothing like the Prius if you need to carry lots of stuff. The Insight looks and feels fancier than the Prius inside, but it doesn’t match two key Prius strengths: efficiency and utility.

Read our full review on the 2019 Honda Insight

2020 Toyota Corolla Hybrid

2019 Toyota Prius - Driven
- image 863874

If you like the looks of the Insight but want the fuel efficiency of a Toyota hybrid, the newly introduced 2020 Corolla Hybrid could be perfect for you. It’s a conventionally attractive sedan inside and out, and its infotainment system is far superior to the 2019 Prius’s (though it still lacks Android Auto smartphone integration, found in the Ioniq and Insight). And it shares the same Prius components under the skin, with the same exceptional fuel economy, pleasant ride and handling, and uninspiring acceleration. The Corolla Hybrid isn’t as roomy inside as the Prius or even the Insight, though, and Toyota only makes it available in the lightly equipped LE trim level.

Read our full review on the 2020 Toyota Corolla Hybrid

2019 Toyota Prius c

2019 Toyota Prius - Driven
- image 863876

The Toyota Prius c is an aging subcompact hatchback that’s smaller yet less efficient than the standard Toyota Prius. Toyota has restyled it over the years into an agreeably chunky urban warrior, stumpy yet assertive. It’s tiny and maneuverable, making it a natural fit for crowded city streets. Yet it’s not so tiny that you can’t squeeze adults into an unexpectedly decent rear seat. And it’s peppy at low speeds. But the Prius c is best suited for buyers who really benefit from a tiny car. It runs out of breath on the highway, where both its power reserves and fuel efficiency plummet; you need to put your foot to the floor at times to get any meaningful movement. The EPA pegs the Prius c at 46 mpg in mixed driving, and at just 43 mpg on the highway, its high-speed mileage is in line with some gas-only compact cars.

Read our full review on the 2019 Toyota Prius c

2019 Toyota Prius Prime

2019 Toyota Prius - Driven
- image 863875

The Prius Prime is a plug-in hybrid version of the standard Prius hybrid, though with revised styling and the potential for all-electric commuting. It can travel an EPA-estimated 25 miles per electric charge, after which point it averages an estimated 54 mpg in mixed driving. It’s more expensive than the standard Prius, but that’s offset by an available $4,502 federal tax credit. The key downsides: It seats just four passengers rather than five (an awkward fifth seat is arriving for 2020), there’s a little less cargo volume than the standard Prius — and, of course, you need somewhere to plug it in if you want your promised fuel savings.

Read our full review on the 2019 Toyota Prius Prime

2019 Toyota Camry Hybrid and 2019 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid

2019 Toyota Prius - Driven
- image 863877

Hybrid shoppers can spend a lot of time at the Toyota dealer since it makes a great array of affordable hybrids. Prius buyers can also consider two more relatively affordable gas-electric Toyotas: the hybrid versions of the Camry midsize sedan and RAV4 compact crossover. Most Camry Hybrid models average an EPA-estimated 46 mpg in mixed driving, while the RAV4 Hybrid is now close behind at 40 mpg. (And as with the Prius, I beat EPA estimates during my tests.) Both offer superior passenger space, power, and refinement compared to the Prius, while the RAV4 also adds generous cargo space and standard all-wheel-drive with superior ground clearance to the AWD Prius. Even prices are relatively reasonable: about $4,000 more than the base Prius.

Read our full reviews on the 2019 Toyota Camry Hybrid and 2019 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid


2019 Toyota Prius - Driven
- image 863879

The 2019 Toyota Prius isn’t a car for most driving enthusiasts — even with the current generation’s improved handling, it doesn’t have sports sedan moves or a motivated powertrain. Even tech-lovers, attracted by the advanced hybrid engineering, might be turned off by the dated infotainment that Toyota is only now preparing to address. And it’s not especially inexpensive. But if your commute is a slog and you’re looking for a car that turns stop-and-go traffic into better mileage than you’d get on the open highway — especially if you’d enjoy coaxing your car to maximum gains — it’s hard to find a better option than the Prius. It’s roomy enough to fit comfortably into most lives, increasingly pleasant to drive, and extremely efficient. There’s room for improvement but already a lot to like.

Brady Holt
About the author

Related Articles

Apple Design Cues On Modern Cars? This Is Just Weird

What do you think?
Show Comments
Car Finder: