Let’s be honest: the Toyota Prius has been kind of a snoozer in recent years. It lost its Hollywood sheen sometime between the dazzling moment Leonardo DiCaprio proclaimed it “a step in the right direction” and the rise in hybrid competition ever since.
The 2023 Toyota Prius isn’t taking that lying down. It’s stepping out with new shoes and a fresh suit, and it’s going dancing. Toyota is hoping the updated hybrid will catch some new partners’ eyes in this turn around the ballroom; even the hybrid’s legion of loyal fans could turn its collective head toward a new groove if the Prius doesn’t perform.
This Prius rebirth isn’t just a cosmetic overhaul, either. Toyota injected a fresh dose of horsepower and torque, upgraded the suspension and steering, and added brake hold as standard. It’s lower, wider, and longer, inspiring curious onlookers to wonder: “Is that really a Prius?” If the previous generation was intentionally defiant and geeky, the new one is gliding into the room with more sophistication and a more enjoyable ride. It’s true: the Prius has a whole new attitude, and the improvement is stark. Let’s dance.
|Quick Stats||2023 Toyota Prius Limited AWD|
|Engine:||2.0-Liter I4 w/Permanent Magnet Motor|
|Output:||196 Horsepower / 139 Pound-Feet|
|0-60 MPH:||7.0 Seconds|
|Efficiency:||49 City / 50 Highway / 49 Combined|
|Trim Base Price:||$35,865|
Finally, The Prius Shows Some Teeth
Aside from the obvious updates in the looks department, Toyota gave the Prius’ powertrain a massive kick in the pants to increase its output. For 2023, the hybrid gets a larger gas engine with more horsepower and more torque, and neither is a small increase. Horsepower is up from 121 to 194 horsepower, or 60 percent. Sixty. Percent.
Prius Chief Engineer Satoki Oya sat down with me at the San Diego drive for the launch, and he said the power surge is a result of each engineering team improving its own specialty. As a result, the new system is the culmination of minor tweaking and not a wholesale replacement.
“It wasn’t a matter of some revolutionary new technology that allowed us to do this,” Oya said.
The new engine – a 2.0-liter versus last year’s 1.8 – is matched with a fresh lithium-ion battery pack that promises 14 percent more output. An electronic continuously variable transmission, two motor-generators, and a new drive motor combine with two supplementary magnets for additional output, further illustrating Oya’s point about improvements for each component. All that, and the Prius retains the excellent fuel economy it’s known for, ranging from 52 to 57 miles per gallon combined, depending on the trim and whether it’s front- or all-wheel drive.
I drove the 2022 and 2023 models back to back along the Pacific coast , and the difference is evident starting from initial acceleration. Alongside the horsepower and torque increases, the 0-to-60 time improves drastically, from a poky 9.8 seconds to a respectable 7.0 seconds with AWD and 7.2 seconds in the FWD version. That bests the 2023 Hyundai Sonata hybrid and even the Camry Hybrid by a hair.
Curiously, the high-pitched spaceship sound (which one Toyota executive called “angels singing”) emblematic of the Prius is muted on the 2023 model when driving forward. In reverse, the tone picks up, which is much appreciated from a safety perspective.
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Equipped with three drive modes (Eco, Normal, and Sport), the Prius is best experienced starting off the line in either of the latter two before switching to Eco mode for longer distances. That’s where I noticed the car exhibited its weight loss and was not as sluggish off the line, even in Eco mode. Driving the old Prius was like coaxing along an elderly sheep and now it needs noticeably less persuading.
Toyota told our testing group that using 87 instead of 91 octane fuel will slightly impact engine output, thus impacting overall performance; but 87 fuel is recommended in the 2023 Prius owner’s manual.
On the road, the new Prius hides the uneven surfaces of railroad tracks or small bumps well. Clearly, the Prius isn’t meant for spirited canyon carving or off-roading on more than minor bumps and lumps. For what it’s meant to do, though, the handling feels improved over the previous version. The steering, while still slightly numb, will please die-hard Prius fans and potentially new ones as well.
