A decade ago, the Toyota Prius was practically the only game in town if you wanted the absolute maximum fuel efficiency, as it handily thrashed all the other gas-electric hybrids on the market with its’ unmistakable styling, five-door practicality and — most importantly — the absolute best gas mileage.
Today’s buyers, however, have a host of choices when looking to reduce their fuel consumption, whether from the plug-in hybrids that offer miles of electric-only range or a host of all-electric options that eliminate gasoline engines altogether. Conventional hybrids like the Prius are now more numerous than ever, and even today’s ordinary run-of-the-mill compact cars get increasingly impressive fuel economy.
This abundance of riches means Prius sales have slipped, but for the right driver the Prius remains an outstanding choice that’s pleasant to drive yet exceptionally fuel-efficient as well as decently affordable, with prices starting at $24,370.
Over the past couple of years, I tested two niche Prius models: the Prime and the Eco. The Prime is a plug-in hybrid, meaning that if you charge it up using electricity from the grid, you can travel an EPA-estimated 25 miles on purely electric range before the gasoline engine is needed. The Eco is a standard hybrid, but it uses a different, lighter battery than most Priuses and offers fewer features to reduce weight.
Both of those models were impressive. But I also wanted to try out a Prius from the heart of the lineup, to ensure that the appeal remains consistent in the most popular versions. Earlier this month, I spent a week in such a vehicle: the Prius Three, a $27,360 midlevel version with the most common type of battery.
This configuration isn’t quite as fuel-efficient as the Eco or Prime. But it’s still rated for a super-thrifty 52 miles per gallon in mixed driving (54 mpg in the city and 50 mpg on the highway). I averaged 57 mpg during my weeklong test, which included more highway than city conditions; on trips with speeds mostly below 60 mph, the car surpassed 60 mpg.
The Prius uses its electric motor to supplement the gasoline engine during normal operations, and in many cases the gas engine can shut off entirely. This is the Prius’ particular strength over most competing hybrids; during the 340-mile weeklong test, the car’s trip computer reported that the gas engine was off nearly half the time. The electric battery then recharges automatically when the engine is running and using energy recaptured from the car’s braking friction.
Compared to the Hyundai Ioniq, the Prius’ closest competitor, the Toyota lets you accelerate much more easily without needing the gasoline engine. There’s even an “EV mode” you can activate to get additional all-electric thrust below 25 mph. The Ioniq has better EPA ratings than the Prius (56 mpg in mixed driving), but I find it easier to beat the Prius’ ratings with careful attention to my driving style.
The Prius also wins on the practicality front. Although the Ioniq has a little more room on paper, the Prius feels more spacious in both the front and rear seats. Furthermore, its cargo hold opens wider and folding down its back seat results in a flatter load floor.
On the road, the latest Prius generation (dating to 2016) delivers ride and handling sophistication that eluded earlier iterations. While it’s no sports car, it feels both natural and responsive. The gas engine still sounds wheezy when you accelerate hard, though; the Prius remains best suited to unaggressive drivers.
While the Ioniq tries to look like a conventional hatchback inside and out, the Prius goes aggressively futuristic. The exterior’s slashes, curves and angles haven’t won universal acclaim, but the car avoids blending in. Inside, the shifter is so unusual that the Prius chimes to warn you that you’re in reverse, while the speedometer is part of a center-mounted digital display. New for 2018 is an optional double-height touch screen display, a nifty-looking touch, but neither infotainment setup is as cleanly functional as the Ioniq’s. Toyota also lacks Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration.
In addition to the Ioniq, shop the Prius against such fuel-efficient, well-rounded gas-powered compact cars as the Honda Civic and Chevrolet Cruze. If you drive mostly highway miles, the latter also offers a pricy but extra-thrifty diesel option. And if you’re interested in the Prius, also consider the plug-in Prime version; it drops seating capacity to four, but tax incentives keep its price similar or even less than a standard Prius hybrid despite its extra efficiency.