2023 Toyota Prius Review and Test Drive
The fifth time's a charm.
Capital OneReview QuickTakes:
Is the 2023 Toyota Prius a good car?
The Prius is known worldwide as Toyota's flagship hybrid vehicle. The automaker has produced four generations of the Prius over the last 20 years, continuously improving the efficiency of the gas-electric powertrain and refining the wedge-shaped hatchback design. But the previous new Prius came in 2015, and the automaker hadn't said much about a new version of its fuel-saving poster child until this year. Now, Toyota has debuted the new fifth-generation Prius, which goes on sale in January 2023. After a dearth of activity, things are suddenly moving quickly.
Take one look at the new Prius, and it's apparent that Toyota has not been idle these last few years. The takeaway of this review is that Toyota isn't just releasing a new Prius. Instead, the Japanese automaker wants to change how car buyers think about the Prius, adding a pinch of performance and a dash of design flair to the model's long-standing focus on fuel efficiency.
The updated design strikes a new pose for the Prius. It's still an aerodynamic triangle, but Toyota has deeply plumbed that design space in recent years with various all-electric vehicles (EVs) in search of better efficiency. As a result, in some aspects, the new Prius is the most efficient one ever. But don't expect that to be the key message in Toyota’s upcoming national advertising campaign.
Toyota says it will market the new Prius to a slightly younger audience, one that the automaker expects will appreciate the updated look and the potential 60 percent increase in horsepower. Of course, the ability to get up to 57 miles per gallon* isn't an afterthought —this is still a Prius after all — but it isn't the car's only reason for existing anymore.
In a world where car buyers who want the greenest option are moving away from hybrids and toward plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, slightly spirited driving can be a valuable weapon in the Prius' arsenal. As Lisa Materazzo, Toyota Motor North America marketing group vice president, said during a presentation at the Prius media event, "For a car with such an iconic role in the Toyota lineup, we knew we had to make a statement."
The 2023 Toyota Prius comes in three trim levels: LE, XLE, and Limited. Each is available with front-wheel drive (FWD) or all-wheel drive (AWD). Base prices range from the high $20,000s to the mid-$30,000s, including the destination charge to ship the car from the Aichi, Japan, factories that build every Prius to your local dealership.
For this 2023 Prius review, I test-drove one with XLE trim and FWD in Southern California. The car had a fixed-glass roof, a 12.3-inch touchscreen infotainment system, and Cutting Edge (gray) exterior paint, all of which cost extra. The manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) was $34,220, including the $1,095 destination charge. Toyota provided the vehicle for this Prius review and paid for my airfare, lodging, and meals as I, along with other journalists, evaluated the car.
2023 Toyota Prius Review: The Design
From the outside, Toyota's new "triangle silhouette" design dramatically updates the Prius' profile with a more angular front end that sends a visual message about speed and drivability. As a result, the new Prius looks more fun to drive than previous generations, even though it loses some of the positive traits of the more traditional look, such as headroom.
The overall height of the new Prius is down 2.0 inches compared to the outgoing model, but it has better ground clearance. The net result is 1.4 inches less headroom in front and 1.0 inch less in the back. Rear cargo space shrinks by up to 7.1 cubic feet on the XLE and Limited trims.
With a 0.27 coefficient of drag (with the base model's 17-inch wheels), the new Prius is 1.0 inch longer and 1.0 inch wider than the outgoing model, giving designers space to stretch out the roofline. With wheels pushed further to the corners, the overall impression is a Prius that looks ready to move.
To my eye, the 2023 Prius has the best-looking headlights of not only any Prius to date but also of any Toyota model available today. There is, however, a license plate holder at the front, which is unfortunate for customers living in states or countries that don't require a front plate as it negatively affects styling. Regulations bound Toyota designers to include the little rectangle, but they also threw in a few easter eggs. The phrase #HiddenCompartment appears on a hidden compartment in the center console, and the car's mission statement — Hybrid Reborn — is in the trunk area.
The 2023 Toyota Prius' cabin is a winning mix of clean lines and useful features. The armrests and dashboard feature a blend of materials that look and feel upscale without trying to imitate Lexus. Instead, they convey an affordable elegance.
