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buying: Tested: 2023 Toyota Prius Drives Even Better Than It Now Looks

Beauregard festival. Blur in preview in France, two days before his big return to Wembley

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Over the years, driving a Toyota Prius was a rolling admission that you'd be willing to sacrifice everything on the altar of maximum fuel economy. Power and performance were axed, which makes some sense. Still, no previous Prius could crack even the lowly 10-second barrier to 60 mph. The list of forsaken attributes also included attractive styling, good driver ergonomics, and the barest modicum of handling prowess. The Prius has always been a one-trick pony that lacked actual ponies.

That ends now—except for the part where the 2023 Toyota Prius generates stellar fuel economy. In fact, Toyota estimates it's even better at this core mission. How does 57 mpg combined (57 city/56 highway) grab you? That's for the LE with front-wheel drive and 17-inch wheels—the L Eco model is history. The XLE and Limited front-wheel-drive models are good for 52 combined (52 city/52 highway) on their standard 19-inch rolling stock.

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The first thing that stands out is how desirable the new Prius looks, words we have never typed before. This came about because chief engineer Satoki Oya, newly assigned to the fifth-generation Prius program, pursued a "love at first sight" approach. He allowed the designers "the freedom to do what they want," in stark contrast to what he termed the "relentless pursuit of aerodynamic efficiency" that produced the prior weird-mobiles.

2023 Toyota Prius Limited © Marc Urbano - Car and Driver 2023 Toyota Prius Limited

This led to a 2023 Prius that is longer (1.1 inches), lower (1.6 inches), and wider (0.9 inch). But its stance is even more dramatic than those numbers suggest. New 17- and 19-inch wheels are shod with two-inch-taller tires, and those wheel assemblies are shoved nearer the corners thanks to a track width that's broader by a whopping 2.3 inches up front and two inches out back. Meanwhile, the wheelbase is a full two inches longer.

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Beyond that, the apex of the peaked roofline has been pulled back so the hood flows gracefully into the windshield and roof. This styling decision was made despite a worsened drag coefficient of 0.27, versus last year's 0.24. But the effect is softened because drag is the product of Cd and frontal area, and the latter has shrunk owing to the car's substantially lower height. Cargo space is down a bit, though, with the LE offering 24 cubic feet, and the XLE and Limited good for 20 cubic feet. Rearward visibility takes a small hit too, owing to the loss of the hatch's vertical glass panel.

Acceleration Leaves the Old Car (Far) Behind

Invisible changes under the skin are arguably more transformative. The internal-combustion engine is now a 2.0-liter inline-four that generates 150 horsepower instead of a 1.8-liter unit good for just 96 ponies. The permanent-magnet synchronous traction motor—made more compact because it features six magnets per pole rather than three—is now good for 111 horsepower instead of 71 horses. This year's combined output at full whack is 194 horsepower instead of just 121 horsepower, a 60 percent increase.

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All-wheel-drive models get a new permanent-magnet rear motor good for 40 horsepower; the previous induction motor wrangled just 7 feeble ponies. This greatly expands the range of speeds and conditions under which rear-drive can be deployed and, unlike last year, allows for a slight AWD peak-horsepower advantage: 2 horses more, for 196, to be precise. Every trim from LE to Limited can now be had with all-wheel drive, and the AWD LE enjoys the biggest year-over-year fuel-economy gain: 54 mpg combined, up from 49 mpg.

In our front-drive Limited test car, this newfound power leads to transformative performance—or simply "performance," in the case of a Prius. The dash to 60 mph on a short freeway merge now takes a breezy 7.1 seconds instead of a wheezy 10.5 ticks. The 50-to-70-mph romp when passing consumes 5.0 seconds instead of 7.1 seconds. And for those who judge against the quarter-mile, the new car's 15.5-second, 92-mph effort is a full 2.3 seconds quicker and 13 mph faster than before.

Improved Handling and Braking

The new car's lower height and broader stance also eliminate the feeling that it's up on tiptoes. This is enhanced by Oya-san's desire to extend his "performance worthy of the design" ethos to chassis tuning. The largely similar front strut and rear multilink suspension has been massaged with handling in mind, featuring KYB dampers with an internal check valve that closes when subjected to lateral forces to firm up damping in corners. Indeed, there's far less body lean than before, and the new Prius flows gracefully through corners. Filtered through the contact patch of 195/50R-19 Michelin Primacy All Season tires, our tests reveal a healthy 0.87 g of cornering grip. The ride is nicely buttoned down over most pavement irregularities, even with the XLE and Limited's low-profile 19-inch rubber.

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2023 Toyota Prius Limited © Marc Urbano - Car and Driver 2023 Toyota Prius Limited

The front and rear brakes are larger, and the booster employs a hydraulic pump instead of vacuum assist to improve feel. That brake pedal feel remains consistent as the computer toggles between regenerative and friction braking, rectifying a longstanding Prius bugaboo. Stops from 70 mph take just 171 feet.

Improved Interior Ergonomics

The swoopy roofline does reduce headroom by 1.4 inches up front and one inch in back, though. The extra wheelbase helps, allowing 0.9 inch more front legroom and an added 1.4 inches behind. That changes the driving position to one that's far more agreeable and less upright. Adjusting the steering wheel does feel odd though because at first, it seems like the wheel must be in your lap to see the instruments. That's mostly an illusion, as the steering column cover is uniquely styled to blend into the dash. There's actually decent thigh clearance beneath the rim, and the Toyota logo on the horn pad points at your chin, not your sternum.

That the wheel affects the instruments is new territory for the Prius, as they are now (finally) dead ahead of the driver, not lollygagging off to starboard. It's a straightforward display, too, and the controls on the steering-wheel spokes make it easy to peruse the screen. The familiar Prius shifter remains, but it somehow feels more logical and intuitive now that it juts straight up from the console close at hand instead of protruding from the dash at arm's length.

The central touchscreen is an 8.0-inch display on the LE, but a generous 12.3-inch unit is optional on the XLE and standard on the Limited. Wireless smartphone mirroring is standard. Just below the screen, the physical HVAC toggles and buttons operate with perfect logic, and a phone charging slot sits alongside the shifter, with a clever clamping action that holds your phone securely. A second phone tray sits ahead of the shifter, and six USB-C jacks are sprinkled throughout the cabin.

The completely reimagined Prius will go on sale this January. The base price is higher because the base L Eco model is no more, but the front-drive LE's starting figure of $28,545 is only about $1100 more than last year. An XLE is $31,990, and the Limited commands $35,560. Add $1400 to any of the above if you want all-wheel drive. From where we sit, the new car's small extra spend is absolutely worth it, because you get all the fuel economy of before without having to sacrifice good looks, reasonable performance, a dash of driving fun, or your dignity.

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