2013 Toyota Prius
December 26, 2012
The 2013 Toyota Prius
liftback is the latest edition of the quintessential hybrid-electric
car. It's the fourth model year for the current shape, first launched in
2010, and it's now the centerpiece of a whole lineup of vehicles called
Prius, including the Prius V wagon, the Prius C subcompact hatchback,
and the Prius Plug-In Hybrid, which adds a larger battery pack that can be plugged into the wall to recharge to the classic Prius model.
The plug-in Prius and the iconic standard Prius liftback are all but
identical on the outside, with only a charging-port door on the right
rear fender--and a handful of trim details--giving away the identity and
the changes under the skin of the plug-in model.
As it has for four years, the Prius liftback achieves the highest EPA
combined rating for gas mileage of any car sold in the U.S.: 50 mpg (51
mpg city, 48 mpg highway). That combined rating, in fact, is equaled by
only one other car--and that's the subcompact Prius C, which does better in the city test cycle (53 mpg) but worse on the highway (47 mpg).
For the 2013 Toyota Prius
liftback, the heart of its efficiency is the 1.8-liter four-cylinder
engine and the Hybrid Synergy Drive system, which combines a pair of
electric motor-generators into the electric equivalent of a continuously
variable transmission. The motors can power the car on electricity
alone (under light loads up to 30 mph), supplement the engine output
with more torque, and of course recharge the battery under regenerative
braking and on engine overrun.
Total output of the powertrain is 134 horsepower, with a 0-to-60-mph
time of just under 10 seconds. You'll get a lot of engine howl if you
floor it, though, which tends to encourage more gentle driving for
better efficiency. Toyota has more experience than any other maker in
blending regenerative braking with the standard friction brakes, and the
combination works flawlessly and imperceptibly under most
circumstances. The standard Prius liftback can, at best, eke out a mile
or so under all-electric power (you can test it by putting the car into
"EV" mode, which runs only on electricity at lower speeds until the
1.4-kilowatt-hour nickel-metal-hydride battery pack is depleted.
The Prius Plug-In Hybrid model swaps out that battery for a 4.2-kWh
lithium-ion pack, which can be plugged into any wall socket to recharge
in about 3 hours. Its usable energy is about three times greater, and
the EPA rates it at 11 miles of electric range--though only 6 miles
continuous, since the engine switches on to deliver the necessary power
during part of an EPA test cycle.
That points out the frustrating aspect to the plug-in Prius: Its
electric motor is so minimally powered that under many different types
of real-world driving, the car can't deliver the needed power
electrically. So its engine will switch on even if there's plenty of
energy left in the battery. Toyota engineers argue that this is how you
deliver the highest overall fuel efficiency, but for drivers who want
the car to travel electricity for those 11 miles, it's disconcerting for
the engine to switch on under more than the gentlest acceleration.
Electric acceleration onto short uphill freeway on-ramps? Forget it.
Like all plug-in hybrids, the real-world blended gas mileage across both
modes depends hugely on how often the car is plugged in, how it's used,
and at what speeds and temperatures it's driven.
The high roof and tail of the 2013 Prius shape contain a lot of
interior volume: enough for the EPA to define it as a mid-size car.
There's plenty of room for four adults, and five will fit with a bit of
negotiation. Rear-seat legroom is boosted by hollowed-out front seat
backs, though those seats have fairly skimpy padding. The split rear
window, with a long, almost horizontal glass panel in the tailgate, and
another vertical pane on the downturn, make the iconic Prius shape one
of the most aerodynamic cars sold today--all in the aid of lowering drag
at higher speeds to raise fuel economy.
Inside, the 2013 Prius is starting to look dated. Not only are there
swathes of textured hard plastics everywhere, but the instruments are
split into two areas. Conventional gauges are in a hooded binnacle
behind the steering wheel, and then there's the Multi-Information
Display at the top of the dashboard and toward the base of the
windshield--which seems increasingly incoherent and primitive compared
to newer hybrids and even newer Prius models. It contains a seemingly
random array of diagrams, icons, and numeric readouts, and it adds to
the potential confusion for first-time drivers unused to the
continuously variable engine speed--when the engine behavior (and hence
its noise) is completely divorced from acceleration and road speed.
The other aspect of the interior that sets a Prius liftback apart
from other cars is the "flying buttress" central console, which swoops
down from the top of the dash at a shallow angle that makes it much
higher than any other family car's console. This gives it enough space
underneath for an awkward-to-reach storage bin, but taller drivers will
find the hard-plastic console cuts uncomfortably into their knee room.
Toyota's traditionally numb electric power steering is part of the
Prius experience, along with handling than feels less capable than it
actually is. The Prius actually responds fine to driver input, and
corners capably; it just feels lifeless and numb through the steering
wheel. Sports-car fans need not apply. Safety ratings are top-notch,
however, and the Prius includes all the usual electronic safety systems
and the usual quota of airbags. There's also the much-touted Intelligent
Parking Assist system, which helps a driver parallel-park a Prius by
controlling the steering wheel based on input from the car's cameras.
Ford's system is better, frankly.
As before, the 2013 Toyota Prius offers four trim levels, confusingly
named Two, Three, Four, and Five. (There IS a very stripped-down base
Prius One trim level, but you can't buy it; the car is only offered to
commercial fleets.) With the addition of the Prius C at under $20,000 to
anchor the low end of an expanded Prius range, even the lowest-level
Prius Two and Prius Three trims now start in the mid-twenties. And it's
possible to price a Prius well above $30,000 by adding either the solar
moonroof--whose photovoltaic cells power ventilation fans to pull hot
air out of the cockpit on warm days--or the Technology Package.
Options include the Touch Tracer steering-wheel controls, one of the
better implementations of pseudo-mouse technology we've seen on a car,
along with things like LED headlamps, remote air conditioning, a
navigation system, Bluetooth pairing, and more. For 2013, there's a new
limited-edition Prius Persona Series model, with special paint colors,
interior trim, and 17-inch alloy wheels.