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Car review: Toyota Prius, an ugly duckling no more

Styling is a high priority in the completely redesigned 2023 Prius. But the drivetrain and fuel economy have also been improved.

For more than 20 years, the Toyota Prius hybrid has been known for its legendary fuel economy, practicality, reliability, and—to put it kindly—its funky looks. Nerdy, dorky, and ungainly are terms that have often been used to describe its aesthetic.

All that has changed completely with the redesigned 2023 Prius. A cosmetic makeover is its most obvious quality, but it’s far from the only one. The new Prius also features a more powerful hybrid drivetrain, more responsive handling, a more comfortable ride, and better fuel economy. As before, a plug-in hybrid version, the Prius Prime, is also available.

Gorgeous inside and out

2023 Prius headlight

Slim LED headlights (with auto high beams) bring a sleek aesthetic to the 2023 Prius. Also, note how the hood flows smoothly into the windshield.

The new Prius is drop-dead gorgeous, as in Italian sports car gorgeous. It brims with swoopy lines, elegant curves, fluid surfaces—note how the hood flows smoothly into the windshield—and virtually no sharp angles. Seeing it for the first time, people often ask, “That’s a Prius?” One journalist commented that the car has gone from geek to chic.

Inside, the completely revamped interior features a clean, modern design. Perhaps the most noticeable change is the gauge cluster’s movement from the center of the dash to directly in front of the driver. It’s a little busy, with about a dozen data points, but your eyes quickly learn to zero in on the information you want.

2023 Prius interior

Let the sunshine in: A fixed 2-panel glass roof is standard on the Prius Limited and optional on the Prius XLE.

An 8- or 12.3-inch hi-res screen (depending on the trim level) with touch- and voice-activated controls is in the center of the dash. Oddly, the radio’s on-off/volume knob is on the far side of the screen, away from the driver. Overall, though, the controls are straightforward and easy to use.

The sporty front seats are comfortable and supportive, and the longer wheelbase delivers more rear legroom. The cabin contains a good deal of hard plastic but, to its credit, some is textured and very little is gloss black. There’s even blue ambient lighting and a tasteful faux machined-aluminum strip running the width of the dash.

Features and tech

The Prius comes in 3 trim levels: LE, XLE, and Limited. Even the base-level LE (MSRP: $28,545, including destination fee) is decently equipped, but the best value is the midlevel XLE. For an extra $3,500, you get, among other features, 19-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry and start, synthetic leather upholstery, heated front seats, a power driver’s seat, 6 USB-c ports, a wireless smartphone charging pad, and front and rear parking sensors with low-speed automatic braking.

Toyota’s highly regarded Safety Sense 3.0 suite of advanced safety features is standard on all trim levels. It includes blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, front cross-traffic warning, automatic high beams, rear-seat reminder, and traffic-sign recognition (a small icon that turns red when you exceed the speed limit). Front-wheel drive (FWD) is standard; all-wheel drive (AWD) is a $1,400 option on all trim levels.

You may also like: Vehicle powertrains explained

Under the hood

An ongoing complaint about the Prius has been its lack of power—as in 10-second 0-to-60 mph times. To rectify that, its hybrid drivetrain received a 60% bump in horsepower, from 121 hp to 194 hp in the FWD versions, courtesy of a larger 4-cylinder gas engine and electric motor. Toyota claims a 0-to-60 mph time of about 7 seconds.

Surprisingly, the added power hasn’t dinged the Prius’ fuel-economy numbers: The LE trim level tops the EPA’s hybrid mileage chart with an estimated 57 mpg rating in combined city and highway driving and 644 miles of range between fill-ups. The least fuel-efficient versions, the AWD XLE and Limited, rate at 49 mpg in combined driving.

How does it drive?

Prius instrument cluster

The instrument cluster on the 2023 Prius moves from the center of the dash to directly in front of the driver.

Toyota has improved all aspects of the Prius’ driving experience. It’d be a stretch to call it exciting, but you can feel the increased power where it counts: merging onto a freeway and passing cars at highway speeds.

Steering is precise and decently weighted, although it doesn’t provide much feedback. And though it’s no sports sedan, the Prius corners relatively flat, with much less body lean than the outgoing model. Overall, the ride is comfortable—the suspension does a good job of cushioning passengers from most road imperfections.

Braking is progressive, with smooth transitions from regenerative to friction braking and no grabbiness at low speeds, as is the case with some hybrids. Similarly, switches between gasoline and electric power are seamless.

You may also like: Why you should consider a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle

What’s not to like?

2023 Toyota Prius

The 2023 Prius’ flowing lines and smooth, curving surfaces produce a striking silhouette unlike that of any previous Prius.

Even with the huge improvements to its sheet metal, drivetrain, and suspension, the new Prius still falters in a few areas. Its shortcomings might not be deal-breakers for most buyers, but some flaws that could have been averted are particularly annoying.

First and foremost is how much engine, tire, and road noise invades the cabin—especially on rough pavement. The din makes longer trips at highway speeds unpleasant. A bit more insulation, please.

Related is the drone/roar from the engine and constant-velocity transmission (CVT) under hard acceleration, plus the familiar CVT “rubberbanding,” when the engine revs higher with no equivalent forward motion from the car. Drivers can minimize this phenomenon by driving in Sport mode.

A downside of the Prius’ sleek styling is reduced rear visibility due to the sloping roof, slanted rear window, and large rear roof supports. The roof angle also reduces rear headroom and, more importantly, cargo space, from 27 cubic feet (rear seats up) on the 2022 Prius to 24 cubic feet for the 2023 LE trim (and just 20 cubic feet on the XLE and Limited trims). Folks new to the Prius might not notice; previous Prius owners certainly will. Also missing for 2023 are a rear windshield wiper and rear air vents.

Finally, in keeping with a regrettable trend, Toyota has eliminated the Prius’ spare tire. All trim levels come with a tire-inflator kit; however, owners can purchase a spare tire from Toyota.

Vehicle layout: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder gasoline engine, electric motor (194 hp total), CVT, FWD

MSRP, base model/as tested: $34,465/$37,494

MPG, city/highway/combined: 52/52/52

Safety ratings: NHTSA, IIHS: not yet rated

Basic warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles

Spare tire: Tire-inflator kit

Final assembly: Toyota, Aichi, Japan

Takeaway: Great looks and amazing gas mileage are a winning combination

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