Coming into my week with the Prius I had expectations. I knew what the Prius was. I knew why they had sold so many over the years. Now Toyota has another issue. Prius sales have tanked. In 2014, over 207,000 Prius were sold. 3 years later in 2017? 108,661. A drop of 50% is nearly unheard of in the industry. So the market and I obviously know that the Prius doesn’t make as much sense as it used to. Why is that?
Well, Toyota didn’t provide me with a press loaner for the week just to write four sentences so I’ll start with a quick synopsis of some of the design elements of the 2018 Toyota Prius Four Touring. There are a lot of them. First of all the exterior as a whole is… well interesting. The front is generally fine with exception of the bottom section of the headlights which provide you with a random extra bit you didn’t ask for. The rest of the front end design is actually quite sharp and looks nice.
Things continue on a positive swing with the front wheels, which is an area of the car that I actually quite like. The contrasting white and black add a flare to a wheel design that I would normally say are… boring. The overall shape is just like every other Prius and it can be appreciated for the extremely aerodynamic vehicle that it is. Towards the back though, the design really starts to fall apart.
The body line along the top of the car does not allow the back to end in a manner that is all that pleasant to the eye. It wraps right into the rear of the car, where things are not much better. The only redeeming feature is that this nice red color hides the unnecessarily aggressive tail lights. Overall the design was a risk for Toyota and doesn’t seem to be working, but still isn’t the main reason this car doesn’t make sense.
On the interior side, it’s not all that much better. On the positive sides, the seats are fairly comfortable and the JBL system is quite nice. Much like in my Model 3 review, I enjoyed the center mounted screen/cluster. When it is removed from your line of sight, the lack of information makes commutes a bit more relaxing. No constant reminders of the speed limit or the myriad of other information such as the energy movement provided in Toyota Hybrids (like the RX I tested recently).
Luckily a full suite of safety and comfort features came with the Prius Four Touring. Toyota’s radar cruise control is very good and lane assist provides only the slightest nudges rather than a full force yank like some. The back seats are actually quite comfortable and the rear trunk space is more than adequate. Unlike some, I actually do enjoy the snake-like shifter. It’s delicate but efficient and the brake mode is quite nice in traffic as it acts to brake the car faster and regenerate the battery more quickly. The greenhouse is also absolutely massive. At just under six feet tall, I had at least four inches of headroom. It could be the perfect tall person car.
Now on the negative side… The dash is white, and to no surprise, it reflects on the seemingly flat front glass creating a nasty glare I could do without. Also, the two colors are just not that appealing. The steering wheel providing a piano white finish while the seats give a greyish-white that unfortunately clashes unforgivingly. The screen is an obvious push at the Tesla model, but unlike the Model 3, the screen is not as responsive or intuitive. The seats were not the most comfortable and the materials overall were not on par with other Toyotas I have driven recently. Now I know this is not a Lexus (having multiple Lexus loaner in the last few weeks may have spoiled me), but I’d expect a little bit more from a $35,000 plus vehicle.
The biggest bright spot for the Prius was actually driving it. Yes it was somewhat embarrassing to drive and that massive greenhouse made sure everyone could see you, but the cabin was roomy and decent enough to be somewhat comfortable to and from work. The electric motor is smooth and while acceleration is anemic, it feels quick around town with the instant electric torque. Toyota has spent almost twenty years continually working on this system and it shows. The transition between electric motor and the internal combustion engine are near seamless. The low center of gravity provided by the batteries helps the barely 3000 lb. car turn quite nicely for what it is. The biggest issue holding the Prius back from a handling perspective are low-rolling resistance tires. They have a hard time gripping and the slightest aggressive driving leads to a squeal-fest. My biggest complaint with the driving experience was the vibrations and overall road noise. It makes sense that they have aimed to save weight, but a little more insulation wouldn’t hurt.
In general, it wasn’t the nightmare many people lead it out to be, and obviously it’s incredibly economical. Over my week driving to and from work, I barely used 25% of the tank of gas. Even though that is the whole point of the car, it was still quite satisfying barely using any gas. My daily drivers are both V8s and it seems it’s sometimes easier to measure gallons-per mile rather than weeks-per-tank in the Prius.
So why then does the Prius not make sense? Unfortunately for Toyota, or perhaps fortunately, all those complaints above can be addressed by buying the near 50 mpg Camry. A car not drastically different from the Camary XSE I drove a couple weeks back but with a cheaper starting price compared to the Prius Four Touring. A better car for less. Or for just a couple thousand more than the Prius Four Touring, a similarly optioned Avalon is even an option. Another much better car. So when looking at what else is available, the Prius Four just seems like a bad deal. On top of this all, SUVs are selling like crazy and Toyota is now offering a Rav4 Hybrid. So there’s that.
So what is the future for the Prius? Well it depends. When gas prices go up, Prius sales naturally follow. It’s not just the gas mileage, for some it’s also about the image of driving a Prius and saving the earth. On the other hand, Tesla is starting to eat away at these vanity sales as the golden boy for zero-emission and chip away at the Prius’ biggest market of Southern California. If gas continues to stay down though, the Prius could be in real trouble. Toyota wants to make the Prius make sense, but for now, it just doesn’t.