2023 Toyota Prius looks like an electric sequel but fits the hybrid franchise

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by news@greencarreports.com (Bengt Halvorson)

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04.30.2023


Recently having a 2023 Toyota Prius for a week, for up-close scrutiny and drive time, reminded me of the big Hollywood movie franchises that help keep us entertained across decades and generations. 

Just like all the movies to come from Star Wars, James Bond, Marvel, or Fast and Furious, there may be fresh faces, a futuristic new look, some new twists. But beneath it all this is a known quantity, and it’s on a familiar trajectory. Whether we’re talking about “Iron Man” or “Black Panther”—or here, the Prius—you know the cues and exactly where this is going; and you can almost spell out what it’s going to deliver when you step back and marvel at the bottom line. 

My first half-hour with the new Prius, with its jaw-dropping good looks yielding quickly to pragmatism, reminded me much of those big-screen comfort views. The Prius is iconic and it’s a known quantity. With the 2023 model harking back, almost nostalgically, to the wildly successful 2004 model that Hollywood’s elite wanted to be seen in, it draws people in.

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius

Much like those movie franchises, the Prius has wandered off for a bit. It really lost its way around 2012 or so—when Toyota saw it as an entire family and sub-brand of very appliance-like vehicles. Since then it’s returned to its senses, instead going about spreading hybrid tech to all the models in the lineup. 

Against those odds it’s found a place for the Prius, as a standalone hybrid, in 2023. It looks great, and seems to show an astounding level of awareness and perspective from Toyota in what it needs to be—with one big asterisk: It’s not much more electric than the hybrids before it. 

With my review of the 2022 Toyota Prius Nightshade from November fresh in mind, let me offer this: The outgoing Prius might have morphed into something more inspiring to drive, but it’s the fabulous outer shell of this new 2023 Prius that will allow more people to discover that. 

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius

It’s beautiful and polarizing and quicker-accelerating without losing official mpg—the perfect Prius for some, a decade too late for others. 

Does the 2023 Toyota Prius Prime and its 44-mile EPA all-electric range hit a sweet spot? We’ll have to answer that later on with testing that truly lets us live with the Prime for some days. But in the meantime, here’s a roundup of this yin and yang, the pros and cons that I felt while driving the Prius hybrid—represented in what I see as a whole set of hits and misses.

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius

 

Pro: Head-turning Prius styling

The new Prius has jaw-dropping good looks that hold handsome from about any angle. From the profile to the details, it tends to embody influences from the second-generation (2004-2009) Prius but with racy, curvaceous coupe-like splendor that carries well beyond its sub-$40,000 sticker price, even in fully loaded form as tested. In my time with the Prius around Portland, I got stopped four times (actually flagged down, in one case) by drivers who had to know about it. None of these people were currently in a Prius—one was in a Tesla Model 3, the other in a Polestar 2

Con: It’s not a Prius EV

Cue the almost unanimous disappointment. While these curious drivers were excited to see the Prius name on this eye-catching car, all but one were surprised this wasn’t an EV. That essentially reinforces my initial gut feeling about this design: It’s a lost opportunity, and this stunner of a design could have been the delineation between Prius the hybrid and Prius the electric vehicle. 

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius

Pro: Makes its Prius family proud on mpg

The Prius has always impressed in gas mileage, and from what I could tell, this latest iteration is no exception. Just don’t expect this latest Prius to return higher mileage than the one you’re trading in.

My test Prius Limited came with a 52-mpg EPA combined (52 city, 52 highway) rating, while other models in the lineup get a 57-mpg combined rating. With weather in the mid-40s to low 50s over the five days I had with the Prius, I averaged more than 49 mpg in a 112-mile driving mix that included some gentle city driving, some easygoing suburban travel, a few miles on a favorite backroad with Sport mode engaged, and about 30 miles of cruising at 70-75 mph. 

Separately, I switched the Prius to Eco mode and ran it on my 53-mile hybrid loop that really tends to bring out the best in hybrids and includes about 700 feet of elevation gain and loss plus a mix of under-65-mph freeway driving, suburban boulevards, and rolling-hill backroads. The Prius finished that test indicating a 57-mpg average. 

While those results are great, they fell more than 10% short on both counts versus the 2022 Prius, which under virtually the same conditions and drive routes returned 55 mpg in combined driving and 65 mpg on my hybrid loop. I checked the odometer for accuracy. 

What’s the explanation for the lower number? The scales may be part of it; the loaded Prius Limited, with its glass roof, weighs 3,219 pounds, according to Toyota—up about 150 pounds versus the outgoing model. Despite my care to drive lightly on the efficiency loop, the temptation to take advantage of this new model’s peppier acceleration may be part of it too.

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius

Con: The infotainment is a mishmash

Back in the day, the Prius got its own special interface geared toward those who wanted to geek out over their cars a little bit. Even in the last generation, a brilliant, 11.6-inch portrait-oriented touchscreen made its debut on the Prime and filtered down through the hybrid lineup. That display, with its bright contrast, smooth motion, and layers, today looks a step better than what you get in the new 2023 Prius—which responds unevenly and feels like a beta attempt, software-wise.

