I’ve focused a lot on how to upgrade your existing vehicle to take advantage of modern technology, even if it is long in the tooth. But I can cram stereos and backup cameras into my 2001 Toyota Avalon all day long and it will still be a 15-year-old car with all the mechanical and cosmetic problems that ensue (not that there are a ton of the former, Toyota makes a solid engine).
So when Toyota offered to let me drive around a brand new 2016 Prius Four for a week, I was beyond thrilled. Not that you haven’t seen a million of them on the road, but the 2016 Prius is a mid-sized hybrid gas/electric sedan with seating for four and a cavernous hatchback (sorry, liftback–hatchbacks are so ’90s). The model that Toyota sent over was upgraded with all the technological toys they could cram into it–radar assisted dynamic cruise control, wide-angle backup camera, lane departure warning with steering assist, pedestrian detection and pre-collision warning system, color heads-up-display (HUD), automatic high beams, and a 7-inch LCD touchscreen sound system/command center. All that pushed the $30,000 Prius Four up to a sticker price a little over $32,000, after delivery and fees. So is all of that extra tech worth the premium?
Right off the bat, I loved the Four that Toyota sent to be my whip for a week. The styling is aggressive and does a lot to deflate the “boring econobox” reputation. The angular headlamps and taillights give the 2016 Prius much more personality than I’m used to seeing from hybrids. I even like the color (not that Sea Glass Pearl is something I’d ever choose on my own). I’ll be honest, the first couple of drives in the Prius Four, I was just flipping out over all the toys packed into this sucker. I was also reveling in driving something that wasn’t at least ten years old. But as I settled in and the “newness” wore off, there were a handful of things that were noteworthy.
1. It’s Quiet
Like, “is this thing still running?” quiet. When you roll up to a stop light or are cruising through a parking lot at low speed, the electric motor takes over from the gas engine. As that happens, you’ll hear a bit of a whine (government mandated, that) but that’s it. As you come to a complete stop, there’s no rumble from under the hood, no vibrations in the wheel, just stillness. When you start up again, unless you jam on the gas, there’s no lurch or noise from the motor reengaging–it will go a few feet in EV mode until you’re accelerating quickly enough to need the engine. Overall it’s a very smooth process. Engine noise and road noise are minimal, even on the highway.
2. It’s Roomy
Despite my trepidation that my family of four would be sitting on top of each other for long car rides, it was quite the opposite. Not that the Prius is as big inside as, say, the Honda Odyssey that we usually travel around in, but despite the physically smaller interior, we didn’t feel cramped. Everyone had their own space and it was actually easier to talk back and forth since the interior was quieter. And the cargo space under the liftback? Big enough to swallow up a full-sized cello, a backpack filled to the brim with high school textbooks, my Saddleback briefcase, and a few bags of groceries with room to spare.
3. It’s Packed to the Floorboards With Tech
In addition to the driving tech, like the selectable EV Only mode, which lets you cruise on battery power at low speeds and acceleration, the 2016 Prius Four has a ton of safety and infotainment technology. The Four has a 7-inch touchscreen command center that controls everything from pairing your smartphone over Bluetooth to digging through the data for your last few drives to see how efficient you were. There is an impressive amount of functionality accessible through the stereo. So much that it was easy to get lost in the sub menus. I ended up going hands-off most of the time I was in the car. I set the home screen to show me the weather and a map of my current location, and I used my phone to stream NPR One and podcasts. I did find myself missing the simplicity of Apple’s Car Play that I enjoy with the Pioneer system in my Avalon. It would be nice if Toyota was Car Play or Android Auto compatible. It’s a preferable solution to having to keep relearning in-car systems every time you switch to a new vehicle.
Elsewhere in the cabin, there are even more gadgets to play with. There’s a wireless Qi charging pad in the center console and an LED readout in the center dash that keeps you abreast of what’s playing on the stereo and how efficiently you’re driving (along with a ton of other info that it can be configured to display). I also loved the color HUD (when it wasn’t washed out by the bright Florida sunshine)–not only does it provide speed and direction, it will display directional tips when you’re using the command center for navigation. Then there’s the safety tech–the backup camera is crystal clear and perfect for getting in and out of Florida parking lots unblemished where there’s a large population of drivers who are, shall we say, past their prime. Lots of people down here only focus on backing up or moving down the lane and don’t pay attention at all to who’s pulling out! On the highway, the sideview mirror-mounted warning indicators were helpful for avoiding motorcycles that liked to disappear into my blind spot, but the real star was the radar-assisted dynamic cruise control. Which brings me to:
4. It’s Zen as Heck
Here’s the thing, if you’re looking for me to say the Prius’ performance is a “crouching tiger” ready to pounce. Or that “you’ll leave Mustangs agape at how fast you can pull away from the line.” I’m not. First of all, years of driving have led me to conclude that aggressive, “fun” driving is stressful, wasteful, and often dangerous. Second, that’s not what the Prius is made for. You want to know what the Prius is made for? Hit the highway, get up to speed, activate the adaptive cruise control, and let the car figure out how fast you need to be going to avoid rear-ending your fellow drivers. You do still have to stay alert–this isn’t Tesla-level automation. For example, if you’re in the right lane and someone is slowing down to exit, the Prius will brake hard to avoid what it thinks is an impending collision, even if you can judge the speed and distance and you know the car will be clear of the lane long before that happens. But other than that occasional hiccup, my week with the Prius Four was the most calm I’ve experienced in the past year commuting 30+ miles every day. The cars in front of me slow down? The Prius will back off a bit. They speed back up? So does the Prius.
5. It’s Ridiculously Economical
And driving all those miles, you know the one thing I took away from my time with the Prius Four? I need this car. With judicious use of the EV mode and the cruise control, I was averaging 50-55 miles per gallon. After driving 400+ miles in the week that I had the Four, I still had well over a quarter tank of gas–enough to get me at least two or three more days of dropping kids off at school, picking kids up at school, heading to my kids’ dance and drama rehearsals, going to the store, going back to the store for the one thing your son forgot to tell you he needed for his class… you know, the seemingly endless litany of short trips that we parents are constantly making. And other than the occasional unblocked sunbeam (seriously, their sun visor designer needs to look at my 2001 Avalon for inspiration, someone has forgotten how to make effective visors over at Toyota), the Four was exactly what I needed–a reliable, economical car that I could count on.
With the 2017 Toyota Prius out now, this is the perfect time to snag a deal on the remaining 2016 models. The 2017 models are very similar to the 2016s. Unless you’re looking at the plug-in Prius Prime (which looks pretty damn awesome with its giant touchscreen and charge anywhere tech), save yourself some cash and get a 2016 Prius Four–you won’t be disappointed. You can find more information about the 2016 Toyota Prius line up on the official website.