If fuel efficiency is your top car-buying priority, chances are you’ve considered the Toyota Prius. This iconic hybrid uses an electric battery – which recharges during normal driving – to help power the vehicle, taking some of the burden off its gasoline engine to reduce fuel usage.
But the Prius doesn’t actually wear the crown as the EPA’s fuel-efficiency champion. That award was snapped up by the 2017 Hyundai Ioniq, a new competitor to the Prius that offers the driving experience and styling of an ordinary small car; an appealing $23,085 base price; and EPA ratings of 55 to 58 miles per gallon in mixed driving, depending on the version. Those figures compare to a base price of $25,570 for the Prius, whose EPA ratings range from 52 mpg on most models to 56 mpg on the extra-efficient Prius Eco.
Though its first generation went on sale in the U.S. four years earlier, the Prius didn’t become a ubiquitous sight on American roads until its second iteration appeared in 2004. For more than a decade, Toyota kept the same familiar shape, before embarking on a dramatic redesign with styling that was often criticized as overwrought.
The new Ioniq has some resemblance to the Prius, as both of these compact hatchbacks were shaped by similar aerodynamic principles. But Hyundai elected for a clean, simple look, where Toyota adopted various wedges, angles and curves to draw attention to the new Prius.
Similarly, the Prius has a distinctive interior that underscores its uniqueness. Meanwhile, the Ioniq’s straightforward design would be at home in any compact car, with quality materials, a handsome but anonymous layout, and user-friendly controls.
On the road, the latest Prius made great strides in eradicating the detached numbness that defined the older models’ steering and handling. But the Toyota remains a light-feeling car with an undeniably small and sometimes buzzy engine. The Ioniq isn’t any sportier exactly, but it feels more substantial. And its more conventional automatic transmission – as opposed to the Prius’ continuously variable unit – keeps the engine from droning under hard acceleration.
One key Prius advantage, though, is that you can accelerate more easily without using the engine at all – operating instead on efficient and nearly silent electric-only power. The Ioniq also allows this, but the gasoline engine kicks in more easily, especially if you’re trying to accelerate from a stop.
That difference can be important for more than just cabin noise. Compared to last year’s weeklong test of a 2016 Prius Eco, the Hyundai did not return the promised class-leading fuel economy. The Toyota blew away its EPA rating to hit nearly 69 mpg, whereas the Hyundai achieved “only” 57 mpg. Note that these numbers are not standardized like the EPA’s tests, and that drivers who don’t work hard to maximize electric-only driving may see a less significant difference between the two cars (along with potentially much lower fuel economy). And note that a car achieving 57 mpg is using very little fuel. But the difference is telling nonetheless.
The Prius also boasts a roomier interior than the Ioniq. Although the Hyundai compares favorably on paper, the larger Toyota has an airier feel and visibly more cargo space. Both cars are versatile hatchbacks, though their aerodynamic shapes can cut into rear visibility. The Ioniq also gives up a rear windshield wiper to cut down on wind resistance, weight and perhaps cost. (For a similar driving experience to the Ioniq, but with a fuel efficiency hit of about 10 mpg, consider the mechanically related Kia Niro crossover/wagon.)
And although the Ioniq has the clear value advantage over the Prius in most ways, Toyota does provide important safety features such as emergency automatic braking as standard equipment. The Ioniq includes them only as part of a $3,000 package on the top-level Limited model, for a total of more than $31,000.
Toyota also offers a subcompact Prius c, which shares mainly its name with the mainstream Prius. That model starts at just $21,035, but its cramped rear seat and EPA rating of 46 mpg fall short of the Ioniq. (A Prius c did, however, return a more impressive 51 mpg during a weeklong test back in 2012.)
The Prius is also offered as a plug-in hybrid, dubbed the Prius Prime, which you plug in to an electrical outlet to get an estimated 25 miles of all-electric range before operating as a normal hybrid. An Ioniq plug-in hybrid is due later this year, and an all-electric Ioniq is already on sale in California amid plans to bring it nationwide.
Overall, the Ioniq is an excellent fuel-saving option for someone who doesn’t want to be constantly reminded of the car’s hybrid characteristics and doesn’t need the most possible rear-seat or cargo space. And despite this impressive new challenger, the Prius remains an excellent blend of amazing gas mileage and respectable interior room, complemented by its newly improved handling agility.