Review: 2016 Prius

2016 PriusNever mind the conference call. A few posts ago, TeslaMondo predicted every single “twist.” Sure enough:

1. Gas prices mean nothing to a brand that primarily sells excitement, not math.
2. Model X ramp is steep enough to moot the subject.
3. The oil well in Tesla’s back yard, officially known as Tesla Energy, has quietly begun pumping money.
4. We learned nothing about Model III.

Focusing on Model III, TeslaMondo thinks it will pull Toyota customers across the not-so-great divide between hybrids and full EVs. Remember, the cheapest Model IIIs will cost less than upper-end Priuses, with EV tax breaks factored in. But even when tax breaks expire, these cars will fight for customers who don’t really care about a few grand. Affordability often isn’t the issue. They want a green, credible, “statement” car that doesn’t announce wealth.

TeslaMondo has spent copious seat time in every generation of Prius since its US launch 16 years ago. And yesterday it spent a few hours in the brand new version, the one with the unenviable task of entering the boxing ring with Elon Musk. So here’s the scoop:

It’s brave, especially from the rear. Look at those Battlestar Galactica taillights! Toyota finally threw long. Did it connect in the end zone? With sci-fi fans, absolutely. The interior is equally out-there, with a copious helping of milky-white plastic throughout the center console. Very stormtrooper. Ergonomics are better and worse. Visibility through those problematic A-pillars is improved. Rear legroom and headroom seem to have shrunk, but perhaps children should be the judge of that.

Reaching the joystick shifter isn’t easy, because it’s a lot lower. Hypermilers like to use neutral and even the “B” for engine brake. Well, now it’s more labor-intensive because of the reach.  The HVAC system employs toggles for the temperature, fan speed and air direction. You can adjust them by feel, with your eyes on the road. Nice! Except you’ll have to reach pretty low. Not nice! This car is designed for people who want to interact with the screen and leave everything else alone. For most people, that’s appropriate. For TeslaMondo, that’s backwards. The machine is the entertainment.

Driving character
Refinements abound. Braking to a complete stop is less jerky (taxi drivers rejoice!) The engine’s on-off cycle is heard, not felt, and it’s barely heard. Steering effort is far more consistent through turns. No more rubberiness. To boot: The wheel is actually round. Yes, the last Prius’s steering wheel was shaped like the partially-deflated basketball in your basement. The new Prius feels heavier and tracks straighter on highways. This has improved in every generation of Prius. In fact, the earlier versions were downright flighty in crosswinds, forcing you to correct the car’s path almost constantly. The 2016 lets you take your hands off the wheel for seconds at a time, without any Autopilot.

However, contrary to early press reports, it is NOT, repeat, NOT sporting to drive. Hard turns bring less wallow and less squeal, but it’s still a pig. Acceleration, even in power mode, still involves a sequence of commands and therefore lags. Ditto deceleration. Yes, it’s reluctant to slow down. Even after you lift the throttle, there’s a split second of indecision, or at least it feels that way. Strong words by TeslaMondo, but it’s true. Look for a quiet service bulletin from Toyota to fix that.

The outgoing Prius encouraged thrifty driving by vehemently protesting aggression. It also reminded you constantly about the operation of the vehicle. You heard and felt every transition from gas to battery, and even the whine of brake regeneration. Ergo, you monitored the machine. The new one is just isolating enough, and just eager enough, to hamper your fuel economy — without the reward of real fun. You want fun? The Prius C does better. It’s not a dedicated athlete, but it can throw, run, jump and catch pretty well, smiling all the while.

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 12.19.28 PMAnd so . . .

Here’s the assignment for Tesla. Build something cool to behold, interesting to manipulate and satisfying to toss around, for the same or less money, and you’ll see a mass emigration from Priusville to Teslaville. On the other hand, if Elon suddenly changes character and starts taking very long coffee breaks and playing excessive solitaire on his phone, we could be in for a fight.


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