Overall, the cabin is not visually busy, but the high-mounted driver information screen is an exception. Toyota packs the display full of icons, including miles-per-hour and kilometers-per-hour displays, instead of letting you choose one or the other. At least its placement helps to keep your eyes focused on the road. Fortunately, Toyota eliminated the rear-window crossbar that graced previous Prius models, but rear visibility remains limited.
From the driver's seat (except for taller drivers), the new version of the Prius feels as roomy as previous iterations, which the specs bear out. Toyota specifically designed the SofTex-trimmed, power front seats to be thinner and lighter (thus saving fuel) while also being more comfortable on the long drives that the automaker imagines people will want to enjoy in their new Prius. I found the seats comfortable but less enjoyable than those in the fourth-gen Prius. I have no complaints about the rear seats, but anyone on the taller side might not care about the comfortable cushions if the reduced headroom forces them to tilt their head awkwardly.
A vertical, Qi-compatible wireless charger slot by the front passenger's left thigh securely holds a smartphone. Still, there is no obvious sign on the driver information screen or the center touchscreen that it's charging your phone. The only way to tell is to look at the indicator light next to the charger.
Anyone who can't go a single stoplight without checking their phone will appreciate that the interior LED lights flash when the car ahead starts moving if you don't quickly follow. Less practical is the puzzling choice to put the volume control knob on the passenger side of the central touchscreen. At least Toyota logically arranged the row of climate controls under the screen and made them easy to use.
2023 Toyota Prius Review: The Technology
Toyota gives the 2023 Prius a substantial upgrade in advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS). Standard equipment includes Toyota Safety Sense 3.0 (TSS 3.0), a collection of features that employs enhanced versions of traditional TSS features while adding new ones.
The new functions include Proactive Driving Assist, which automatically adds subtle braking and steering inputs for smoother and safer driving. The Emergency Driving Stop System is also new and can bring the Prius to a safe stop if the driver falls asleep or suffers a medical emergency. However, it only works when the adaptive cruise control and lane-centering-assist features are active.
Toyota claims TSS 3.0 also offers improved pedestrian, bicyclist, and motorcyclist detection, upgraded lane recognition, and enhanced road sign recognition capabilities.
During my drive, I evaluated as many TSS 3.0 features as possible, and the technology proved easy to trust. In particular, the adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability was effective in San Diego traffic, and the lane-keeping assist worked well without excessively distracting a driver.
Toyota provides most ADAS features as standard equipment on the Prius, the only options being front and rear parking assist with automatic braking and a surround-view monitor. At the time of writing, neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) had published crash-test ratings for the 2023 Prius.
Depending on the trim level, the 2023 Prius comes with one of two touchscreen sizes for its Toyota Audio Multimedia infotainment system. Unfortunately, I could not test the standard 8.0-inch screen, but the optional 12.3-inch system in the XLE responded quickly to touch inputs.
Unfortunately, some of Toyota's user interface choices make little sense. For example, when using Google Maps for navigation, and switching from a different screen to go back to the Google Maps display, I mistakenly chose the navigation/map menu icon instead of Apple CarPlay/Android Auto. In response to this, a banner appeared on the screen reminding me to choose the proper button. However, this notification does not disappear simply by tapping it. Instead, you need to touch a tiny circle on the far side of the banner that appears. In my opinion, this approach represents a poor user experience.
Regardless of the screen size, the infotainment system in the 2023 Prius is compatible with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and thankfully, connecting a phone only takes a few seconds. In addition, if you're using Siri or the Google voice assistant, you'll have more control over your media than when using Intelligent Assist by saying, "Hey, Toyota."
That said, the built-in voice assistant is better integrated with vehicle features than Siri or Google. This subscription-based listening AI works surprisingly well most (but not all) of the time. It's particularly frustrating when the system can't figure out what you're saying because multiple people are conversing in the car. I prefer screens and buttons that work reliably, and I happily ignored Intelligent Assist after testing how well it responded.
