During the past year, we drove both the Prius Two Eco and the Prius Four models, and found that this most-recognizable of hybrid cars is much-improved over previous generations. Fuel economy is higher than ever, but more importantly, the car is a better drive.

Virtually synonymous with hybrid cars is the Toyota Prius. For the 2016 model year, the company revamped the car to give it more mass market appeal without compromising the car's "green cred." Though some still scoff at the Prius because of a certain lifestyle image it has become associated with, the Prius Hatchback has finally become a car worthy of note for more than just its MPG returns.

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Granted, we give it that note with the caveat that it's still not anything special when compared to most other compact sedans and hatchbacks on the market. Fuel economy is still the top draw point for the Prius, after all.

Just about everything has been changed on the 2016 Prius, including its powertrain. The latest rendition of Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive motivates the car. That starts with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that's mated to a continuously variable transmission and two electric motors. That much has been the norm for the Prius for years. The engine has seen some upgrades, however, to improve its noise and vibration levels. Most of this was accomplished with noise dampening, better powertrain mounts, and a modified engine bay and cabin shape.

The Prius remains front-wheel drive, as it has always been, and the engine and drive motor together output up to 121 horsepower (90 kW) to those wheels. This makes for 7-second 0-60 mph (0-92 km/h) acceleration times. All Prius models except the Prius Eco are rated at 52 mpg combined, with 54 mpg in the city and 50 mpg on the highway (4.5/4.4/4.7 l/100km). We note that this MPG rating was relatively easy to achieve in the well-outfitted Prius Four model we drove. Most drivers can likely expect to see a slightly better average than the EPA estimate gives, in fact.

The Prius Eco model foregoes some of the Prius' comfort upgrades, including deletion of the rear window wiper. The Eco model gets higher fuel economy, but the price paid is a rougher ride thanks to ultralow rolling-resistance tires and (surprisingly) a lighter weight battery. The battery goes from Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) to lithium-ion to shave weight, but this weight savings means that the Prius is less balanced than it is with the heavier battery. The spare tire is also removed for the Eco model and replaced with an inflation kit. The payoff for shedding all of these things is 56 mpg combined (4.2 l/100km), with 58 mpg in the city and 53 mpg on the highway (4.1/4.4 l/100km).

Those looking at the new Toyota Prius will immediately notice its exterior design changes, which are many. The overall shape of the Prius as a car (and brand) remains, found in the dual rear windows, odd trunk-like protrusion from the hatchback, and the short hood and very long windscreen above it. Those elements remain, but Toyota went for a more aggressively futuristic look by adding a lot of body edges and lines, emphasizing the arrowhead-shaped rear lighting, the thinner front headlamps, and a more aggressive rear lift created by adding a sharper angle to the rear bumper. This is finished with a floating roof look through blackout of the rear and central pillars. It's a polarizing look that some might like and that others will not. We had hoped it would grow on us, but it didn't. The Prius has never been a good-looking showstopper and, in our minds, it still isn't.

The good news is that the interior is far superior to that of previous generations, and anyone who sees it will agree that the new 2016 Toyota Prius is much more user-friendly and comfortable on the inside.

The sharp angles and futuristic motif of the exterior are shed for the Prius' interior. Instead, a more contemporary, lifted dashboard is presented with a two-tone coloring; a hint of futurism is available through white offset accents. Seating is more laid back, ditching the very uncomfortable bolt-upright front seats of the previous generation. The centralized dashboard/instrument cluster remains as it was, but is now easier to read thanks to a better layout and more detailed screen. We like the clearer digital readouts found there and the more pronounced presentation of needed information such as speed and fuel levels. The available heads-up display for the driver is also a nice touch.

Materials quality throughout the cabin is much improved over previous generations of the Prius, which have traditionally seemed cheap. There is still an abundance of hard plastics, but they are of better texture with a more high-end feel. Seat cloth and leatherette follow suit.

The front seats of the Prius are more accommodating, and even the big and tall will now find more than enough room in the car. The rear seats lose some comfort, however, as a tradeoff, having less legroom and a bit less headroom. Taller passengers will find it more cramped, but still roughly on par with most compacts on the market. Headroom is especially critical now that the Prius sees an inch in height loss. Cargo space is improved, now standing at 24.6 cubic feet (696.6 liters), which is an improvement of 3 cubes over last year. Ditching the spare tire in the Eco model (and as an option for the Four) bumps that up to 27.3 cf (773 liters).

Technology outside of the powertrain rests on the Prius' infotainment. Base level infotainment is just that, very basic. Moving up to the better 7-inch touchscreen with Toyota's Entune improves things, but brings problems as well. We note that Bluetooth pairing is much easier now, requiring just a couple of button presses rather than the convoluted menu digging of previous years. Most operations can be done without a smartphone, and basic music streaming and the like can happen without using Toyota's app. The app is required for advanced needs, however, including navigation, and that becomes tricky. Entune has never really been a user-friendly experience and that much hasn't changed with this new-generation Prius. So for the most part, Toyota's infotainment is still hit-and-miss, but it's a bigger hit now than it was before. We note the integration of higher-end technologies such as parking assist and adaptive cruise control are well done in the new Prius.

One thing we do like is the continued integration of wireless phone charging in upper-grade Prius models. This, however, means that space for the drink holders is limited and they remain usable only for smaller beverages. The Starbucks crowd will be okay with this, but those of us who prefer fat water bottles or huge amounts of soda will be disappointed.

Another big improvement in the 2016 Toyota Prius over its predecessors is road noise. The Prius is now quiet and nearly on par with segment expectations for compacts and midsize sedans. The Prius is so quiet now, in fact, that the stereo is worth mentioning. Six-speaker audio is standard with the higher-end Prius Four and Prius Four Touring having a 10-speaker option powered by JBL. Both systems sound good in the car, with the upgrade having obvious advantages.

On the road, the 2016 Prius is a better drive overall. The CVT and excellent pairing of the gasoline and electric power result in a driving experience that is almost akin to a fully-electric car. The engine is very quiet now, heard only when it must struggle with acceleration uphill or when first started and going through its warmup phase. Braking is likewise more smooth, though we do miss the definite break points from "recharge" to "physical brake" that were there before. This feeling just gave the driver a clear indication of the regenerative braking doing its work. On the other hand, the Prius still has its "B" mode on the shifter, which works in a way similar to engine brakes on a large truck, maximizing the slowing of the car through its electric generator.

In all, the 2016 Toyota Prius is a big improvement over previous renditions of the model. It's more consumer-ready and less quirky to drive every day than its predecessors. The new exterior styling might keep some away, however, and the limited rear seating room may mean the Prius will no longer be a go-to for Uber drivers looking for maximum efficiency. Still, the Prius continues to improve as a vehicle.

Pricing for the 2016 Prius begins at US$24,200 with our test models ringing in at US$25,535 for the Prius Two Eco and US$32,935 for the Prius Four Touring.

Product Page: 2016 Toyota Prius

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