2013 Toyota Prius Three: The Hybrid, Gone Mainstream
From innovative to everyday
Relatively unchanged since a major revamp in 2010, the Toyota Prius is still king of the hybrids, with overall worldwide sales just passing the three million mark. That's why I relished the chance to spend some time behind the wheel of a 2013 model, to remind me exactly why so many people buy the hybrid that so many car reviewers love to hate.
With a week of real-world use, it proved surprisingly easy to fall for the Prius. Of course, the fuel economy savings are the biggest benefit, but there's a lot else to love about this car. The Prius' massive trunk, good legroom, and manageable dimensions combine to make a car that maximizes utility to the utmost degree. And did we mention that its fuel economy is almost double most other cars out there?
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When the second generation Prius debuted in 2004, hybrids were still a novelty. In an effort to attract early adopters, it wowed the tech savvy with nav, Bluetooth and keyless entry alongside its gas-electric drivetrain.
Today, hybrids have gone mainstream, and the Prius is no longer cutting-edge when it comes to infotainment. The Prius Three I drove featured Toyota's excellent Entune cloud-connected infotainment system, where it proved just as fabulous as when I tested it on the Prius Plug In and Avalon. Though it's well executed, it's still fundamentally similar to infotainment systems from a host of other manufacturers.
About the only clue that the Prius contains any advanced tech under the hood is its digital dashboard, which shows how the electric and gas motors are working in concert to maximize efficiency. I ignored it after about 30 seconds, but found it a useful way to explain the car to folks who, more than a decade after hybrids debuted in the US, still asked whether I had to plug it in to recharge the batteries.
The Prius' now-familiar teardrop shape is about as aerodynamic a profile you can get without removing the passenger compartment, so it's not surprising that most changes in the 2012 refresh were merely cosmetic. Updated taillamps and a redrawn nose are about the only ways the most intrepid of Prius-spotters could tell the difference between a 2011 and a 2013. It's a purely utilitarian look that maximizes efficiency of space and airflow at the expense of sensual curves.
Inside, there's room for four adults to sit quite comfortably, with plenty of legroom front and rear. What the Prius lacks is width, which makes the middle seat especially uncomfortable. Because the car sits a bit high off the ground and windows are abundant, the driver has an excellent perspective.
This is where most car reviewers give up on the Prius. No, it isn't the most engaging car on the road, but it's come along away since the poky, Echo-like subcompact that first wore the Prius badge back when Larry David first got one. Handoffs between the gas and electric motor are still a bit noticeable if you're looking for them, but there's no obvious jolt or shudder unless the gas engine comes on at an extremely low speed—at which point you're likely stuck in traffic anyway.
Same goes for the regenerative brakes, which recapture energy that would've been wasted as heat and use it to recharge the batteries. Coincidentally, that heat is what wears out brake pads and rotors, so you may go a lot longer between service intervals. The brakes still feel oddly nonlinear—they don't feel like they're engaging until the very last second, at which point they grab on with a vengeance—but Toyota's done a decent job ironing out that issue over the years. If you've never driven a Prius before, you'll stop short pretty often during your test drive, but you'll be used to it within a week of buying the car.
Acceleration isn't brisk, but thanks to the high torque of an electric engine, the Prius at least feels a bit sprightly around town. A mix of a continuously variable transmission and weak engine mean that any spring in the car's step is gone by the time speeds reach 55 MPH, however. While the car has no problem keeping up, summoning enough energy to pass can be difficult. Electronic power steering is tuned to dull a lot of feedback, and proved slightly more communicative than whatever car your grandparents used to drive.
Unless you're buying a car solely for pleasure, frequently carry more than four people, or regularly tow or haul, the Prius should fit your needs. It's not the cheapest car on the road, nor is it the most engaging to drive. Folks who don't drive much may not even see the economic benefit of its 50-plus MPG fuel economy. But it's incredibly utilitarian. A 21st century version of the VW Beetle, it's relatively inexpensive to buy, cheap to run, and fits a ton of stuff in a relatively small footprint.
Utility may not be exciting, but it's a good reason to buy a car.
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