Just over 20 years ago, the Toyota Prius appeared in North America. No one – not Toyota, not the motoring press, not the general public – could have anticipated the impact that odd gas-electric car was going to have. But two decades on and the rising popularity of crossovers, all-electric vehicles, and all-electric crossovers has taken the Prius from green-car poster child to more of an afterthought.
That just shouldn't be, though. Sure, it's weirdly styled, somewhat cramped, and an utter bore to drive, but the Prius can still sip fuel with the best of them. And with 2021 marking a big milestone, Toyota is celebrating the Prius’ 20th birthday with a new Special Edition trim, which features some flashy touches to complement its miserly fuel consumption and still-comfy ride. There are more economical and cleaner products out there, but the Prius Special Edition proves it’s still worth considering Toyota’s breakout hybrid.
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Toyota's evolutionary approach between the second- and third-generation Prius went completely out the window when this car arrived back in 2015. Sharp, angry-eyed, and with solid haunches, it was like a teardrop with a bad attitude. We'll call the reaction to the squinty headlights and mean creases mixed while admitting that we kinda don't mind it. The Prius' exterior is objectively ugly, but we're pleased that Toyota crafted a personality for its perennial snoozer.
Our Special Edition tester adds to that expressive sheet metal with the usual gloss-black touches automakers often reach for. You'll find dark elements on the wheels, mirror caps, front running light surrounds, and badging.
The cabin, meanwhile, is where we take issue. Sure, you can argue that the center-mounted instrument cluster has become a Prius hallmark, but we'll continue to question why the damn thing can't just be in front of the driver. Center-mounted gauges thankfully lived a short life, aside from the Prius.
The rest of the cabin is inoffensive enough, with the usual high-quality Toyota switchgear and an overreliance on shiny black plastic. Besides that, most of the materials feel solid and appropriate for the price. Toyota restrained itself in tweaking the SE's cabin, although we bet the product planner that came up with the “2020 Edition” floor mats wished they'd devised something that didn't reference that dumpster fire of a year.
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Annoying dash layout aside, the Prius' interior is a rather pleasant place. The seats, though boring to look at, offer ample support and long-haul comfort along with a surprisingly fun seating position. There's a serious amount of legroom, so despite the compact-car size, there's little chance of brushing your knees against the dash or the low center console.
In back, the Prius' plunging roofline takes a big chunk out of second-row headroom, while the car's 180-inch length means that 33.4 inches of legroom will have to do. But while a Hyundai Ioniq has substantially more legroom (35.7 inches), your 6-foot-2 author squeezed in and found the Prius' back seats suitable for short hikes. Children and young teens should be perfectly happy on the cushy bench, then.
While the Prius earns plaudits for its efficiency, it also makes efficient use of space. The cargo hold, which retains liftback access, offers 24.7 cubic feet of space or nearly double the 13.1 cubic feet available in the Corolla. That said, the Ioniq, which is about four inches shorter, has more space with the seats up, at 26.5 cubes. Fold the rear seats down, and the Toyota's hold expands to 50.7 cubes, or more than you'd get in an Elantra GT (Hyundai doesn't publish the Ioniq's maximum cargo space).
The Prius Special Edition, like the Limited and XLE, wears 17-inch alloys shod in 215/45 all-season rubber. That combo, along with the soft McPherson front/multi-link rear suspension, make for a smooth and pleasant ride. There's a good control over wind noise, too, although the gas engine remains a buzzy and annoying thing when it kicks in, which is pretty darn often outside the short-range EV mode.
It's a shame Toyota isn't offering the Prius Prime's big, portrait-oriented display in the standard gas-electric Prius – we'd probably have handed out an extra point. And it's doubly sad that this Special Edition features the same 7.0-inch display as most other Prius trims, rather than the 11.6-inch touchscreen found in the Prius Limited. There isn't even a way to upgrade to the larger unit.