For driver and passenger convenience, the 2023 Prius has six USB-C outlets, and the car is capable of over-the-air software updates. In addition, owners who pay the subscription fee for Toyota's Drive Connect services may also contact a live agent using Destination Assist. This feature allows the agent to send directions directly to the car's navigation system.
2023 Toyota Prius Review: The Drive
All versions of the new Prius use the same 2.0-liter engine that produces nearly 16 percent more torque than the previous 1.8-liter engine. As a result, the 2023 model delivers up to 139 lb.-ft. of torque, compared to 120 lb.-ft. for the 2022 Prius.
Combined with an electric motor juiced by a lithium-ion battery, the total system output is 196 hp for AWD models (194 hp for FWD models). For comparison, all versions of the 2022 Prius produced a maximum of 121 hp. Naturally, this power increase of more than 60 percent is immediately noticeable when you first hit the accelerator.
Thanks to the added power, this is the first Prius that doesn't feel like you're saving money each time you start moving. Granted, it still isn't a pure driver's car, but Toyota can say with a straight face that this is a driver's Prius. When the automaker introduced the fourth-generation Prius in 2015, company engineers explained how difficult it was to eke out a few more miles per gallon from their already-efficient system. That the company brought the numbers up again while adding more than a hint of performance is worth calling out.
While the new hybrid still uses an automatic continuously variable transmission for efficiency's sake, there is a suitable level of driver engagement thanks to 19-inch wheels, a noticeably tighter suspension, and a more direct steering feel, especially in Sport mode. Of course, you'll never confuse the Prius with a Toyota Supra, but if this fifth-generation model is a hit, it should help the car to improve its sluggish reputation in popular culture.
Despite all the newness, there are a few aspects of the Prius that Toyota didn't change for 2023. First, there's the small gear selector, now located on the center console. Also, a high-pitched engine whine still enters the cabin with every hard acceleration. The noise has been a feature of Toyota hybrids for so long that I'd almost miss it if it weren't there. That said, when the new Prius Prime plug-in hybrid version arrives in spring 2023 with an expected larger motor and battery, the ability to accelerate in torque-heavy EV mode could be an even more electrifying treat for Prius drivers. Fingers crossed.
Even with the added performance, the 2023 Prius is the most efficient version of the car ever, but only the LE FWD model can achieve the highest fuel economy rating of 57 mpg combined, according to Toyota. The carmaker estimates the XLE FWD version I tested will get a rating of 52 mpg across the board from the EPA. I came close to achieving that figure over a 46-mile jaunt through the hills around Del Mar, getting 47.9 mpg, according to the dashboard readout.
One interesting feature of the 2023 Prius is that each time you stop the car, it displays how much of the time you were moving without the engine running, what Toyota calls the EV Driving Ratio. Electric Driving Ratio is a more appropriate name, but whatever you call it, the test car coasted or used only the electric motor a whopping 65 percent of the time during those 46 miles. The switches to electric-only mode are imperceptible to the driver unless you pay close attention to the sound.
Is the 2023 Toyota Prius a Good Car?
After spending some time with it, I am confident that the 2023 Toyota Prius is a good car, especially for the right driver. Unless you're a driving enthusiast who wouldn't be caught dead in a Prius, the new model offers an excellent blend of fuel economy and drivability.
Granted, it doesn't totally shake its Prius roots, but why should it? After all, there aren't many affordable hybrid cars left on the U.S. market, so Toyota is smartly sticking with what has worked in the past. The car’s primary rival is the Kia Niro crossover, which has a similar hatchback configuration. Alternatives to the Prius include the upcoming Honda Civic Hybrid and the larger Accord Hybrid, the Hyundai Elantra and Sonata hybrids, and the automaker’s own Toyota Camry Hybrid and Toyota Corolla Hybrid.
The most efficient 2023 Prius trim gets better fuel economy than any of those (maybe the Civic Hybrid will challenge it), and it comes with Toyota's track record for reliability and Toyota Safety Sense 3.0, all at a reasonable price. Bottom line: The 2023 Prius is worth a test drive. You might even have fun while doing it.