Combine an engine, an electric motor, and a battery pack and you get the hybrid car, a chimeric mixed-breed vehicle that has existed since the late 19th century but which never got much mainstream traction until Toyota gave us the Prius 15 years ago.
This third-generation model arrived in 2010, which is the last time we were motivated to put one on a test track. It placed second to the Honda Insight in a three-way comparison test, soundly tromping a 1998 Chevrolet Metro but otherwise failing to impress anyone who loves cars and driving.
It sells exceptionally well, however, to those who don’t fall in that category, largely on the strength of its other virtues. The primary one appears on the mid-dash information screen every time you shut it off, like a yummy food pellet that motivates lab rats to run mazes: fuel economy that can top 50 mpg around town. With a fourth-generation model imminent, it’s time to gather some last impressions on this one.
This generation was initially marketed in five trim levels, Prius One through Five, but the range now goes from Two to Five (the latter is not to be confused with the Prius V, a different, larger, wagon-y model). That’s because even buyers of an anti-car eschew base models and love added features and comforts. This example was a Prius Three (same as a Two but with proximity entry and navigation, basically).
Styling was revised in 2012 in ways that only the Prius faithful consider significant: It still looks like an aero-tuned turtle. The infotainment system was updated in 2012 to incorporate Toyota’s Entune suite of apps. The biggest news of this generation doesn’t really apply to this example: Toyota installed a bigger battery pack, a plug, and some software to create the otherwise identical Prius Plug-In Hybrid model in 2012. If you don’t plug it in, it gets the same 50-mpg EPA combined rating, but at least it weighs more, costs more, and accelerates even more slowly.
What We Like
What’s not to like about 50 mpg? We met or exceeded that on every non-highway leg we drove, at least according to the onboard computer. But we also drove a bunch of highway miles, where hybrids rarely show well; that 2010 comparison-test car, for example, achieved 42 mpg over 600 mixed miles in our care. Also, the infotainment features worked well. And the optional sunroof with solar array ($1500) that powers a ventilation system to cool the interior when the car is parked proved up to the task on some hot and sunny summer days. It didn’t chill things so well that you’d dare leave a pet in there while you ran into a store, but what kind of criminal mind even imagines that?
What We Don’t Like
We don’t like needing 10 seconds to get to 60 mph, nonlinear braking, vague steering, a mushy suspension with undersize 15-inch wheels and tires, cabin environs less interesting than a kitchen appliance, excessive road noise, and, well, you get the picture. Mostly, we wonder why a Prius can’t be as interesting to drive as a Ford C-Max. Given that hybrids initially were touted as stepping-stones to a future of pure electric and fuel-cell cars, and good examples of those are now arriving (even from Toyota), we’re beginning to wonder about the people who accept the punishment of a Prius in the belief that they’re eco-pioneers.
The world has moved on to better things, but the Prius stands still, this century’s version of a 1990s-era VW Type 1 Beetle.