At least the small screen features physical buttons on both sides, which make navigating the relatively quick interface and its grainy graphics less of a chore. Physical volume and tuning knobs are a boon, too, although we'd much prefer the operating system and graphics in either of the Ioniq's displays (8.0 inches standard, 10.3 optional). The Prius packs a six-speaker audio system with wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Beyond those few items, there's little on the tech front that's worth mentioning. We like the glut of hybrid-specific data the Prius provides via the 4.2-inch display in the center-mounted cluster. It's key to maximizing the gas-electric hatchback's fuel economy. Otherwise, though, the Prius' tech suite is as average as it gets.
Well, it's a Prius. What were you expecting here?
With total system output of 121 horsepower via a 1.8-liter four-cylinder and a permanent magnet synchronous motor, which draws power from a 1.3-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery, the front-wheel drive 3,075-pound Prius has just enough punch to get out of its own way. It's nippy off the line, where the electric motor does its best work, but that performance fades rapidly. There's no available zero-to-60 time, but we promise it'll get there eventually.
Engineers wisely sacrificed handling for ride comfort and stability. There's a substantial amount of roll and dive, and if the Prius had enough power to produce suspension squat, we're sure it'd be an issue too. The steering is as dead as a doornail, although the weighting feels appropriate for a compact hatchback. The brakes, meanwhile, remain an issue. They're grabby and difficult to modulate, owing to the regen function. We'd hoped that Toyota would have sorted out this issue after 20 years, but alas. The best we can say about these stoppers is you'll get used to them.
While we begrudge Toyota's poor hybrid braking, we have nothing but praise for its standard safety suite. Like so many of the brand's other products, every Prius benefits from Toyota Safety Sense 2.0. The package includes automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, full-speed adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning with lane centering, automatic high beams, and traffic-sign recognition.
We have nothing but praise for the Prius' standard safety suite.
That it has all these technologies is good, but the way the Prius integrates them is great. Everything feels natural at highway speeds, as the car traces the center of the lane neatly and provides solid feedback if you start to stray. The adaptive cruise control responds readily to surrounding traffic, although it feels very sluggish to accelerate in a suddenly open lane. If safety is a high priority, the Prius (or basically any Toyota) is worth considering.
The Toyota Prius stopped being the fuel economy champion a few years ago, but with an EPA-estimated 54 miles per gallon city, 50 highway, and 52 combined, it's still a competitive entry. Today's leader comes from Hyundai – the Ioniq Hybrid nets 55 mpg combined, by way of 54 city and 56 highway.
As for a vehicle everyone forgets about, the Honda Insight, it bests the Prius around town with 55 mpg, ties the combined ratings, and falls short with 49 mpg on the highway. Toyota's own Corolla, meanwhile, offers a very tempting alternative with ratings of 53 city, 52 highway, and 52 combined. Considering the unenthusiastic nature of these vehicles, it's little surprise they take 87-octane fuel alongside a healthy diet of electrons.
Prices for the Prius start at $24,525, but our Special Edition tester comes in at $29,875. Allegedly. See, because Toyota is only offering the Prius SE with two colors, both of which carry a $425 premium, the effective starting price is $30,300. This trim is still second most expensive in the lineup, behind the $32,650 Limited, but it grinds our gears when automakers charge extra for every color. Fortunately, the Prius SE has no additional extras (mandatory or otherwise), so along with the $995 destination charge, the out-the-door price can't creep past $31,295 unless you go for dealer-installed accessories.
The Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid is the Prius' main competitor, and it enjoys a healthy price advantage with every trim except for the range-topping Limited. The base model starts at $23,400, while the closest analogue to our Prius SE is the Ioniq SEL, which rings up at $28,400. It offers no options and doesn't force customers into a premium paint, so the only increase in price is the $1,005 destination charge. All told, this mid-range Hyundai has more power, better tech, and it’s more efficient while costing $29,605.
While not a direct competitor, it's also worth cross-shopping the Prius with the Corolla Hybrid. A slightly roomier backseat, an identical powertrain, the same safety gear, comparable economy figures, and less polarizing style is available starting at $23,600. There's only one Corolla Hybrid trim, too, so your decision making essentially comes down to color and one $500 option pack, which adds blind-spot monitoring. The Prius is an average value, but the Corolla is an exceptional one.
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Gallery: 2021 Toyota Prius: Review
2021 Toyota Prius Special Edition