The Toyota Prius is hardly the only hybrid on the market today. It’s no longer even the best-selling hybrid, newly edged out by the gas-electric version of the Toyota RAV4 crossover.
But the Prius is still the quintessential hybrid, with instantly recognizable looks and leading name recognition, even if sales have slipped amid heightened competition and low gas prices.
Toyota has battled back with two new variants of the Prius: a new all-wheel-drive version of the classic Prius hatchback, and a new hybrid version of the Toyota Corolla, which shares its mechanical components with the standard front-wheel-drive Prius. Both models deliver EPA ratings of 50 mpg or more, and both achieved more than 60 mpg during recent weeklong tests.
The Prius remains the better-rounded hybrid of the two, especially with its newly optional all-wheel-drive system, which costs about $1,000 extra on select trim levels (the mid-grade LE and XLE models). The system adds a second electric motor to power the rear wheels when the car needs extra traction in slippery conditions. It costs about 2 mpg in EPA testing, dropping the all-wheel-drive Prius to 50 mpg in mixed driving.
But even if you don’t need all-wheel-drive, there remains a lot to like about the Prius. Unlike most of its similarly sized rivals over the years, it’s a versatile hatchback with generous passenger and cargo space. It’s a light, aerodynamic fuel-sipper that’s also a viable family car.
Unlike some earlier Prius generations, today’s generation — on sale since 2016 — has a well-sorted suspension that delivers composed ride and handling. While older Priuses could feel light and flimsy, this one feels more planted to the road.
The 2019 model year also brings a redesigned front and rear end that simplify the 2016-2018 version’s aggressive design details. The headlights and taillights are smaller, no longer dipping far down toward the road. However, the interior remains unconventional, with a stubby little gear selector on the dashboard and a digital instrument cluster sitting at the center of the dash instead of behind the steering wheel.
Toyota also missed the chance to upgrade the Prius’s infotainment system. The small 6.1-inch screen on most models lacks the size, graphics and functionality of modern competitors. It looks dated and doesn’t support Android Auto or Apple CarPlay smartphone integration. The top-of-the-line Prius Limited has a jumbo 11.6-inch screen, which looks like a tech marvel at first glance but is also backed up with dated software.
That’s perhaps the biggest advantage of the new 2020 Toyota Corolla Hybrid, which is a fully modern compact sedan. It doesn’t have the roomy rear seat and trunk of the Prius hatchback, but its dashboard is more user-friendly. It also shares an advanced 8-inch infotainment system with other new Toyota models. However, like other Toyotas, it supports Apple CarPlay but not Android Auto.
On the road, the two cars are the same, sharing the same suspension and powertrain. That is to say, neither is exciting, but both are more relaxing to drive than earlier Priuses or Corollas. The cars are smooth and composed, not fidgety on the highway or unnatural on a winding road.
They’re both noisy if you drive hard, though. Their continuously variable automatic transmission makes the gasoline engine rev high and stays that way until you’ve gotten up to speed. But such hybrids have never been a great fit for impatient drivers. They reward people who drive gently, which maximizes the thrust provided by the electric motor instead of the gas engine.
With a very gentle touch, you can maintain speed or even accelerate using only electricity, burning no gas at all. (The battery recharges during the times the gas engine is running, and also recuperates some friction energy from the braking system.)
The Corolla Hybrid is less expensive than the Prius, starting at $23,880 compared to $24,700. In addition to the lower price, it has the advantage of attractive but anonymous styling instead of the Prius’s spaceship vibe — which some buyers will prefer.
But the Prius’s extra roominess makes it a better-rounded vehicle, and it’s also available with many more features than the Corolla Hybrid.
The Toyotas do face some other strong compact hybrids. If you prefer a hatchback, the Hyundai Ioniq delivers a user-friendly interior and a refined driving experience — smoother, quieter and more composed even than the Toyotas. But it’s less roomy and, despite an advantage in EPA ratings, tends to be slightly less efficient than the Toyotas we tested.
Visit tinyurl.com/sentinel-toyota-hybrids to see more photos of the tested 2019 Toyota Prius and the tested 2020 Toyota Corolla Hybrid.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.