There was once a time when ‘Prius’ was the sole synonym for ‘hybrid’. In fact, at various points throughout its 23-year history, the Prius has been synonymous with plenty of words – ranging from ‘vegan’ and ‘environmentalist’, to ‘Hollywood celebrity’ and ‘smug’.
“How do you know if someone drives a Prius?" internet memes have wisecracked, “Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.”
But although the Toyota Prius has been unfairly maligned, it certainly deserves credit for being one of the first to mark itself out in the emerging, oft-misunderstood world of hybrid cars.
These days, however, hybrid powertrains are no longer thin on the ground – and they’ve got hefty competition in the form of their fully electric rivals. So as the original innovator, has the Prius done enough to stay relevant? And is the 2020 offering captivating enough to compete with hybrids, electric cars and internal-combustion engines alike?
Price and competitors
For this review I drove the top-spec 2020 Toyota Prius i-Tech, which starts at $44,550 plus on-road costs. That compares with the only other option of this, the entry-level Prius, priced from $37,090 plus on-road costs.
For that $7460 price jump, the i-Tech adds things like blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, larger wheels (up to 17 inches compared to the base spec's 15 inches) and leather accents throughout, although both models get a fairly comprehensive safety and tech suite as standard.
In terms of the Prius's competition, it's hard to pin down comparative vehicles – for a number of reasons. For starters, mass-market hybrid options from brands other than Toyota are still relatively limited, while the Prius's half-sedan, half-hatch body shape really is one of a kind.
If pushed, I'd say it's somewhere between cars like the Honda Accord VTi-LX hybrid (from $50,490 plus on-road costs), the Hyundai Ioniq hybrid (from $34,790 plus ORCs) or the fully electric Nissan Leaf (from $49,990 plus ORCs). Based on those, the Prius i-Tech is in the middle of its class in terms of price, but offers an impressive list of standard equipment.
But, of course, hybrid shoppers now also have the option of Toyota's smaller Prius C hatchback and bigger Prius V seven-seater, plus hybrid variants of the C-HR, Camry, Corolla and RAV4, so it could be argued the Prius's biggest competitors here are its own Toyota stablemates. Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer, eh?
Considering its growing list of adversaries, the Prius has city-friendly size, value for money, and tried-and-trusted hybrid technology on its side, but is perhaps lacking the competitive design and pricing edge to put it on top.
Under the bonnet
The Prius i-Tech boasts a 1.8-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine that produces 72kW of power and 142Nm of torque, plus an electric motor capable of 53kW and 163Nm. Combined, they make 90kW. That's paired with a continuously variable automatic transmission that drives the front wheels only.
Having recently driven both the hybrid C-HR and hybrid Camry, I can attest that Toyota's established hybrid set-up is impressive and, in the Prius, the shift between engine and motor is often hard to detect.
Most owners will never be left wanting for power or torque, with the Prius very quick to accelerate and capable of handling any manoeuvres that require more guts. Maybe just don't go off-roading or challenge your Porsche-owning friend to a sprint.
At some point in the design history of electric and hybrid cars, someone decided they had to be whackier-looking than their internal-combustion counterparts – possibly to distinguish their owners from the crowd as more altruistic beings?
Part of the blame for that phenomenon surely lies squarely with the Prius, which has remained steadfastly unattractive since it first launched. While fashion tells us there's sometimes charm in the 'ugly cool' aesthetic (ahem, Birkenstocks, Crocs and drop-crotch pants), the Prius doesn't take things far enough to be considered edgy.
Instead, it's forgettably drab – somewhere between a hatchback and a sedan in size, and between a rock and a hard place in its bid for sex appeal. It improves slightly in the interior thanks to a futuristic layout that includes, in the i-Tech, leatherette-appointed seats, a vast dash with a panoramic instrument cluster, and plenty of glossy black plastic touches.
Bizarrely, Toyota has paired its modern gear knob – located on the dash, just below the climate controls – with a dated foot parking brake. Further confusion is added by the 'park' gear being a button next to the gear knob, rather than another option on the gear knob.