Criticisms deserve details, and beyond menu items that aren’t as flat as they could be or as logical as users might guess, it comes down to smart use of the space. Few items fit on the screen at a time as you scroll up and down—whether that be potential destinations or satellite radio channels, lists or icons—and that means you have to keep your eyes on the screen and away from the road for longer precious milliseconds. Voice commands have to be kept very basic and don’t leave a lot of room for syntax or natural language; it wouldn’t understand “tune satellite radio channel 25” for instance, and I finally figured out I needed to call out the source as SiriusXM and use the verb “play.” There’s no home screen that can display maps and radio information at once. And what appears to be a Toyota app is the only way to exit CarPlay—to go back and browse radio stations, for example. It’s clumsy. 

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius

My complaints about the interface go beyond the center screen, to the gauge cluster, which is borrowed from the bZ4X. As a taller driver, just as in bZ4X, I’m left wondering whether I’m supposed to have the steering wheel adjusted to look just over the steering wheel rim or within it. In what I would judge to be my most natural driving position, the upper portion of the rim is right smack in front of the gauge cluster. 

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius

Pro: This Prius performs!

Although it might have been hard to keep sight of due to its styling, the previous Prius was a vastly better car to drive versus earlier versions of the efficiency icon. With sporty, refined manners, it took on curvy backroads with relative ease—even though it was by no means taut, and its mucky, sluggish powertrain couldn’t deliver enough for the chassis.

In the 2023 version, it’s all so different. The slightly lower ride height makes it feel racier, putting you closer to the road. Further, its 194-hp (combined) hybrid system makes 60% more than last year’s model; it amounts to 0-60 mph acceleration in 7.2 seconds, and quite the difference in pep at American boulevard speeds. It still isn’t tuned for quick takeoffs like Hyundai’s system is in the Elantra Hybrid, but it moves like no other Prius yet.

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius

Con: It lacks some finish and poise

For all the stylish exterior shell gives in a first impression, and the performance it delivers, the 2023 Toyota Prius doesn’t carry itself along the road with a lot more sophistication or poise. It feels engineered to a price, and noise, vibration, and harshness are what give. 

The new Prius booms with the texture of the road at highway speeds, and compared to the outgoing version it doesn’t track markedly better than the outgoing version despite feeling choppier on the pavement. The steering tends to require frequent small adjustments at highway speeds, just as I noted in the outgoing version. And I expected there to be almost no wind noise given the sleek profile but there’s a fair amount of it around the front pillars at 70 mph. 

The combination I had, with 195/50R19 Michelin Primacy tires on some sharp-looking alloys, actually rode worse than the 2022 Prius Nightshade I drove some number of weeks earlier. I took it on the same stretch of curvy road, and power aside, the new car didn’t feel any more nimble in tight curves—although there was definitely more harshness transmitted into the cabin.

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius

Pro: Usable back seat

I was prepared to face difficult entry and exit, a lack of headroom, and limited rear visibility due to the slope of the roofline. While the visibility is challenging, rear headroom is just fine, and this lanky 6-foot-6 fits OK provided it’s not behind someone as tall. Yes, duck your head when getting in and out, but if you’ve been in the latest Toyota Corolla—or even a Hyundai Elantra or Sonata—it’s really not much different. I stepped out multiple times in disbelief and see some genius-level work with cushion positioning and contouring; it’s quite a feat to design a back seat—and decent cargo space—around that roofline.

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius

Con: Underwhelming front seats

For all the packaging wonder of the back seat, the front seats—and really, the whole front-seat area—left me underwhelmed. The seats don’t offer up much support to thighs or back, and those in my top-trim Limited felt no better than those from a Corolla. And anyone over average height had better be careful getting in; the steep front pillar invites you to stand back getting in and the door cuts are unusually short, leaving even those of average height to mind their tailbones. 

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius

Pro: This Prius’s price is right

The 2023 Prius hybrid starts at $28,545, including the $1,095 destination fee. Yes, that’s thousands more than a Corolla, but the design makes all the difference. 

The top Limited model I tested gets all the active-safety pieces, a fixed glass roof, heated and cooled vinyl seats, a power driver’s seat, a heated steering wheel, bi-LED headlamps, a power hatch, wireless smartphone charging, and digital key capability. My test car added a digital rearview mirror, an advanced parking system, a panoramic rearview monitor, and heated rear seats, bringing the total to $37,494 with destination. 

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius

Con: Lacks smart power basics

As much as I expect electrified undertones, the Prius can’t seem to escape its gasoline-fueled overtones, and oddly this electrified trendsetter comes up missing on some of the ancillary pieces that make hybrids—and by extension, plug-in vehicles—exciting. I’m not talking wireless smartphone charging; it has that. Namely, it’s missing any kind of 120-volt port or power takeoff that might allow owners to power tools, camping equipment, or even just a mobile workspace. There’s no wink-and-nod to the growing attention to solar either (just look at the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid for the way to do that). If anything, it feels a bit like complacency shining through—that Toyota is fine letting in those who see this as sexy and pushing the geeky, electro-smart customers who used to flock to the Prius out the door. 

2023 Toyota Prius

2023 Toyota Prius

Takeaway: A different Prius, if only on the outside

Sometimes looks go a long way, and I finally came to terms with why, despite its lackluster gains in many respects, I still really like this Prius. In all, it doesn’t perform, ride, drive, or sip fuel at much of a different rate than its predecessor. But it looks completely different inside and out—and that goes a long way to color in how you end up feeling about the car. 



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