The Toyota Prius, a combined gas-electric hybrid, was introduced into the United States in 2000, three years after it debuted in Japan. It was a dream car for the ecologically minded. But its freakish looks and sluggish engine prompted brutal criticism. It was called hideous to a larva on wheels.
Two decades later, hybrids in all variants still haven’t swayed buyers’ purchasing habits. In recent years, only a fluctuating 2 to 3 percent of vehicles sold in the United States are alternative fuel offerings.
The original Prius and its expanding family, the tiny Prius C to the spacious Prius V, changed the industry. And although the alternative fuel industry is transitioning to electric vehicles, every major manufacturer offers at least one hybrid.
Nonetheless, Prius sales peaked in 2012 but fell to about one-third of the best 236,000 annual sales in 2018. It’s been outsold by the soon-to-be-defunct Ford Fusion hybrid this year. Tesla’s influence and carmakers’ increasing emphasis on hybrid SUVs have contributed to the Prius family decline.
Surprisingly, the trend didn’t seem warranted recently when driving the 2020 Toyota Prius. A colleague and I negotiated the top-line Limited trim about 800 miles roundtrip from Sacramento to Los Angeles to attend the Los Angeles Auto Show.
The current fourth-generation Prius was introduced in 2016 and for 2020 has several technology upgrades. Apple CarPlay and Amazon functions, a larger 7-inch center display and safety connection services are now standard on all trims.
With its current styling and more spacious and improved overall quality, the Prius is further connected to its competitors. It remains uniquely styled, but its facelift works. It’s no longer a design afterthought.
Given the purpose of the trip (new car nirvana) driving the 1.8-liter, 16-valve, 4-cylinder Prius to Los Angeles didn’t seem an ideal choice. We were wrong.
The expedient route is Interstate 5. It’s a direct, well-paved and high-speed trek until it transitions into the transportation mess that defines Los Angeles.
The Prius has 121 horsepower and shouldn’t be expected to compete against performance vehicles in ever-changing traffic patterns. But despite an average traffic speed that sometimes exceeded the posted speed limited by 15 miles per hour, the Prius didn’t flinch. There were no issues in either direction while negotiating the extremes of the 40-mile stretch known as The Grapevine. The continuously variable transmission transitioned smoothly.
The Prius also offers a quiet ride in comfort, considering the segment. Backseat passengers don’t get much spare room, but the driver and front-seat passenger have more than adequate headroom and legroom and seats are comfortable.
Equipment for the lowest-priced L Eco trim is abundant. Automatic LED headlights, 15-inch wheels heated mirrors, keyless entry (driver door only) and ignition, automatic climate control, adaptive cruise control, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and a 60/40-split folding rear seat are all standard. A seven-inch touchscreen display, six-speaker audio system are also in the mix.
Standard safety features include: Automatic high beams, forward collision mitigation with automatic braking as well as lane departure warning and intervention.The top-trim Limited includes a sunroof and an Advanced Technology package, navigation system, 11.6-inch touchscreen and a premium JBL audio system.
Versatility is also a Prius strongpoint. Nearly a dozen sub-models are offered with front-wheel drive or newly available all-wheel drive.
The Prius (except for the V) lineup still has an obstructed rearview. And during our trek, the navigation system “froze” a few times, requiring a re-boot. But the Prius performed far better than its reputation. Its mission is efficiency. We averaged just under 58 miles per gallon, more than 10 percent higher than the advertised estimate.
Prius sales may further decline with the influx of SUV hybrids and electric platforms. But don’t underestimate the original industry changer. It’s a worthy, value-oriented choice with its most expensive option just below $35,000.