The whole convoluted combination requires way too much brainpower to execute – sort of like I was trying to rub my stomach while patting my head. I found myself groping the air to my left looking for a phantom gearstick. No doubt regular drivers will get used to it.
Behind the wheel
As with all hybrid Toyotas I've driven, the Prius is smooth and silent at low speeds, and manages to stay this way even as you hit the freeway. The transmission shifts seamlessly through the gears, the brakes are quick, and the steering is agile around corners. The car feels feather-light.
You've got the option of EV-only mode at really low speeds, or power mode for highway driving, but really you won't find yourself toggling drive modes because it's easy to forget you're driving a hybrid in the first place.
My main gripe regarding the behind-the-wheel experience is that the split rear window (which adds an extra sliver of window just above the lip of the boot) makes visibility a unique proposition. I suppose technically you can see more than you would otherwise, but what the dividing strip does and doesn't cover can take a few seconds to ascertain, which slowed my reaction times somewhat when merging.
Space, comfort and practicality
The Prius makes excellent use of its compact footprint, which is bigger than the Corolla but smaller than the Camry. The back seat remains deep and spacious (although head clearance is ever-so-slightly diminished if you’re leaning back in the seat due to a sloping roof), and smooth leather seat backs make for comfy knee room – while rear cupholders are a consolation prize for the lack of rear air vents.
By stowing its fuel tank and batteries under the rear seat and opting for a tyre repair kit over a space-saver tyre, the Prius also provides an admirable 343L of boot space. I fit two medium suitcases in the boot comfortably, plus there’s a little light switch back there if you’re hunting around in the dark for your wallet, and a cargo cover and plenty of tether points.
Having recently driven the Camry, I can say the Prius is an infinitely better size for a city car – substantial enough for passengers and luggage, but compact enough for even the most deviously designed underground car park.
Safety and technology
On the safety and technology front, the Prius i-Tech is like the goody-two-shoes teacher's pet everyone used to find really annoying in high school (hey – it takes one to know one). It will let you know when you're entering or leaving a school zone, errs on the conservative side with its active cruise control (think three car lengths instead of two), and gently chides you when you leave your lane on the freeway, before politely steering you back in.
In terms of standard equipment it's similarly over-achieving, offering everything from seat heaters to a wireless charger, a colour head-up display, keyless entry, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert. All of these things are incorporated into an extremely straightforward, user-friendly interface operated by a 7.0-inch central touchscreen.
All it's missing is a speed limiter, a power tailgate, and a second USB port in the front – while Toyota's reverse camera remains surprisingly basic for a brand that's typically ahead of the curve. And the level of standard kit doesn't take a dive if you opt for the more affordable Prius – both spec grades score a pre-collision safety system, lane-departure alert with steering assist, all-speed active cruise control and automatic high beam.
Where the Prius really wins is on the economy front. Toyota promises a combined figure of 3.4L/100km, with average CO2 emissions of 80g/km. My best figure was a little higher at 4.6L/100km, but even so, I still had a near-full tank at the end of the week, with my regular usage barely registering in the Prius's 43L reserves.
With that in mind, the i-Tech's $44,550 price tag starts paying off when you consider stopping for petrol will become more of a 'once every 2–3 weeks' thing, and throw in Toyota's five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, 10 years of hybrid battery cover and capped-price servicing.
When we're this far into the EV era, my instinct is that the Prius needs to become more affordable and attractive in order to stay relevant. Sadly, its X-factor is waning while RAV4 Hybrid waiting lists pile up, compact SUVs remain on top, hybrid Corollas and Camrys vie for attention, and all-electric compact cars threaten to steal the limelight.
Take away all that peer pressure, however, and the inoffensively unattractive Prius remains a value-for-money proposition with safety, reliability, comfort and practicality on its side. It's the car equivalent of wearing Birkenstocks (ideally with striped fuzzy socks for added warmth).