Toyota Punches up the Prius
Toyota imbues its fifth-generation Prius hybrid with transformative power and styling.
An undeniable technical achievement since its U.S. launch for the 2001 model year, Toyota’s Prius never has been able to shake its weenie-mobile reputation. It’s an image formed largely by the combination off oddball, aerodynamics-first styling and the pursuit of ultimate fuel efficiency via low-power propulsion, simultaneously making the Prius the poster child for the “hyper-miler” movement and the favored target of coal-rolling pickup trucks twice its size and burning four times the fuel.
With EVs looming as the propulsion endgame and attention to the 20th-century concept of “fuel-efficiency” waning, Toyota’s said “enough!” The 2023 Prius bodywork now is smooth, low and sleek, so different that there’s virtually no visual connection to its trippy forerunners. Under the hood is a larger, powered-up 4-cyl. engine and similarly boosted drive motor that, combined, take the Prius to 194 hp (196 hp for AWD models) — a 60% jump over the wheezy 121 combined hp of its predecessor. Almost paradoxically, though, the 2023 Prius still sips gasoline at pretty much the same pace — up to a 57 mpg (4.1L/100 km) combined rating for the most-efficient LE trim in front-wheel drive. The low is the 49 mpg (4.8L/100 km) combined rating for the top-trim XLE in AWD layout.
Chief engineer Satoki Oya told SAE Media that the new Prius’ revised Dynamic Force 2.0L Atkinson-cycle 4-cyl. (M20A-FXS) enjoys the same exemplary 41% brake thermal efficiency (BTE) as the previous, fourth generation of the engine. But Lisa Materazzo, group vice president of marketing, said the new car’s design, rather than its efficiency, may be the attribute to lure the younger buyers Toyota hopes to attract.
The 2023 Prius’ slippery new profile displays its most striking dimensional change, a 2-inch (51-mm) lower roofline. The new car also is 1 inch (25.4 mm) wider and slightly longer, with wheelbase increased by 2 in. The windshield rake would be considered fast for nearly any vehicle but is particularly so for a Prius. Oya said the new shape’s drag coefficient — 0.27 Cd — is on paper worse than the previous Prius’ 0.24, but the sharper front end and grille create less frontal area, reducing CdA and effectively negating the detrimental overall aerodynamic effect of the new bodywork.
The new car rides on what Toyota said is the second generation of the Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) platform for C-segment vehicles, or TNGA-C. Oya said for the Prius, the architecture has a revised front MacPherson strut suspension, crossmembers are different and the rear portion of the floorpan is significantly altered to accommodate the new fuel tank and lithium-ion battery pack (the Prius no longer will use nickel-metal hydride batteries). The rear multilink suspension also is redesigned and the coil springs at every corner are upgraded to high-strength steel that also helps to cut some weight.
Oya said the target was to reduce weight of the underbody to help offset the 2023 Prius’ larger engine and the use of bigger wheels and tires (17-inch for the base LE trim and 19-inch for XLE and Limited models). Curb weight nonetheless is up slightly for the fifth-generation Prius, ranging from 3097 lb. (1404 kg) for the front-drive LE to 3340 lb. (1515 kg) for an AWD Limited.
Drives in the coastal hills near San Diego demonstrate that the new Prius has a flatter cornering posture – track is a significant 2.3 in. (58 mm) wider at the front and 2 in. at the rear — and improved body control, although the 19-inch wheel package, in particular, does little to benefit ride quality. The car’s electric power steering seems more linear and generally more responsive than that of the previous-gen Prius Toyota had on hand for comparison.
More engine, more motor
Nobody will carp that the new Prius doesn’t perform better — much better. The 2L direct- and indirect-injected 4-cyl. develops 150 hp; the previous 1.8L engine managed just 96 horses. The new 2L engine’s hike to a 14:1 compression ratio led to concern about required fuel octane, but Toyota assured journalists at the media introduction that maximum performance is achieved on 87-octane regular unleaded gasoline.
The central electrified component of the hybrid system, the permanent-magnet AC electric motor Toyota refers to as motor-generator 2, also is vastly upgraded. Thanks largely to a doubling of magnets to six per pole, power output increases to 111 hp, a 40-hp boost compared to the outgoing Prius’ MG2. Torque also is enhanced by some 20%, to 152 lb-ft (206 Nm) versus the previous 120 lb-ft (163 Nm), yet the new design means the motor is smaller and lighter. The company said the 222-volt/4.06 amp-hour lithium-ion battery pack is 14% lighter yet 14% more powerful.
The power quotient is even better for AWD models ($1400 extra for all trim levels). The rear axle now is driven, when needed, by a permanent-magnet motor that generates 40 hp and 62 lb-ft (84 Nm) — big increases over the meager 7 hp and 40 lb-ft (54 Nm) delivered by the previous AWD Prius’ induction motor acting on the rear axle. Toyota says the newfound rear power not only is used to supplement traction when the front tires lose grip but also can be employed to influence cornering behavior.
It all translates to “real-car” acceleration, with Toyota’s figures indicating a 0-to-60 mph (0-to-97 km/h) time of 7.2 sec. for FWD models and a properly brisk 7 sec. for AWD. The only letdown is from the Prius’ electronically controlled continuously variable transmission. The eCVT is reasonably quiet and cooperative in responding to most accelerator-pedal inputs, but full-throttle acceleration generates the signature CVT wail that it seems engineers could do little to dull. The Prius’ markedly increased overall power at least means pinning the throttle can perhaps be a less-frequent practice. And the power-use readout often claimed 60-65% of suburban-traffic driving loops were completed in the full EV driving mode, even when the drive-model selector was in “sport.”
The fifth-generation Prius’ cabin is completely revised, with the most obvious change being a switch to a “conventional” instrument cluster in front of the driver and a large central touchscreen handling most ancillary display requirements. The digital instrument panel is located at what for some drivers might be an odd focal distance, however, and its comparatively small size — combined with the plethora of possible icons and other information it’s tasked to display — can require too much concentration from the driver. And the odd height- and rake-adjustable nacelle in which the steering wheel sits seems to require placing the wheel distractingly low if the instrument cluster is to be seen.
In the center, standard screen size is 8 in. (203 mm), with a 12.3-in. (312-mm) display standard for Limited and optional for XLE. There’s a host of USB-C plug-ins throughout the cabin. The substantially lower roofline means headroom might be at a premium for some occupants, with the rear seat seeming particularly trim in that regard. The new one-piece window for the hatch doesn’t provide the most expansive rearward view (perhaps one reason why a digital rearview mirror is available), and the lower roofline’s effect on cargo space also seems palpable — the up-trim XLE and Limited offer just 20.3 cubic feet (0.57 cubic meter) of seats-up cargo space versus 27.4 cubic feet (0.78 cubic meter) for the outgoing Prius.
Pricing runs from $28,545 for the LE front-drive to $36,960 for an AWD Prius in the top Limited trim. Materazzo said the plug-in Prius Prime will be available sometime in the spring of 2023. The 2023 Prius is built in Tsutsumi, Japan.