Toyota employs an active hydraulic booster on the non-regenerative braking system, leading to an even ride and consistent braking experience. Brake hold is now standard, and it’s well done; the car releases the hold with a light touch of the accelerator. Those driving in stop-and-go traffic will appreciate the option to take their foot off the pedal, reducing fatigue.
The Glow Up
Oya said it was clear from the beginning that the team wished to pursue a simple design. What they had in mind was something people would love for a long time. When the design team first brought Oya the sketch for the 2023 model, he liked it right away, he said. That’s a big change from the process for the previous generation, when higher-ups kicked the design back to the table for an overhaul, delaying the launch.
“The biggest challenge was being able to first make this design a reality, and once we did that, it had to drive well,” Oya told me. “It couldn’t look cool and not perform.”
The updated Prius is lighter and stiffer, and it has a lower center of gravity than before. Aerodynamics are improved, boasting a 0.27 drag coefficient, and the new model carries over the front grille shutters and underbody panels for better performance and a quieter ride.
Seventeen- and 19-inch wheels are wrapped in all-season tires, replacing the 15- and 17-inch wheel options on the 2022 model. Its roofline is now 2 inches lower and the car is 1 inch wider and longer for what the brand calls a “more athletic” stance. Inside, the result is that passengers will appreciate an extra inch of legroom in front and back.
I approve of the decision to replace the split (bifurcated, if you’re fancy) rear window, which improves the visibility. On the other hand, the raked front end and thicker A, B, and C pillars that reflect the reinforced frame reduce the advantage of the single-pane glass in the rear. It looks like a real car now as opposed to a quirky status symbol; its revised body is vastly more appealing and from what I’ve heard, I’m not the only one to think so. Some people who have seen the car already are losing their dang minds, honestly. It’s a positive change.
At automakers around the world, chief engineers and lead designers often butt heads while chasing different objectives. Not this time, Oya said.
Easter Eggs And Updates Inside
Throughout the vehicle, Toyota placed Easter eggs for the fun of it, including its catchphrase “hybrid reborn” under the lift gate and the door sill. Cheeky hashtags like #wirelesscharger and #hiddenstorage punctuate the cabin, marking a moment in time. The hashtags will either date it quickly or endear it to this generation as part of its quirky personality.
Its revised dash is crafted around the relocated seven-inch MID, which now sits in front of the driver instead of in the center. Toyota says it stands in for a head-up display, but my drive partner and I found it difficult to get the steering wheel placement right and still see all the information on the driver display.
The new Prius is blessed with the new infotainment system that Toyota debuted in the Lexus NX crossover last year. It’s touch- and voice-control heavy, with “Hey Toyota” (or my preferred “Hey ‘Yota”) triggering climate and audio settings, among other features. It works well most of the time, and it sounds like Toyota improved the tone of the digital response, which sounded like an exasperated mother saying “whaddaya want this time?” when it first launched.
I mourn the loss of the tuning knob from the previous generation, as this Prius only has a volume knob, and it’s tiny and all the way on the right side of the optional 12.3-inch touchscreen. Apparently, the location of the knob is for aesthetics, but it’s not very practical; I guess you’re supposed to use the controls on the steering wheel anyway. Tuning is kind of a pain with the touchscreen and I’d like a better option for scrolling through the channels. Younger buyers, who tend to use streaming instead of satellite radio or – heavens, no! – FM radio may not miss it.
Costs More, Worth More
The base, front-wheel-drive 2023 Prius LE starts at $28,545 including its $1,095 destination fee, a total increase of $2,375 over the 2022 base model. All-wheel drive adds $1,400 to the bill; tack on roughly $3,500 to jump from LE to XLE or XLE to the top-level Platinum trim. For the panoramic view monitor and advanced parking technology, plan to add $1,085 more.